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An ancient Hindu-Javanese gold ceremonial dagger or keris hilt or finial

Indonesia, Central Java, Central Javanese period, 2nd half CE 9th century

The finial is made from three parts of which only the larger bottom part is detachable. It has a hole at the bottom and traces of clay on the inside. Formed as a slightly bent spire sprouting from lotus leaves, the sides of the bottom part with stylized flowers alternating with masks. Above it the design is continued in an abstract but floral manner. The top finial is bent slightly more, with a deity coming out of a hole on the inside of the curve. The top ending in a fine ornamental curl. The tip with an old restoration (probably early 20th century).

H. 14.7 x W. 7.8 x D. 8.1 cm
Weight 126.2 grams

This object is registered at the Documentation Centre for Ancient Indonesian Art in Amsterdam.

We are grateful to the Documentation Centre for Ancient Indonesian Art in Amsterdam and Mr. Jaap Polak for their assistance in determining the specifics and date of this finial above.

Collection of a notable from the Hague, who stayed in the former Dutch East Indies around circa 1900; thence by descent
Purchased from the above by a distinguished Dutch collector (name is known to us) between 1970 and 1980

This gold finial was bought in central Java, Yogyakarta, by a notable Dutch man staying in Indonesia around 1900. Reputedly, it was found in two pieces (the bottom and top parts, which are separately cast) by locals.

After an upstream downpour and subsequent mudslide, they scrambled for the local river bend renowned for the ancient gold jewellery washing ashore during the monsoon. The sizeable bottom, top part, and tip found by three locals were sold separately. By repute, the man coincidentally bought the three pieces, to find out several years later that these three pieces - randomly displayed amongst the rest of his collection - fitted together and were a single finial.

Only a few of these mysterious objects are known. Amongst them, a top part of a finial, nearly identical to the present one, in The Metropolitan Museum New York ( 1998.544.56) and some in the National Gallery in Jakarta (all registered at the Documentation Centre). Some argue that it is the finial of a royal umbrella, but we, as do others, suggest that it is the hilt of a ceremonial dagger or sword of which the iron blade has long been disintegrated in the soil. We, however, as opposed to, for instance, the Documentation Centre for Ancient Indonesian Art, would like to argue that the form of the present-day keris hilt points out the actual use of these gold finials. It strongly resembles some keris handles' bent curve, openwork, and abstract appearance. Although the sheer size of this handle (and the blade it has carried) does not comply with today’s keris on Java, it does with the daggers of the Balinese. Logically, the ancient Hindu culture of Bali - from which we can presume it is more like Hindu-Javanese culture than Javanese culture nowadays - would answer us.

The hilt would be filled with clay, and although the gold is quite firm without this sturdy core, it would not be suitable for an umbrella. The decoration would prevent one from holding it up for a longer time, and more importantly, the pressure on the gold created by the umbrella itself would be too high, causing it to break or bend. Furthermore, this would not do as well as a larger sword’s finial. The weight of the blade would make the finial prone to get damaged. Therefore, one could suggest this finial mostly had a ceremonial function. A king wearing a dagger adorned with such an exuberant hilt was so rich he did not need to fight. Not handled in battle, tucked in a sarong, or placed in a stand when unused, the handle would be safe from potential harm.

The vertical stylized floral bands emerging from a lotus flowerís leaves can also be seen in a V-shaped ear pendant dating from the same period, previously in the collection of Polak (1938-1984). This motif can be found in the Prah Koh temple and in a further advancement at the Baphuon and the Ankor Vat tempels in Cambodia. This development in style also took place in Central Java, which is hardly surprising given the early contacts between Java and Cambodia. (See: Jaap Polak, Ancient Indonesian Gold, C. Zwartenkot Art Books, Leiden, 2022, pp. 157-159, no. 19)

The keris history is generally traced through the study of carvings and bas-relief panels found in Java, Indonesia. Some of the most famous renderings of a dagger or early keris appear on the bas-reliefs of Borobudur (825 CE) and

Prambanan temple (850 CE), originated from the Hindu- Buddhist Mataram Kingdom of Central Java. In addition, the term keris was mentioned in several ancient Javanese inscriptions, including the Humanding inscription (707 Saka or 875 CE), Jurungan inscription and Haliwangbang inscription (708 Saka or 876 CE), Taji inscription (823 Saka or 901 CE), Poh inscription (827 Saka or 905 CE), and Rukam inscription (829 Saka or 907 CE).

The description of a small dagger from Java reminiscent of the keris can also be found in a Chinese source from the 10th-century Song dynasty. In 992 CE, the envoy from She-po (Java) arrived at the Chinese court “bearing lots of gifts, consisting of a dagger with an exquisite hilt made of rhino horn and gold, silk woven with floral motifs made of gold threads, ivories, pearls, silk of various colours, fragrant sandalwood, cotton clothes of various colours, turtle shells, betel sets, a rattan mat with the image of a white cockatoo, and a small model of house made of sandalwood adorned with valuable ornaments.

Jan Fontein, The Sculpture of Indonesia, National Gallery of Art Washington, 1990, p. 108 (comparable)

Jaap Polak, Ancient Indonesian Gold, C. Zwartenkot Art Books, Leiden, 2022 (compare flower motif)

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