Outside, it is 33 degrees Celsius, yet in his studio in Kusumba village, East Bali, Empu (blacksmith) Ketut Mudra is leaning over a pit of flames. Despite the heat, barely a drop of sweat crosses his brow. He’s in his comfort zone – his whole career has been forged in fire. This 65-year-old Indonesian artisan is using the elements and his skill to shape a kris – a dagger with a unique snake-shaped blade, a potent symbol believed by some to have talismanic powers. Kris still remain the focal point of events across Malaysia and Indonesia. Men and women often wear them during Hindu rituals, and grooms during traditional Balinese wedding ceremonies.
These days, many cheap kris are sold in Indonesia. Most are mass-produced in factories and lack the complex designs and durability of the traditional daggers. Artisans like Ketut make them by hand, heating and shaping layers of Indonesian iron ore and meteorite nickel. The knives are then carved with intricate patterns based on customers’ requests, with the dragon being a common motif and the luks (curves) of the blade representing the dragon’s movement.
Ketut is a member of the Pande caste of blacksmiths, which was historically the only group in Bali allowed to make kris. After the Dutch took control of Indonesia in 1800, the Pande caste was marginalised, forcing Ketut’s family to craft kris in secret. These days, there are only a few men left on Bali who can craft the daggers using the traditional methods. Ketut has now taught his son the painstaking process and together they continue to make these iconic weapons.
- A kris made by Empu Ketut Mudra can cost up to S$500 from bladesofthegods.com
- A usual price point for antique kris specimens is above S$5000
- Curved kris blades can have up to 13 luks (curves)
- A standard kris is 30cm to 40cm in length
- Over 40 varieties of blades are used for kris daggers
- More than 100 different patterns are used to decorate the kris blades
- Kris daggers were included on Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2008
Photography by Agung Parameswara
This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine