In Focus

Sword with handle resembling a human face in profile

Of all weaponry in Tanimbarese culture, the krai silai, or "great sword" is without a doubt the most impressive.[1] Its extra-long blade and often splendidly carved hilt would inspire awe in the enemy. A krai silai was approximately thirty inches in length; a sword for daily use was approximately twenty inches. The krai silai was seldom used in actual battle; its function was mainly a ritual one.

Much uncertainty remains concerning the origin of these venerated swords. Most probably, the blades originated from tradesman who visited the islands centuries ago; these blades were subsequently equipped with their hilts by the Tanimbarese. In the most artistic examples, the hilts were composed of wood and bone and often—as is the case here—decorated with carved, spiral patterns. A striking aspect of these swords is the hand protector, made of tanned stingray or sharkskin, with which most swords—but not this one—were equipped. Often some Ovula ovum shells would be attached to the protector. Undoubtedly, these shells were meant to increase the sword's potential to impress: it is highly likely that the shells—as in other East Indonesian areas—represent severed heads.

As mentioned, the use of the krai silai was limited. Usually, the weapon, blackened with soot from cooking fires, would hang from a strip of rattan cane on one of the walls inside the house. The blade would have a small hole especially for this purpose. Only when circumstances demanded it was the weapon taken in hand. Payment of a bride price, celebration of a ritual headhunters' feast, and the fighting of a ceremonial duel were the most important occasions.

Tanimbarese society is patrilineal and patrilocal. When a marriage is contracted, a woman becomes part of the descent group of her spouse. The transition is accompanied by the presenting of a bride price that consists of several parts. Traditionally, this would include golden jewelry such as ear and chest pendants, elephant tusks, and antique krai silai. All of these objects have a similar symbolic meaning and together conveyed the Tanimbarese view on a man's role in society.

A man strove, above all else, to maintain the prestige (the "great name") of his descent group, a goal that he achieved by obtaining—often with deadly violence—treasure (gold, ivory, or severed heads) from the outside world. In common parlance, the man was sometimes compared to a krai. In contrast to the acquiring of a "great name," the position of the woman focused inward, and her role was associated with fertility. This manifested itself in the reciprocal gifts at the marriage ceremony, in which homemade textiles played an important role.

Besides being an instrument of the male violence necessary to a man's quest for prestige, the antique sword also played a role in the context of ritual aggression. The weapon would be used in solemn duels, in which the two factions—separated by a bamboo fence—faced each other. Furthermore, it was used in the ritual feasts celebrating the hunting of heads and held after a victory in war.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, wars between Tanimbarese villages were commonplace. Reasons to go to war were constantly sought out, with an ultimate goal of showing off a victory. Combat would often yield casualties, and the victorious party would attempt to take the heads of the slain home as trophies. During a special ritual, in which the krai silai was ostentatiously brandished, the headhunters would extol their own valor and marital prowess, reenacting their exploits in the presence of the vanquished enemy's heads and the village community.

An interesting detail that, according the Tanimbarese, could—at least partly—influence the outcome of a battle seems to have been worked in the handle of the DMA krai. The edge of the hilt suggests the presence of a human face, possibly that of an ancestor who would guarantee success, along with protection, to the bearer of the sword. This symbolism was common on Tanimbar. Many Tanimbarese men would thus "hand" their instruments or weapons over to the ancestors. Arrows had ancestor figures carved into them, and tools had an ancestor figure for a handle, as did the grips of proa rudders.[6] In this way, the deceased could take up residence in the tools and help their descendants in undertaking difficult endeavors. Likewise, bags filled with ancestor figures were often carried by the Tanimbarese.

With the arrival of the modern age, as heralded by Roman Catholic missionaries, both the ancestor statues and the ancient krai silai have disappeared from Tanimbarese society. Sports contests have co-opted the role of wars, and the antique sword is no longer used during marriage ceremonies. The few specimens that still remain, however, as a kind of family heirloom, keep alive the memory of Tanimbar's colorful past.

[1] The language of the island of Yamadena is used in this entry.

Adapted from

Nico de Jonge, "Sword with handle resembling a human face in profile," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 288-289.