- Mangmong Lembu Bara, who makes traditional daggers, is using social media to help preserve an artisanal skill recognised by Unesco
- The craft faces death by a thousand cuts, including from rising costs, shrinking market and the passing of great smiths
It was eight years ago that Mangmong Lembu Bara raised eyebrows among a community of master craftsman by using YouTube and unsheathing the secrets of making the kris – Indonesia’s traditional dagger, and quietly keeping alive an artisanal skill recognised by Unesco.
But the art of making the foot-long, wavy blades which are finished with a unique marbling effect and by lore carry mystical powers, faces death by a thousand cuts; rising costs, shrinking market and the passing of great smiths.
So Bara says the modern world of social media is needed to provide opportunities for a new generation of kris smiths like himself. He has been able to score overseas customers, including a Kabbalah practitioner in Israel seeking a ceremonial knife, after they viewed his handiwork on YouTube and Instagram.
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“Quite a few of the older generation of kris-makers were taken aback when I told them I regularly upload videos showing my forging techniques,” he said.
Old-school kris-makers, he pointed out, were conditioned to keeping their trade secrets closely-guarded from outsiders.
I want to document how I work for posterity
Mangmong Lembu Bara, kris craftsman
Bara said he had witnessed many examples whereby kris-making techniques had died with master smiths who refused to pass on their know-how to the next generation.
“But this is a bad strategy as far as preservation efforts go. I don’t mind others seeing my techniques,” Bara said. “More importantly, I want to document how I work for posterity.”
Continuing the art of making the traditional daggers also creates its own economic ecosystem.
“A new blade means the smith has bought charcoal for the forge, iron and nickel and tools from small traders, not to mention the makers of canang (Balinese offering to the gods) and incense if a ritual is performed,” he told This Week in Asia. “All this forms a chain that sustains people’s livelihoods.”
Over 20 years, Bara went from a hobbyist to a thriving creator of “millennial” heirloom-worthy blades.
“The common term for krisses forged after Indonesia’s independence [in 1945] is kamardikan, but I prefer to call my creations ‘millennial’ to reflect the changing times we live in,” the 43-year-old said.
The kris, common to ethnic groups in both the Indonesian archipelago and the Malay Peninsula, was recognised by Unesco in 2005 as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
In its crudest form, the blade made its first documented appearance in a 9th-century relief at the Borobudur Temple in Magelang, Central Java.
Initially a functional everyday weapon, the kris became more intricate in design and appearance as it evolved into a status symbol, wielded by royal potentates and wealthy aristocrats.
Now a new kris goes from between US$300 and US$3,000 depending on materials and designs, although original versions go for many times more. A kris forged in the late 19th century and now in a private collection in Yogyakarta is worth as much as US$470,000.
Indonesian celebrities, including actress Erna Santoso and comedian Sule, are renowned collectors, while politicians often purchase them as personal talismans, with former dictator Suharto believed to have owned hundreds for the apparent mystical power which the weapon possesses.
Made in Java
The most beautiful blades were forged on the island of Java in the 19th century, when bladesmiths crafting royal krisses created the inlaid patterns known as pamor (meaning aura) using nickel iron ores from a large meteorite that had fallen near the Prambanan Temple complex near Borobudur.
The shape of a kris – known as dapur in Javanese or wangun in Balinese – together with its curves and pamor, was traditionally meant to imbue the weapon with magical properties. Used in various ritual ceremonies, the kris acted as a talisman for its owner.
The most valuable krisses are often accented with gold, their hilts gem-encrusted with sheaths made of top quality timber such as sandalwood, and finally encased in a cover made of precious metals.
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Nowadays, however, the kris is largely a cultural artefact and a collectible, esteemed for its age, symbolism and aesthetics.
On the whole, interest in the kris has been on the wane.
Saesario Indrawan, a kris expert and member of the Puri Wiji kris appreciation society in Semarang, said there are not many smiths left in Indonesia capable of crafting good quality blades from raw materials to a finished product.
“A classic Mpu (master-kris-smith), strictly speaking, must be able to forge a blade from scratch,” he said.
Suffering for their art
Motivated by cost effectiveness, most smiths now specialise in a particular stage of the kris-making process.
One smithery, Indrawan explains, will often exclusively produce the rough form before passing it to another to fine-tune its shape, while a further workshop inlays patterns.
The village of Aeng Tong Tong in Sumenep, Madura, is home to most of Indonesia’s kris-smiths today with 648 artisans working in the village, according to government statistics, albeit from a decade ago.
Lembu Bara modestly refuses to be labelled as an Mpu, although he forges his blades from start to finish in a traditional workshop owned by his teacher Mpu Pande Made Subrata from Tabanan, Bali.
“I base my designs on traditional templates. But I would also work on my own modifications and new details.”
His unorthodox take on kris preservation may have something to do with his family background. “I didn’t come from a line of kris-makers. My family had great appreciation for krisses as part of our culture.”
It was his father’s gift of a kris when Bara was 23 that kindled his passion.
“Along the way, I met a lot of people who were willing to share their knowledge with me and ultimately my teacher who has generously passed on his expertise to someone not of his blood.”
The survival of the kris as our cultural heritage depends on new blood and the creation of new krisse
Toni Junus, expert craftsman
A recent highlight in Bara’s career was in 2022, when Ida Dalem Semara Putra of the Balinese princely court of Klungkung asked his teacher and himself to forge a new royal kris.
Other keepers of kris knowledge, have welcomed the evolution of dagger designs.
Toni Junus, an elder among kris experts, applauds efforts by the younger generation of bladesmiths to hone their craft.
“The survival of the kris as our cultural heritage depends on new blood and the creation of new krisses,” he said.
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