by Diana Darling

A keris is a long, snaky knife forged by priestly smiths according to formulas that remain to this day magical. As an instrument of murder and defence, it is marvellously tuned to its task. The wavy form of the blade cuts a broad swath of slaughter along its single vector. The metals comprising it are forged in a molecular weaving, alternating tissues of steel, bronze, silver, and gold, so that the surface is dappled: by polishing the blade, each of the ingredient metals is revealed in a controlled pattern. A cobra, by comparison, seems only a messy prototype of the keris—for there is also an incanted weapon sleeping invisibly within the keris, an unearthly force that is the spiritual signature of its owner. This signature, residing among the force fields of the enchanted metals, is so powerfully distilled that a man may send his keris to represent him as bridegroom in the ceremonies of marriage. A keris sometimes embodies the deified spirit of an ancestral king. Some say that to obtain possession of a man’s keris, whether by theft or open victory, is not only to conquer the soul of that man but to monopolize an important spiritual resource of his entire family.

“My son has sold my keris,” repeated the man, “to an art dealer.”

— excerpt from The Painted Alphabet: a novel based on a Balinese tale

Imagine being in a room with several hundred of these things (daggers, not art dealers). If life in Ubud has not yet made you so sensitive that you couldn’t bear the spiritual thunder of it, you should visit the keris collection at the Neka Museum. Keris are not only spooky, they are often wonderful works art. This is possibly the keris best collection in the world. Many are heirloom keris from noble houses in Bali, Java, Madura and Lombok; some are hundreds of years old.

In Bali the working of metal—whether gold and silver or iron—is the prerogative of the Pande clan, whose mastery of fire gives them high prestige. Miguel Covarrubias wrote of the Pande in the 1930s:

The distinguished pandés are even respected by the proud Brahmanas, who consider themselves the highest form of humanity, and who are required to address a pandé in the high language when the smith has his tools in his hands.

The Pande’s exalted rank was stripped away by the colonial Dutch when they tidied up the Balinese caste system and relegated the Pande to the mass of Sudra (“non-caste”) making up most of the population. But even today, Pande have their own high priests and many refuse the holy water of Brahmana.

The Neka Museum’s keris collection was amassed Pande Wayan Suteja Neka. Pak Neka, already a prosperous art dealer by the time he founded the Neka Museum, told me about five years ago that he’s had enough success; now he wants to do what he can for others working in the arts. We were standing in a vast pavilion recently added to the museum complex. A few weeks later, when the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival was looking for a bigger venue, we thought of the pavilion at the Neka Museum. Pak Neka has provided it every year since then for free. Now that’s an aristocrat.