Acehnese say that the rencong takes the shape of the invocation, "Bismillaah In the name of God, the merciful and compassionate."
According to Drs. Syamsuddin and Drs. Nur Abbas of the Department of Education and Culture in Aceh, the component parts of the rencong can be likened to individual letters of the formal Arabic script huruf gundul, literally bare lettering, of the phrase Bismillaah
Yahya bin Ahmad raised his saw and cut into the smooth curved elephant tusk. The ivory gave off a soft glow, so that the jarring cut of the saw seemed to be an almost sacrilegious act. Yahya is a big man with strong arms and sturdy frame. It seemed fitting that such a massive figure of masculinity should be working with this part of one of the largest and most powerful of beasts to fashion a rencong, the dagger that represents the might and inner strength and power, kekuasaan, of the Acehnese people.
Yahya is the head workman in the workshops of Sibreh village. Sibreh is not far from the capital, Banda Aceh, but it is situated off the bitumen road through, many kilometers of rice fields. There are nineteen work huts in the village, eleven of which are used for making rencong. Knives and sickles ire produced in the others. In each work but are approximately seven workers, most of whom are men of the village.
Yahya, the son of Ahmad, belongs to a family of weapon makers. As a small child, he helped his father in the same way that his son now helps him. His position of responsibility has taken him all over Aceh in the search for raw materials. Now people usually come to him to sell their scrap metal; he needs one kilogram for the blade of a medium sized rencong. They bring their buffalo horn, which will be whittled down into hilts and scabbards for new blades, and the rare ivory tusk, which is used in the production of the more expensive rencong. He is pleased that the work huts have become so well known that it is no longer necessary to travel in search of raw materials. Yahya wipes his brow and removes his coat, as he gets ready to begin his work.
Rencong blades are forged and annealed 2 from metal. Yahya sits at an open coal fueled fire where he hammers the red hot metal into shape. At critical points of forging, air is pumped by goatskin bellows into the coals to increase the heat. This heating and hammering continues until the metal has taken the shape of the blade.
A non-tarnishable steel is used for blades that will be fitted with buffalo horn hilts and scabbards. A brass alloy is used for those with scented wood or ivory hilts and scabbards. Stylized bamboo shoot motifs, pucuk rebung, are worked into what will become the lower end of the hilt. Above this is a sharp point which will later be inserted into the hilt, when the two parts are joined together.
The blade is sharpened. Out in the open air, Yahya holds the knife against a circular whetstone while Ridwan alternately pulls the two ends of a string wound round the axle which turns the stone.
When making the hilts, the requisite material is cut into rough shape. Ivory, gading, wood, kayu keumuning, (Murraya exotica L), or buffalo horn, tanduk, may be used. The pieces are filed and smoothened. A hole is bored in the center of the hilt into which the sharp point at the upper end of the blade is inserted and glued in place.
The scabbard, whether horn, wood, or ivory, is shaped to fit the blade. The bottom end is decoratively worked first, then the inside is hollowed out, gouging out the core of the scabbard material from both the top end and through a small slit cut into the convex curve of the scabbard. When finished, the small wedge removed to make the slit is replaced and secured with three narrow metal bands spaced at an even distance from each other down the length of the scabbard. The completed weapon measures about 40 cm. in length; smaller ones are made for visitors to the capital.
Horn, wood and ivory are not the only materials used for rencong hilts and scabbards; silver and occasionally gold may also be used. Such rencong are not made by iron workers, tukang besi, but by goldsmiths. They are used for ceremonial purposes by those who can afford to buy them.
Tucked away in a small goldsmith's shop in Meulaboh, West Aceh, Abdullah PK spends much of his time melting down old silver and making, among other things, new rencong.
Abdullah PK rubs his hands over his smooth head, then adds 300 ml. of hydrochloric acid, air keras, to 80 grams of melted silver. He heats the molten compound in a small crucible over a gas burner, using his foot to pump the gas up to his workbench from a container of bottled gas on the floor.
When the mixture is ready, Abdullah PK pours the silver into an ingot or oblong rod. When it has cooled slightly, he beats it with a mallet. He reheats the silver and hammers it again. The heating and hammering process continues over a period of five days, until the silver is no more than 5 mm. thick.
Four large pieces of this flat silver are needed for the hilt and scabbard of the rencong. Small pieces are required for the decorative pucuk rebung which is wrapped around the bottom of the hilt, and for the disc which covers the upper end of the hilt, tutup rencong.
The rencong blade is forged from an alloy composed of 60% silver and 40% brass. It is glued to the hilt by filling the aperture in the hilt with an adhesive and fitting the sharp upper end of the blade into the aperture.
The rencong is now ready for ornamentation. Abdullah PK takes up a hot chisel, and with a practiced hand engraves scrolls, curves and chevron patterns in the silver scabbard and hilt. He notches the base of the scabbard further, giving greater realism to the rencong's invocation of "Bismillah - in the name of Allah, the Merciful and the Compassionate."
Aceh's history is filled with a large array of weaponry. Swords and daggers have been used throughout for both ceremonial purposes and war, Aceh having experienced both in abundance. The rencong is one of those weapons which has been elevated to the position of a symbol for the whole province.
Whilst it is true that the rencong is in the shape of the invocation "Bismillah" it is quite possible that a similar dagger was used in the region prior to the coming of Islam and was then later sanctified by likening it to Arabic script, a script which is quite flexible in its rendition 3 The noted authority on Malay crafts, Mubin Sheppard writes that it is possible that a first century Dong Son dagger from the Gulf of Tonkin provided the prototype for the keris 4. However the keris differs from the rencong in that the blade is usually wavy and is sharp on both sides. Sheppard also writes of one sided sharp daggers which were common in the Malay world; the badek and the more elaborate tumbok lada which has a tubular hilt and more closely resembles that Acehnese siwah 5. Unfortunately he does not give any evidence of the earlier use of these weapons.
As Aceh was an important military power within the Malay world, its weaponry was extremely important. Because of its international links westward, it is possible that the shape o the rencong was partly influenced by weapons used by Aceh's western neighbors, particularly Turkey and the Indian subcontinent. The shape of the rencong blade bears a resemblance to the Turkish sabre, the kilij. An emerald dagger which belonged to the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud I has the same curved blade 6. The rencong is also reminiscent of the Mughal scimitar, although much shorter. An Indian wall hanging from Madras dated 1610-1620 depicts several fashionable men with rapiers and daggers hanging from their belts. Some of these are quite long. Others are shorter and curved, and closely resemble the rencong in size 7.
A popular magazine article claimed that the shape of the rencong was invented in Aceh in the 16th century by Sultan AI Kahar 8. This was the Sultan who enjoyed a close relationship with the Ottoman Turkish Caliph, and on several occasions requested Turkish assistance in repelling and attacking the Portuguese on water, and the Bataks of the highlands on land. Another Acehnese source says that the rencong was already known during the first Islamic Sultanate in the 13th century 9.
We know that the rencong existed in Aceh in the 18th century, for the heroic literary figure Poecut Muhamat ordered that "reuntjong daggers be made", and that "the steel pile up in whatever direction" 10. Example of 17th and 18th century rencong may be seen in the Military Museum in Prague 11. The most precious rencong in the Jakarta Museum date from at least the 19th century. They are embellished with engravings in Arabic, with strophes from the Holy Qur'an 12. According to the noted authority on Indonesian weapons, Moebirman, the rencong used by Cut Nyak Din against van Heutz in the late 19th century is now in the Hague 13. Dutch sources show a particularly fine array of Acehnese weaponry from this period 14. Examples of weaponry in use at this time may be seen in the well illustrated book on the Dutch colonial war produced by the Documentation and Data Centre in Aceh in 1977 15.
There was a great demand for weapons in Aceh. Draeger tells us that the Minangkabau manufactured arms for their own use and "to supply the enormous Aceh demand" 16. The rencong was a particularly effective weapon; instructions for its use are as follows: The rencong is usually worn sheathed on the left hand side of the bearer. When it is used as a weapon, then it is usually drawn with the left foot forward so that by a quick short step forward with the right foot, the thrust of the knife receives added impetus. The blade is withdrawn from its sheath, cutting edge toward the enemy. It is then whipped to the right by a snap of the hand which brings the palm upward; the elbow is held fairly close to the body. The thrust is made by extending the right arm almost to full extension and turning the palm downward just prior to penetration of the target 17.
In the past, the Islamic symbolism of the rencong was linked with fighting the Holy War, jihad. Users allied the power of their weapon with the power of Allah. Certain rencong were said to have ilmu, which literally means knowledge but is better translated as ‘power'.
"Tatob ngon reuncong jeuet Ion peu-ubat, nyang saket
that tapansie haba."
This well known Acehnese saying conveys the opposite meaning of the English ditty: "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me." In Aceh, name calling is more hurtful than physical harm. The Acehnese saying, above, gives an indication of the importance placed on external form and appearance in which the correct use of words plays a significant role. Correct gestures and clothing are also valued. Traditional formal costume is the correct form of dress 18. For a man in traditional costume, pakaian adat, the rencong tucked into his waistband is an absolute essential. The gleam of gold or silver at his waist tells of a rencong hidden in the folds of his dress.
The rencong is worn on a man's wedding day in coastal Aceh. It is part of the costume of the seudati dancer as he performs the energetic dance movements with seven other men. It is .given to visitors as a token of respect, a sign of admiration and of the giver's feeling of being honored by the visit.
Today, the Islamic symbolism remains evident. Indeed, the rencong is considered one of the foremost symbols of Aceh, representing a confluence of masculinity, Islam and power.
Two other important Acehnese weapons are the ceremonial dagger and the sword. Excellent examples of both can be seen, in Indonesia, in the provincial museum in Banda Aceh, the National Museum in Jakarta, and in several private collections, as well as in European depositories 19.
The ceremonial dagger, siwah, is a royal weapon, the prerogative of the sultan and men of substantial wealth. It differs from the rencong in appearance in that it has a more bulbous hilt. The smooth haft of the precious metal looks as though it would crush in too tight a grip, but has, in fact, been reinforced with gum filling. The siwah scabbard is usually more highly ornamented than a rencong scabbard. The decoration on these fine, old weapons befits their royal heritage. Precious jewels, ivory and intricate gold filigree work adorn particularly the protuding portion at the upper end of the scabbard where the blades enters the sheath. Some siwah have straighter blades than rencong, however both blades are sharpened on one side only and end in a fine, sharp point.
The long sword, peudeueng, was popular during the Acehnese wars. Each was named after the shape of the hil, for example "hilt like the tail of a cat", "hilt like the mouth of a crocodile", "hilt like the horns of a deer", "hilt like the legs of a horse", and "hilt like the tail of a duk" 20.The hilt may be decorated with a tampok, a smaller version of the star shaped Acehnese hat. This ornament is mentioned in the 18th century epic poem, Hikayat Poecut Muhamat: "He gave them a... sword with a tampo ornament on the hilt" 21.
The peudeueng as a weapon of war probably goes back further in history. The sketch of a 17th century Acehnese, a man of Aceh's Golden Age, shows him sporting a strap over his left shoulder through which two long swords protrude 22.
The rencong, siwah and peudeueng have each played a significant role in Aceh's history. They are a powerful reminder of the blood, the glory, the religious commitment, and the pride of the people of Aceh. The rencong continues to embody these characteristics today. It is revered by Acehnese of all generations. Older people remember the wars; the younger generation admire the kingly traits of honor and respect in a time of peace. To each, the fine sweeping curve still represents the statement: Bismillah.
Extract from "Hands of Time: The Crafts of Aceh", by Barbara Leigh, 1989, Jakarta
1. Syamsuddin, T, and Nur Abbas, M.,1979: 7.
2. Annealing is a process undertaken to remove stresses in metal that may have been introduced by rolling out, hammering and bending. It prevents the metal from cracking or breaking up. The metal is placed on the hearth and with a large open flame, the temperature is raised to bring the metal to an even, dull cherry red. It is then allowed to cool gradually. After annealing, the metal is cleaned of oxide using acid.
3. Dr. Achmad Shboul, University of Sydney, was very helpful in showing me renditions of Arabic script.
4. Sheppard, M., 1979: 124.
5. ibid: 131, 134 5. See also plate 9.7, p. 135.
6. Levy, 1975: Fig 77.
7. Gittinger, M., 1982: Fig 83. p. 96.
8. Gadis. September 21 October 1, 1978: 25.
9. Syamsuddin, T. and Nur Abbas, M., 1979: 1
10. Siegel, J., 1979: 125.
11. Wagner, E., 1979: 96, 98.
12. Moebirman, 1970: 41. See Jakarta Museum entries 2297, 20778, 22805.
13. Interview with Moebirman, October 22, 1980.
14. For a comprehensive listing of weapons extant in Aceh in the early years of the 20th century, see Kreemer, VolI I, 1922: 291 ff, and jasper, J.E. and Mas Pirngadie, Vol V, 1927: Figs 331 338, p. 236 ff.
15. Perang Kolonial Belanda di Aceh, 1977. For example p. 167 shows a Panglima from Jeuram wearing a rencong,
16. Draeger, D.F., 1972:129.
17. ibid. p.151.
18. In Australian suburbia where l was raised, primary importance was given to one's heart or soul or motives over and above one's outward appearance. I grew up believing that if one was good inside, there were a great many ways in which this could be manifested in behavioral terms and dress was an insignificant factor. In Aceh, and other parts of Indonesia as well, I found that the emphasis given to dress was much greater than that to which I had been accustomed. This was particularly true when it came to wearing traditional dress. For the Acehnese, the correct external form is deemed very important. In fact it was seen to reflect the correct inner state of the person. It shows that a person is pure and clean within, and in true accord with his historical links. I do not want to draw a marked difference between the two societies, but merely to draw attention to the separate emphases as I experienced them.
19. Many Dutch museums have large collections of Acehnese weapons, particularly Bronbeck Museum (formely Museum van het Koninklijk Tehuis voor Oud-Militairen) in Arnhem, the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden, the Tropen museum in Amsterdam, and the Museum voor Land en Volkenkunde in Rotterdam.
20. Kreemer, Vol II, 1922:293
21. Siegel, J. 1979: 153
22. Lombard, D. 1967: Planches IV dan V. Gambar 21 A.