Alchemy of fire and metal: The blade-making of Southeast Asian roots

THE blade blacksmith known as “panday” in the Philippines or “empu” in Indonesia are respected artisans. In the ancient times they were also known to be historians while others were know to possess certain occult powers. The sword artisans in the pre-colonial era practice mysticism and spirituality since astrology was considered in the blade-making ritual. Thus, taking it seriously.

In 2005, UNESCO declared Indonesian kris that originated in the island of Java and later spread to Southeast Asia as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. A very strong blade culture brought kris to Mindanao by these Southeast Asian ancestors.

Published in the UNESCO site on intangible heritage “The kris or keris is a distinctive, asymmetrical dagger from Indonesia. Both a weapon and spiritual object, krises are often considered to possess magical powers. The earliest krises known were made around 1360 AD and most probably spread from the island of Java throughout Southeast Asia.”

Priced heirloom

In Indonesia, kris is considered the most priced heirloom or ‘pusaka’ and it used to be made in the workshop for the royal family worn by both men and women. It is believed to have special spiritual attributes and power used in ceremonies as proactive amulets and warriors weapons.

Moreover, the origin of kris and its significance is noted: “A kris' aesthetic value covers the dhapur (the form and design of the blade, with around 150 variants), the pamor (the pattern of metal alloy decoration on the blade, with around 60 variants), and tangguh referring to the age and origin of a kris.”

The birth of ‘kris’ popularly known as a Moro weapon connects the Southeast Asia islands culture permeated by great artisanship based on martial arts culture and weaponry, art of war and the resistance to colonial powers. In Mindanao, ‘Kris’ was used in battles waged against the Spaniards and was a feared weapon up the American occupation.

u201cThe Kris is the most common Moro sword found in Sulu & Mindanao. The Kris sword is extensively used by the Tausug, Samal and Yakan warriors. The waves of each Kris denote a flame or a serpent (depending on who has made it and for what purpose). The Kris with the most wave will always be carried by someone with the authority and believed to give the deepest thrust and could even go through the enemy's body. The waves are simply variations that tells a stranger where they came from, what region, or land, or their position in the community, (www.traditionalfilipinoweapons.com).”

Versions of kris

There were various version of kris used by the southern islanders in the Philippines that have close relations with the sultanates in Southeast Asia.

The Maranao kris is known to have lower and more exaggerated jaw.

u201cThe Maguindanao kris has narrorwer opening, perpendicular to guard. The Tausug kris is more angled and elliptical in shape,” as described in the www.morolandhistory.com.

The Mindanao warriors used various designs of kris with hilts and scabbards made of either decorated or accented with bronze, ivory, rattan, wood, metal, silver, gold, hair and horse hair.

The many other common forms of weapons by Mindanao warriors were kampilan, barung, gunong, bangkung, pira, mandaya, binangun and many more kinds of bolos.

Panday Pira

The bold tradition reached other islands. The earliest known and renowned Filipino blacksmith was Panday Pira from Pampanga who lived in the 1400s. The artisans’ work may take some years to finish a fine ceremonial blade or a perfect warrior’s weapon, as a priceless heirloom or as ordinary multi-purpose implement worn everyday.

The ‘panday’ tradition has now spread throughout the islands as a daily pre-occupation with a distinct cultural importance and reflective of a local household practice.

In the island of Camiguin, the synchronize percussive sound of steel early morning in your way to town in Mambajao has this hypnotizing energy that brings together the man of steel to start the days work. By the roadside workshop, you will see three to four men hammering simultaneously like in a dance or performance. The sound of steel melted on high fire with the sparks and iron on fire, pounded to bend, shape and sharpen.

The iron artisans of Dagnipa Blacksmith in Lakas, Mambajao that started its workshop since 1970 play with fire and water from the cooler hours of the morning starting 4:00 am until 11:00 am.

The skillful hammering, blowing and firing of iron are hard days’ labor for respected artisans.

The Acle siblings mastered the art of which was handed down from their father Aquilino who hailed from Batangas, famous for ‘Balisong’ or better known as ‘butterfly knife.’

The historical village of Balisong in Taal, Batangas has extended the Southeast Asian roots of admired craftsmanship of bladed weaponry which perpetrated even in small villages which used to be a serious preoccupation of craftsmen. Martial arts enthusiasts popularized this weaponry that was featured in several foreign films.

In the research published in www.balisong.com, it is claimed that "Perfecto de Leon is the father of Balisong in the Philippines and records have it that the first one was made in 1905.”

The traditional blade artisanship and weaponry in the Philippines can be traced back from the martial arts practice in certain regions in Southeast Asia.

Bringing with him the ‘balisong’ culture, Acle migrated to Camiguin who brought with him the skill of a blacksmith, which later extended to a more diverse old age blacksmith practice. The artisans use recycled materials to form traditional and designer knives and bolos using the used and discarded truck or car spring.

The iron is shaped, hammered, sharpened, grinded by hand with manually operated blower, while still hot red on fire that demonstrates the alchemy of knife making produces a blade every ten minutes.

An average blacksmith can produced 30 pieces in one day.

Alberto Dagnipa finances the blacksmith workshop which produces blades such as (in local name) lampasay, purok, panakaay, sanggot, kaguran, kutsilio, purok bata, atsa, sundang, barong, bakos, karit.

Bolo as popularly known or commonly known as “itak” is used in everyday household chore or a military survival aid and warriors weapon. The blades had many multiple uses in agriculture, in the kitchen and for collectors. The Dagnipa blacksmiths have done custom-made high quality blades such as kris, chef’s knife, personalized bolos and decorative knives.

Every time, I hear the iron hammering artisans, I am reminded of my rich cultural heritage which brings us back to a strong tradition of alchemy right at our doorsteps.

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