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Terengganu’s dying breed of keris artisans

It is said that the keris is different from the swords used by people from different cultures all over the world due to the details found on its handle (hilt) as such decorative features do not exist in other weapons. — Bernama pic
It is said that the keris is different from the swords used by people from different cultures all over the world due to the details found on its handle (hilt) as such decorative features do not exist in other weapons. — Bernama pic

KUALA TERENGGANU, Jan 10 — Smack in the heart of this state capital stands Kampung Ladang Titian, also dubbed the “keris village”, a popular stop for tourists.

Over here, Zulkifli Yusoff, 51, and his stepbrother Mohd Ghazali Mohamad, 32, are part and parcel of the local attractions as they are among the few denizens of the state who have taken the trouble to perpetuate the heritage of keris making.

They are skilled in the craft of making the keris’ wooden sheath and hilt or handle, with the blades being made by ironsmiths elsewhere in the state.

The keris is a type of dagger that is deep-rooted in Malay culture and tradition and is unique for its double-edged wavy blade and elaborately carved hilt and sheath. 

This writer was unaware of the keris village’s existence until recently when she was in Kuala Terengganu on a holiday and came across a brochure at her hotel that highlighted Terengganu’s rich heritage of Malay arts and crafts. 

Without making any prior appointment, she visited the village in the hope of interviewing Zulkifli, the master craftsman himself, who is better known as Cik El among the locals.

Fortunately, he was free that particular day and was only too happy to be interviewed.

Family legacy

Speaking in the Terengganu Malay dialect as he put the finishing touches on a sheath that he was making, Cik El said he and his stepbrother belonged to the third-generation of keris artisans in his family.

“In order to do this, one must have a lot of interest in it. If one doesn’t have the interest, one can’t get it right,” he said, adding that his grandfather and father were also keris craftsmen.

A long time ago, making the blade and wooden accessories for the keris was the main vocation of the people living in Kampung Ladang Titian, hence the reason it was referred to as the keris village. 

However, these artisans are now a dying breed in this village. There are no more ironsmiths there and only Cik El and his stepbrother are involved in making the sheath and hilt.

Cik El said his love for Malay heritage and arts and his strong desire to keep his family’s legacy alive urged him to stay loyal to the trade. 

He and Mohd Ghazali, better known as Pok, have their own workshop located near their home at Kampung Ladang Titian, where they spend the whole day painstakingly transforming ordinary wood into ornately carved sheaths and hilts for the daggers that have a special place in the cultural history of the Malay community.

The siblings, however, are worried that they would be the last bastions of their family tradition.

“If it is possible, I want some of my children to take over from me but they don’t seem to be interested in this craft.

“After us, there will be no one to continue with the family tradition, which is a real pity,” Cik El, who has seven children, said dejectedly.

The keris is a weapon unique to the Malay archipelago and, in the past, was used by royal guards and warriors.

It is said that the keris is different from the swords used by people from different cultures all over the world due to the details found on its handle (hilt) as such decorative features do not exist in other weapons.

Making of the keris casing, hilt

While Cik El and Pok’s sheaths and hilts are mostly made to order, they also have some ready-made ones, complete with blades, for sale at their workshop.  

Their customers are from all over the country. Tourist guides also bring busloads of tourists to their workshop to offer them a glimpse of how the keris accessories are made and give them an opportunity to take one home as a souvenir.

Asked how business was, Cik El said there was always enough orders to keep him and his stepbrother busy.

“There has never been a time when we didn’t have work to do,” he said happily, adding that they also received orders from keris sellers and those involved in silat, the Malay art of self-defence.

Prices range from RM50 to RM400 each, depending on the size of the sheath and hilt and the intricacy of their motifs.  

The ready-made keris, suitable for tourists to take home as a souvenir, is sold for RM50 to RM80 each as they are small and feature simple designs.

Sometimes they also get orders to make sheaths and hilts for antique keris, whose worn-out original casings and handles need to be replaced.

Their prices range from RM800 to up to RM5,000 each as the sheath and handle for an antique keris usually sport elaborate traditional designs.

As to the type of wood they use to make the accessories, Cik El said it all depended on the requirements of their customers.

“If they have any special preference, we would tell them to source for the wood themselves. Otherwise, we will use our own wood, which is from the ‘kemuning’, ‘rebang’ or ‘sena’ tree.

“Traditionally, ‘kemuning’ wood is used for the sheath and handle.”

To make the sheath and hilt, traditional implements are used, including hammer made out of buffalo horn and a certain type of pickaxe usually used by carpenters to shape and smoothen wood surfaces.

The wood for the hilt and sheath is cut and shaped in accordance with the blade’s measurements, after which it is smoothened and sandpapered.

Next comes the art of engraving intricate designs on the wood. A finishing spray is then applied to make the sheath and hilt more long-lasting.  

Cik El said he usually left it to his customers to decide what kind of motifs they want on the keris sheath and hilt that they had ordered from him.

“Most of them ask for motifs of flowers and ‘awan larak’ (meandering clouds) for the sheath. For the handle, they usually request for traditional designs like ‘anak ayam teleng’, ‘jawa demang’, ‘tapak kuda’ and ‘patah tiga’,” he said.


Cik El is also among the mentors selected by the Sultan Mizan Royal Foundation to preserve and develop Terengganu’s heritage of culture, arts and architecture.

“I’m a mentor for keris making and those who are keen to learn the craft of making the sheath and handle can come to me to learn the skills,” he said, adding that the foundation also gave him and his apprentices an incentive payment.

He said this was the first time he was involved in such a programme and that the apprentices would have to train under him for at least a year before they can acquire the necessary knowledge and skills.

Meanwhile, Pok, who was among Cik El’s early apprentices, said he and his stepbrother would soon move to their new workshop located in Marang, which is less than 20 kilometres from Kuala Terengganu.

“I hope tourists will continue to visit us at our new centre. Our industry will be affected if fewer tourists stop at our place,” Pok said, adding that the state government should seriously look into opening a heritage centre that showcased artisans skilled in not only making the keris but also other traditional arts and crafts like batik, brassware and wood carvings.

“To be honest, tourists don’t just want to see our products but also want to see how we make our traditional crafts. They don’t come to Terengganu to look at our high-rise buildings but to appreciate our creativity.”

Pointing to Japan’s Samurai District as a good example because it showcased the culture and traditions of the Samurai clan that existed in feudal Japan, Pok said Terengganu too could develop a similar concept in line with Kuala Terengganu’s Waterfront Heritage City tagline. — Bernama

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