Kris history is generally traced through the study of carvings and bas-relief panels found in Southeast Asia. It is believed that the earliest kris prototype can be traced to Dongson bronze culture in Vietnam circa 300 BC that spread to other parts of Southeast Asia. Another theory is that the kris was based on daggers from India. Some of the most famous renderings of a kris appear on the bas-reliefs of Borobudur (825) and Prambanan temple (850). However, Raffles' (1817) study of the Candi Sukuh states that the kris recognized today came into existence around 1361 AD in the kingdom of Majapahit, East Java. The scene in bas relief of Sukuh Temple in Central Java, dated from 15th century Majapahit era, shows the workshop of a Javanese keris blacksmith. The scene depicted Bhima as the blacksmith on the left forging the metal, Ganesha in the center, and Arjuna on the right operating the piston bellows to blow air into the furnace. The wall behind the blacksmith displays various items manufactured in the forge, including kris. These representations of the kris in the Candi Sukuh established the fact that by the year 1437 the kris had already gained an important place within Javanese culture.
In Yingyai Shenglan—a record about Zheng He's expedition (1405–1433)—Ma Huan describes that
"all men in Majapahit, from the king to commoners, from a boy aged three to elders, slipped pu-la-t'ou (belati or more precisely kris dagger) in their belts. The daggers are made entirely of steel with intricate motifs smoothly drawn. The handles are made of gold, rhino's horn or ivory carved with a depiction of human or demon; the carving works are exquisite and skillfully made."
This Chinese account also reported that public execution by stabbing using this type of dagger is common. Majapahit knows no caning for major or minor punishment. They tied the guilty men's hands in the back with rattan rope and paraded them for a few paces, and then stabbed the offender one or two times in the back on the gap between the floating ribs, which resulted in severe bleeding and instant death.
Currently, the Kris of Knaud, is the oldest known surviving kris in the world. Given to Charles Knaud, a Dutch physician, by Paku Alam V in the 19th century Yogyakarta in Java, the kris is on display at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam. The kris bears the date of 1264 Saka (which correspondends to 1342 CE) in its iron blade. Scientists suspect that due to its special features the kris might even older, but was decorated during Majapahit period to celebrate an important event. The kris bears scenes from the Ramayana on an unusual thin copper layer which partially covers it.
Development and distribution
Although the people of Southeast Asia were already familiar with this type of stabbing weapon, the development of the kris however most probably took place in Java. The spread of the kris to other nations such as Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, experts say, was credited to the growing influence of the Majapahit Empire in Java around the year 1492.
The Sanghyang siksakanda ng karesian canto XVII, a Sundanese manuscript dated from Saka 1440 or 1518 AD, describes the kris as the weapon of kings, while the kujang is the weapon of farmers. There exist claims of earlier forms predating the Majapahit kris but none are verifiable. In the past, the majority of kris had straight blades but this became less frequent over time. Tomé Pires, in the early 16th century, describes the importance of the kris to the Javanese.
... every man in Java, whether he is rich or poor, must have a kris in his house ... and no man between the ages of 12 and 80 may go out of doors without a kris in his belt. They carry them at the back, as daggers used to be in Portugal ...
—Tome Pires, Suma Oriental
While it is commonly believed that kris were the primary weapons wielded by fighters in the past, they were actually carried by warriors as a secondary armament if they lost their main weapon, which was usually a spear. For commoners however, kris were worn on a daily basis, especially when travelling because it might be needed for self-defense. During times of peace, people wore kris as part of ceremonial attire. Ceremonial kris were often meticulously decorated with intricate carving in gold and precious stones. Heirloom blades were handed down through successive generations and worn during special events such as weddings and other ceremonies. Men usually wore only one kris but the famous admiral Hang Tuah is said in the Hikayat Hang Tuah to have armed himself with one short and one long kris. Women also wore kris, though usually of a smaller size than a man's. In battle, a fighter might have carried more than one kris; some carried three kris: his own, one from his father-in-law, and one as a family heirloom. The extra two served as parrying daggers, but if none were available the sheath would serve the same purpose.
Kris were often broken in battle and required repairs. Yearly cleanings, required as part of the spirituality and mythology surrounding the weapon, often left ancient blades worn and thin. The repair materials depended on location and it is quite usual to find a weapon with fittings from several areas. For example, a kris may have a blade from Java, a hilt from Bali and a sheath from Madura.
In many parts of Indonesia, the kris used to be the choice weapon for execution. The executioner's kris had a long, straight, slender blade. The condemned knelt before the executioner, who placed a wad of cotton or similar material on the subject's shoulder or clavicle area. The blade was thrust through the padding, piercing the subclavian artery and the heart. Upon withdrawal, the cotton wiped the blade clean. Death came within seconds.
In the 16th century, European colonial power introduced firearms into the archipelago that contribute to the decline of kris' prominence as the weapon of choice in battle. The forging of the edged weapons went into decline from the moment that the sultans or rajas were subjugated and their realms annexed by the British or Dutch East Indies colonial state. In number of regions, a ban was placed on carrying of cutting and stabbing weapons. In Java, the turning point was the end of the five-year-long Java War when the rebellious Prince Diponegoro was defeated and detained, and had to hand his kris over to the Dutch in 1830. This event marked the disarmament of the kris as a combat weapon among the Javanese populace. Its ceremonial function, however, as part of traditional costumes, as sacred heirloom and as a protective personal amulet, remains. The early 20th century saw the decline of kris forging as carrying edged weapons was banned in the Dutch East Indies. However its spiritual and ceremonial function still continues and is celebrated mainly in kraton and istana (courts) throughout Indonesia, Malaysia and the Muslim-inhabited parts of the southern Philippines.
In the southern Philippines, the kris provided the Muslim armies with their counterpart to the Spanish weaponry. During the Philippine–American War, the death of American soldiers at the hands of kris-wielding Moros and other Filipinos armed with blades led to the creation and use of the Colt M1911. During World War II, the kris were accompanied by other Moro swords such as barongs in the insurgency movement against Japanese occupation.