The Royal Keris of Bima: a Symbol of the Unity of the State

The Sultanate of Bima was incorporated into the Republic of Indonesia in 1950. But throughout its history, the sultanate always enjoyed considerable local autonomy. Its political authority was based on a threefold division of power: sara (administration), hukum (Islamic law) and adat (customary law). The sultan, then, carried out the role of a mediator between these three sections. Because the sultan was deemed to be ritually pure he was therefore automatically also believed to be a righteous ruler. The sultan’s authority was reflected by his royal keris of Bima, a symbol of the unity of the state. Thus, in order to appreciate much of the cultural value of the Sampari, the keris from Bima, one has to refer to the social conditions of the Sultanate of Bima.

According to local custom, every man in Bima, with the exception of slaves, was allowed to possess kerises, though in practice many poorer people could not afford such costly possessions. This may explain why kerises have never been items of everyday wear in Biman society. Instead, the Sampari were reserved, as they still are, for special occasions such as weddings, when the groom wears an heirloom keris as part of his traditional costume. Apparently, the only ones who did wear the Sampari on a daily basis were the members of the royal family, courtiers and nobles. What is interesting is that nearly every scabbard of the Samparis features a knob (‘puki’) at the tip. Due to this very knob it becomes rather difficult to slip the Sampari under one’s sarong. However, the few knobless scabbards (‘sarunggi’) did not have this problem, though these were reserved only for trusted officials of the royal court and the army. Then there were also the ‘tata rapa’, which are similar to the ‘sarunggi’, but these were permitted only for the members of the royal family.

As in societies elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago, artisans are accorded high social status in Bima. Based on oral histories we know that some of the highly skilled artisans were in fact members of the royal family. Apart from the royal artisans, sometimes skilled craftsmen of lower social status, such as commoners, would eventually become royal artisans themselves as well. Hence, a person’s craft skills served as an aid to social mobility. The names of highly skilled keris makers, then, may be spread by word of mouth.

The Samparis are also characterized by the keris maker’s level of skills, which basically can be classified into three different categories: (1) loa pandé (‘loa’: know; ‘pandé’: able), the lower category; (2) caha ni (‘caha’: industrious; ‘ni’: good enough), the middle category; and (3) caha tingi (‘tingi’: clever), the highest category. Only those kerises that combine the finest craftsmanship with the most aesthetic and symbolic values are classified into the highest category. It was also this level that was translated by an ex-sultanate minister as ‘kunst‘ (Dutch for ‘art’).

It thus becomes clear that the Sampari should be interpreted with regard to its cultural context;  the threefold division of both the socio-political system and the hierarchical order of aesthetic values. The foundation of the social system of Bima is based upon order, which simultaneously forms the key element in the evaluation of the Sampari’s aesthetics, too.

 
 

Reference: Hitchcock, M. (1987): ‘The Bimanese Kris; Aesthetics and Social Value’. In: Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 143 (1987), no. 1, Leiden, 125-140.