Malaysia boasts a delightful variety of traditional handicrafts. Choices range from priceless authentic antiques to exquisite modern hand-made crafts. As most artisans are Muslims, Malaysian handicraft designs are heavily influenced by Islam. The religion prohibits the depiction of the human form in art. Hence, most designs are based on natural elements such as the interlacing of leaves or vines, flowers and animals. [Source: Malaysian Government Tourism]

Earthenware and Ceramics: Popular items of traditional design include Perak's labu sayong, geluk, belanga, Chinese dragon kiln ceramics and Sarawakian tribal motif pottery. Contemporary items include vases, flower pots, decorative pottery, sculpture and kitchenware. Labu Sayong is a black-coloured gourd-shaped clay jar typically used to store and cool water. The state of Perak is renowned for this type of pottery. Found in many rural Malaysian homes, the belanga is often characterised by a round base and wide rim. It is often used to cook curries, as it is believed that its round base allows heat to be distributed more evenly. This angular-shaped jar is popularly used for storing water in the states of Pahang and Terengganu. It has a concave neck and a convex body.

Wood Crafts: Blessed with an abundance of timber in boundless tropical forests, Malaysia is renowned for an assortment of distinctive wood crafts. Traditionally, whole houses were built from elaborate hand-carved timber. Today, antique Malay-styled engraved panels, keris dagger handles, Chinese containers, unique Orang Asli spirit sculptures, intricate walking sticks, kitchen utensils and carved scented woods are among the wide range of exotic decorative items found in Malaysia.

Metal Crafts: Popular since the early days, traditional brass casting and bronze working are still used to make an array of utensils. More recently in the 19th century, with the discovery of tin in Malaysia, pewter has become increasingly popular. Metal craft products include modern decorative items, kitchen ware and traditional artifacts like tepak sireh sets, rose-water instruments and keris blades.

Hand-woven Crafts: Marvel at the creative hand-woven crafts of Malaysia. Local plant fibres and parts from bamboo, rattan, pandan and mengkuang leaves are coiled, plaited, twined and woven to produce items such as bags, baskets, mats, hats, tudung saji and sepak raga balls.

Malaysia’s 2013 National Craft Day attracted more than 450 participants representing five categories: forest-based products, textiles, earthen-based (hasil tanah) crafts, metal craft and an assortment of handicraft. There were hundreds of participants from Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak. The masters of traditional crafts came mostly from Sarawak, Sabah, Kedah, Pahang, Perak, Kelantan, Johor, Negri Sembilan and Selangor. To make the national craft event more interesting, there were live demonstrations of sculpturing wood, rattan and paper weaving, traditional musical instruments, keris-making, stone-carving and kumbu and bamboo weaving. Like previous years, there are remarkable collections of costume accessories, souvenirs, keychains, batik paintings, traditional clothes, pendants, earthen pots, wooden frames and gifts and myriad decorative products to thrill your senses. [Source: Lin Zhen Yuan, March 8, 2013]

Textiles in Malaysia

Varieties of Malaysia's traditional textiles include batik, songket, pua kumbuand tekat. These textiles are made into all sorts of decorative items, from haute couture clothes to shoes, colourful curtains and delicate bed linen. [Source: Malaysian Government Tourism]

Batik: Referring to the process of dyeing fabric by making use of a resistant technique; covering areas of cloth with wax to prevent it absorbing colours. The colours in batik are much more resistant to wear than those of painted or printed fabrics because the cloth is completely immersed in dye.

Songket: Utilising an intricate supplementary weft technique where gold threads are woven in between the longitudinal silk threads of the background cloth. In the past, this rich and luxurious fabric demonstrated the social status of the Malay elite.

Pua Kumbu: Made from individually dyed threads on a back strap loom. Its supernatural motifs are inspired by dreams and ancient animist beliefs. The patterns that emerge are a fusion of the real and surreal. And each weave is distinctive of its maker's hand.

Tekat: The art of embroidering golden thread onto a base material, generally velvet, was traditionally used to decorate traditional Malay weddings regalia.

Malaysian Batik Cloth

Batik is a technique of dying fabric using wax to create patterns. It originated more than 2,000 years ago in India. In Malaysia commercial production of batik started around 1930 on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula following the introduction of a technique using screen printing stencils that allowed the work to be done fast and cheaply. Malaysian batik is not as famous as Indonesian batik but became fashionable in the early 2000s. Among those who were wearing it were Endon Mahmood, a Muslim feminist and wife of Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Batik is used in making shirts, sarongs, skirts, dresses and almost any other item of clothing in many parts of the world. Batik is an old Javanese word that means “to dot” or "to stipple". The word batik is thought to be derived from the word 'ambatik' which translated means 'a cloth with little dots'. The suffix 'tik' means little dot, drop, point or to make dots. Batik may also originate from the Javanese word 'tritik' which describes a resist process for dying where the patterns are reserved on the textiles by tying and sewing areas prior to dying, similar to tie dye techniques. Another Javanese phase for the mystical experience of making batik is “mbatik manah” which means “drawing a batik design on the heart”. [Source: ]

Unlike Indonesia batik, which features traditional patterns and colors, Malaysian batik is known fro its free-flowing designs, mostly large floral motifs and vibrant in colouring. Malaysians claim their batik is better because it uses brighter hues and has more varied patterns. Even so it is worn less and less at home and is worn mainly by government officials and old ladies in formal occasions.

Malaysian is associated most with the east coast of Malaysia (Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang). The most popular motifs are leaves and flowers. Malaysian batik depicting humans or animals are rare because Islam norms forbid animal images as decoration. However, the butterfly theme is a common exception. The Malaysian batik is also famous for its geometrical designs, such as spirals. The method of Malaysian batik making is also quite different from those of Indonesian Javanese batik, the pattern is larger and simpler, it seldom or never uses canting to create intricate patterns and rely heavily on brush painting method to apply colours on fabrics. The colours also tend to be lighter and more vibrant than deep coloured Javanese batik. [Source: Wikipedia]

In line with the 1Malaysia concept, the Malaysian government is now endorsing Malaysian batik as a national dress to every level of the general population, by having local designers to create new batik designs which reflect the 1Malaysia idea.

Making Batik

Batik designs are made by covering part of the fabric with wax or another dye-resistant material such as rice paste and then dying it and then boiling it to melt the wax away. Dye doesn't penetrate the wax, which is then scraped or melted away, leaving behind a design, repeated waxwings and dyings produces intricate multicolored designs.

Patterns drawn with a wax-filled pen known as a canting are called batik tulis. Using this methods the design is traced onto a prepared white cloth or onto a clothe that has already been dyed. the pattern is then drawn with wax. Wax is kept on areas already with dye to protect them from more dye. The process s often repeated with progressively darker shades until the desired motifs and colors are produced.

Hand blocked batiks, in which the wax is applied with a copper stamp, are called batik cap. items made using this method often have the same images repeated several times.

History of Batik

Batik is associated with Indonesia but is thought to have originated in Africa or India and was brought to Indonesia by travelers or traders from India. There is evidence of batik in Java in the 12th century. From Indonesia it spread to neighboring Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. In recent years, Western designers have begun incorporating batik cloth into their designs and Indonesia designers who use the fabric are becoming more recognized,

The development of batik in Indonesia is usually associated with the flowering of the creative art around the royal courts. The rise of Islam—which discourages the use of images of people or living things—probably contributed to the stylization of batik patterns and the absence in batik of representations of living things from most design. More recently batik has grown from an art mainly associated with the royal courts into an important industry with a number of noted production centers.

Although experts disagree as to the precise origins of batik, samples of dye resistance patterns on cloth can be traced back 1,500 years ago to Egypt and the Middle East. Samples have also been found in Turkey, India, China, Japan and West Africa from past centuries. Although in these countries people were using the technique of dye resisting decoration, within the textile realm, none have developed batik to its present day art form as the highly developed intricate batik found on the island of Java in Indonesia. [Source: ~~]

History of Malaysian Batik

The origin of batik production in Malaysia is not easy to trace. Few historical artifacts exist, but it is known trade relations between the Melayu Kingdom in Jambi and Javanese coastal cities have thrived since the 13th century, the northern coastal batik producing areas of Java (Cirebon, Lasem, Tuban, and Madura) has influenced Jambi batik. This Jambi (Sumatran) batik, as well as Javanese batik, has influenced the batik craft in the Malay peninsula. [Source: Wikipedia]

Batik was mentioned in the 17th century Malay Annals. The legend goes when Laksamana Hang Nadim was ordered by Sultan Mahmud to sail to India to get 140 pieces of serasah cloth (batik) with 40 types of flowers depicted on each. Unable to find any that fulfilled the requirements explained to him, he made up his own. On his return unfortunately, his ship sank and he only managed to bring four pieces, earning displeasure from the Sultan.

According to the Museum of Cultural History of Oslo, it is known for certain that the Javanese influenced Malay batik-making technically as well as in the development of designs. At an early stage the Malaysians used wooden blocks in order to produce batik-like textiles. As late as the 1920s Javanese batik makers introduced the use of wax and copper blocks on Malaysia's east coast. The production of hand drawn batik in Malaysia is of recent date and is related to the Javanese batik tulis.

Commercial production started in the 1960s. This craft has developed its own particular aesthetic and design, peculiar to Malaysia. The new Malaysian batik is clearly different from the Javanese tradition of hand-painted batiks. Malaysian batik can be found on the east coast of Malaysia such as Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang, while batik in Johor clearly shows Javanese and Sumatran influences since there are a large number of Javanese and Sumatran immigrants in southern Malaysia.

Jewelry and Costume Accessories in Malaysia

Jewelry and costume accessories from Malaysia include leather-crafted goods, beadwork necklaces from Borneo or finely made gold and silver jewellery adorned with gems.

Kerongsang: A three-piece brooch set traditionally used to pin the lapels of the baju kebaya together. Kerongsang usually comes in sets of three. The typical three-piece set comprises of a kerongsang ibu (mother piece) which is larger and heavier. The other two are called the kerongsang anak (child pieces) and are worn below the kerongsang ibu.

Cucuk Sanggul: A traditional hairpin used to secure hair in a bun at the back of women's heads. Typically made of gold or silver, these hairpins are normally worn in graduated sets of three, five or seven by brides and traditional dancers.

Pending: A large, intricately ornamented belt buckle worn around the sampin, a skirt-like cloth worn by men, to complement their baju melayu, the traditional attire for men. Traditionally, the pending is a sign of wealth and status for men.

Malay Kris (Traditional Malay Dagger)

The kris or keris is a distinctive, asymmetrical dagger from Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Both weapon and spiritual object, the kris is considered to possess magical powers. Since time immemorial no weapon has been made renowned and revered in the Malay world as the kris. With its razor-sharp blade, which is usually wavy, the kris was in former times the favourite weapons of royalty and commoner alike. In the hands of a skilful exponent of pancak silat, the Malay art of self-defence, it was, and can still be, a deadly weapon in close combat. As recent as the beginning of the century, no man felt safe and secure leaving home without one tucked in his waistband, ready for the unexpected. Such confidence in the kris was a tradition made antiquated only by the passage of time. [Source: Brunei Today, Information Department, 1994]

Clearly the kris is very unlike other daggers or knives in origin and appearance. Almost all krises have lok or waves, the total of which has always been an odd number. Another unique feature is the widening of the blade just below the hilt, and one side of this part is usually found a small ornament that may take the form of an elephant's trunk, a snake's tongue or other objects according to the preference of the kris-maker.

The blade is normally covered by a damascened pattern called pamur or kuran depending on the composition of the metal used to fabricate the patterns. The ris maker believes that the pattern stengthens the blade and make it more lethal. Some krises like Kris Sula, which was used in the old royal courts to execute wrongdoers, or Kris Palembang are without the lok. The hilt of such a kris, however, is more often than not still resembles a bird's head.

Kris were worn everyday and at special ceremonies, and heirloom blades are handed down through successive generations. Both men and women wear them. A rich spirituality and mythology developed around this dagger. Kris are used for display, as talismans with magical powers, weapons, sanctified heirlooms, auxiliary equipment for court soldiers, accessories for ceremonial dress, an indicator of social status, a symbol of heroism, etc.

History of the Kris

Although mystic stories emanating from the Indonesian archipelago - where the original kris was believed to have been created - suggest that it has been in existence since time unrecorded, the kris became especially prominent both as a weapon and symbol during the Majapahit Empire in the thirteenth century and later at the Malaysian royal court through the exploits of its legendary warriors, such as Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat and their companions. The krises were also the weapons of the famous Bruneian warrior Bendahara Sakam and his men when they drove off the Spanish invaders from the country in 1578.

The earliest known kris go back to the tenth century and most probably spread from the island of Java throughout South-East Asia. Kris blades are usually narrow with a wide, asymmetrical base. The sheath is often made from wood, though examples from ivory, even gold, abound. A kris’ aesthetic value covers the dhapur (the form and design of the blade, with some 40 variants), the pamor (the pattern of metal alloy decoration on the blade, with approximately 120 variants), and tangguh referring to the age and origin of a kris. A bladesmith, or empu, makes the blade in layers of different iron ores and meteorite nickel. In high quality kris blades, the metal is folded dozens or hundreds of times and handled with the utmost precision. Empus are highly respected craftsmen with additional knowledge in literature, history and occult sciences. [Source: UNESCO]

The Indonesian kris was inscribed in 2008 on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Over the past three decades, kris have lost some of their prominent social and spiritual meaning in society. Although active and honoured empus who produce high-quality kris in the traditional way can still be found on many islands, their number is dramatically decreasing, and it is more difficult for them to find people to whom they can transmit their skills. [Ibid]

Kris Myths

To this day no one is sure when exactly the first kris came into being. There are many tales, virtually all preternatural, relating to the genesis and exploits of the kris. One story concerned two brothers who went on a journey. One had a bamboo staff and the other a crude blade. Both these weapons, given to them by their father, possessed supernatural powers and could turn into anything the brother wished. [Source: Brunei Today, Information Department, 1994]

One day they came upon a palace where they saw a beautiful girl weaving a piece of cloth on a bamboo loom. The first brother, desirous of knowing more about the girl, commanded his staff to turn into a bird. The second brother willed his blade to change into a tiny venomous snake that entered the loom and shortly after bit the girl, who immediately fell into a deep coma. It turned out that the girl was the daughter of the King who owned the palace. The King tried everything in his power to revive her but without success. After severl efforts failed he became desperate and proclaimed that he would give his daughter in marriage to any man who could bring her back to life.

The brother who owned the blade-truned-snake being the only one with the antidote, which he obtained from the magical blade, succeeded in saving the princess, who subsequently became his wife. According to a belief, craftsmen of that period drew inspiration from the story and so created a weapon with the deadly blade sinous like the snake in motion, the hilt taking the form of the bird's head and the sheath representing the loom into which the snake slithered before it delivered its coma-inducing bite. Thus the kris was born.

Like the magic blade-turned-snake, the earlier krises were usually endowed with mysterious powers by their makers who were not only exceptional craftsmen but were some kind of occultists as well. The powers could be either good or evil, depending on the propensities of the persons who had them forged. Hence there are numerous stories about what such krises could do for their owners, like making them invincible; warning them of approaching dangers; saving them from sudden attacks; flying out at night to seek and destroy their enemies and other equally fascinating tales. Stories like this add to the mystique surrounding the kris, which to the Malays is not only an ancient and unique weapon but also a treasured ornament and heirloom.

Kris Making

Making a superb kris requires great skills that come from years of learning and practise. The knowledge of making this covetous weapon was once hard to come by as it was a closely guarded secret passed on from one generation to another and was taught only to a few selected family members. A person who was expert making kris and other weapons was known as Pandai Besi. There is a village in Brunei's centuries-old Kampong Ayer called Kampong Pandai Besi, where obviously the country's ironsmiths once lived. [Source: Brunei Today, Information Department, 1994]

Quite often the blade, hilt and sheath are nowadays made by three separate craftsmen. The experts who can fashion all three as in the old days number a mere handful in the Malay world today. The procedure of making the kris is basically the same as in the past, the only difference being the availability of modern tools. A peice of metal is repeatedly heated and hammered until it is flat. The next steps involve shaping, sharpening, filing and polishing. At some points along the process, the puting kris or shankdpin, onto which the hilt is to be fitted, is drawn out, and traces of impurities are removed from the blade.

The finished blade is then immersed in home made vinegar for at least twenty four hours to bring out the panmur or kurau. The hilt and sheath are usually made of hard fine grained wood that is both durable and attractive. In Brunei Darussalam, the two types of wood popularly used are obtained from the kulimpapa and hasana trees. In the old days horn and ivory were rarely employed. but lately as the kris is becoming more of a decorative object than a weapon, the use of horn or ivory for the hilt and sheath has been more common.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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