By FAKHRURRADZIE GADE, Latitudes Magazine Writer
The rencong is a small, easily concealed dagger with a curved blade, hilt and scabbard that echo the calligraphic shapes of an Islamic prayer. Designed as a weapon for Acehnese fighters close to five centuries ago, it flashes brightly through history as a symbol of Acehnese heroism in the face of Western colonization.Today, the power of the rencong is growing faint in the wake of modern instruments of war. A few people earn a living producing and selling imitation rencong as souvenirs. Ironically, the customers are mostly soldiers, posted from outside to quell the Acehnese struggle for self-determination.
FOR MY PEOPLE, THE ACEHNESE, THE reuncong or rincongÂcalled rencong in Indonesianis an unparalleled symbol of honor and greatness. This can be seen in the tradition for welcoming guests: the adat (customary) village elder will slip a small rencong into the waistband of the guest as a token of respect for the visitor and a sign of the hosts feeling of being honored by the visit. When important officials come to Aceh, they are given special rencong as mementos. For example, in 1998, Amien Rais, head of the MPR (Indonesian National Peoples Consultative Assembly) was given an heirloom rencong that once belonged to the respected ulama (Muslim religious leader), Tengku Muhammad Daud Beureueh. Appointed governor of the new province of Aceh by Sukarno in 1949, Daud Beureueh later supported the Darul Islam (House of Islam) movement for an Islamic state and led a rebellion, declaring Acehs independence, which began in 1953 and took years to crush. This gift of a weapon used by an old fighter of the Old Order to a new leader of the reformation government was charged with political meaningan act that could be read as a signal of Acehs willingness to seek a peaceful relationship with the new Indonesian regime.
The history of the rencong is inseparable from the story of the struggle of the people of Aceh against foreign occupation. As a kingdom of great military power in the Malay world from the 16th through the 19th centuries, Aceh produced and consumed great quantities of weapons, including all sorts of swords and daggers and knives, used for ceremonial and everyday purposes as well as war. But the rencong occupies a unique position as a weapon that came to symbolize Aceh to the outside world, as expressed in one of Acehs epithets: Tanah Rencong (land of the rencong).
The origin of the rencong is most popularly attributed to Sultan Alaiddin Riayatyah Al-Kahhar (1528-1568) whose father, Sultan Ali Mughayat Sjah (1511-1530) was the founder of Aceh Darussalamthe Islamic kingdom that successfully kept the Portuguese from conquering Aceh, and maintained control of the spice trade in the Malacca Straits for the next century, until the advent of Dutch and British efforts to dominate the region.
Al-Kahhar engaged in frequent battles to repel and attack the Portuguese at sea. It is told that in one of these fights, in the cramped space of the deck of a ship, the sultans men experienced difficulty using the siwaha dagger like the rencong in many respects, except for its short and straight-up handle, which became very slippery once it got smeared in blood, and too easily slipped from the hand. After that battle, the sultan called upon his blacksmiths to design a better weapon. The result was the rencong, an adaptation of the siwah that not only gave fighters a much firmer grip but also imbued them with the power of Allah, thanks to its innovative design.
The new dagger had a longer hilt, curved into the shape of ba the second letter of the Arabic alphabet. The decoration at the base of the hilt took the form of the letter sin. The blade was shaped like mim and the metal parts at the top of the blade, like lam, while the base of the scabbard was notched into the form of the letter ha. Together, they spelled out Bismillah (In the name of Allah, the Merciful and the Compassionate)the prayer recited at the beginning of each section of the Koran and uttered before an undertaking. Engraved with this invocation, a rencong inspired those who wielded it to remember God in their actions.
As a close-range weapon, the rencong proved particularly effective. As described by D.F. Draeger in Weapons and Fighting Arts of the Indonesian Archipelago (1972:151):
Its peculiar shape seems to fit well with the air of magic and mystery connected to it. Each blade has distinct markings, Arabic characters that tell of mystic power. The rentjong is employed according to its length, which varies from five to twenty inches. The shorter lengths are highly favoured because they can be easily concealed. The rentjong is worn sheathed at the lefthand side of the bearer. 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.
In addition to its religious and military functions, the rencong played a distinctive social role in the dress code of the Sultanate of Aceh. Wearing a rencong was a prerequisite to masculine beautya man would feel something was missing without a rencong tucked in at his waist, the metallic gleam of its hilt giving just a hint of the weapon hidden in the folds of his clothing. According to Ridwan Azwad, Secretary of the Pusat Dokumentasi dan Informasi Aceh (Aceh Information and Documentation Center), Formerly, when the Acehnese wore the rencong, it increased their feelings of self-confidence and made them appear more authoritative. Indeed, a rencong also indicated the wearers social status. For example, if a man wore a rincong [sic] meupucok (rencong with a hilt decorated in real or imitation gold) we would know immediately that he came from the noble uleei balang [commander, or literally, Sultans military officer] classes.
As the Dutch and the British came to increasingly dominate the economic and political landscape of Southeast Asia, the Land of the Rencong was a model of heroic resistance and, ultimately, a key actor in the achievement of Indonesian independence. When the Dutch invaded Aceh Darussalam in 1873, after controlling much of the remaining territory of present-day Indonesia for over seven decades, the Achenese opposed them fiercely, initiating the Aceh War, which claimed over 10,000 lives and lasted two decadesin fact longer, as guerilla uprisings continued well after the last Sultan of Aceh officially surrendered to the Dutch in 1903. By 1913, the colonial administration in Aceh issued a policy to regulate the carrying and use of rencong, which were still being used to attack Dutch troops.
Stories of bravery featuring rencong abound from this period. Zentgraaff, in his book, Aceh (1985:128-129) recounts how the woman freedom fighter Pocut Meurah Intan was detained by a Dutch patrol in Pidie on suspicion of carrying a dangerous weapon. Suddenly she drew her rencong from its hiding place, screaming: Kalau begitu, biarlah aku mati! (If that is the case, let me die!). She rushed the brigade single-handed, slashing her weapon crazily left and right, before falling to the ground.
Another famous fighter of those times was Cut Nyak Dhien, who was later declared a national heroine by Sukarno in 1964. Born into Acehnese nobility in 1848, she fought side by side with and outlived two husbands, and led a rebel army in the jungles of Aceh for twenty-five years before her capture in 1901. With her rebel camp on its last legs and the aging Dien herself in poor health and nearly blind, her faithful officer Pang Laot Ali deserted to the Dutch in the hope of getting medical aid for Dien, leading to a surprise attack on the camp. Dien could not conceal her rage at Laot; and when a Lieutenant called Van Vureen approached, she attacked him with her rencong.
Under Dutch rule, the Acehnese became increasingly active in the nationalist movement in alliance with other parts of Indonesia. Like many others, they welcomed the Japanese who landed in Aceh in March 1942, on the strength of Japanese promises to free them from Western colonizers. But rebellions soon broke out when the Japanese proved to be as tyrannical as their predecessors. When Sukarno declared Indonesias Independence in 1945, Acehnese were at the forefront of those who supported the creation of the new country, although the uleei balang were far from unanimous on the decision to be part of it; and conflict after conflict on this issue has disturbed Aceh ever since. As for the rencong, it is safe to say that the war of independence constituted the last phase of the rencongs life as a weapon.
According to Ridwan Azwad, the downfall of the rencong came about as traditional patterns of battle changed into contemporary warfare, where fighting is no longer performed face-to-face at close range with the enemy, but in a wider area, and with all the latest kinds of artillery, from M16s to grenade launchers. Todays warfare makes the rencong obsolete as a weapon, Ridwan says. The function of the rencong has changed. It used to be an instrument of self-defense. Now its just a memento,he adds.
In my own lifetime, the presence of real rencong in society has become increasingly rare. When I was a schoolboy at the Madrasah Ibtidaiyah in Keumala, Pidie in the 1980s, older people in the rural areas of Aceh still habitually wore knives at their waists, not to fight, but for practical purposes like cutting the underbrush; and I followed suit, wearing a small knife I bought at the market. It was only in the early 1990s that it became nearly impossible to meet any Acehnese openly wearing a sharp weapon. The reason for this was that in 1989, the government declared Aceh a Daerah Operasi Militer (Military Operation Zone, or DOM) and launched Operasi Jaring Merah (Operation Red Net) to counteract the renewed campaign of GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka)the Free Aceh Movement founded by Teungku Hasan Muhammad di Tiro in 1978 in the mountains of Pidie. That particular conflict, which lasted until 1998, led to a strict prohibition on carrying knives or rencong in public. It was then that the rencong turned into a souvenir for outsiders.
It is early afternoon in the village of Baet Mesjid in the Suka Makmur Subsection of Sibreh District in Aceh Besar Regency. Farid Husaini, aged thirteen, has just come home from school. He hurriedly changes out of his uniform into faded old clothes, has lunch, then heads for a nearby hut where an older man is assiduously working a piece of steel alloy by an open fire. Wasting no time, Farid picks up some tools, selects a long, narrow piece of brass, and within no time has hammered and rubbed the brass into the shape of a small rencong blade. I have been working at this trade since the sixth grade in elementary school. In one day, I must be able to finish at least three or four pieces, says Farid.
Next to Farid, his father, Abdullah, aged forty-three, is busy cooling down a shaft of steel. Farid is not the only child to follow Abdullahs lead. His eldest son, Yasser , twenty-four, is also thoroughly possessed by the enterprise. He completed senior high school (SMU) but decided not to continue studies at universityreluctant to attend lectures knowing the benefits this industry would bring. I make a lot of money from this work, says Yasser.
Abdullah confirms this. Rencong-making allows him to comfortably support his whole family. He sells the brass-cast rencong as souvenirs for prices ranging from Rp40,000 for a regular-size piece (ten to twelve centimeters long), to Rp75,000 or Rp80,000 for a larger one (fifteen to twenty centimeters); the raw material costs him only Rp5,000 to Rp10,000. A steel rencong is more expensive, selling at Rp75,000 to Rp100,000. The price is higher because the raw material is hard to get, and Abdullah says that making rencong from steel is far more difficult and time-consuming. Of the three children who work with him, not one can make rencong from steel. It calls for special skill and great patience.
Abdullah sells his rencong to handicraft markets across Aceh, although most of his stock goes to the Pasar Aceh market in Banda Aceh. It is not unusual for prospective buyers to come directly to his place to make a special order. They are usually foreign visitors. Once he received a visit from a group of Australians. They didnt believe that a rencong could be made by hand, so they came to see for themselves. They looked around and seemed to be astonished. Some of them placed orders, but then conflict broke out in the region, and they never came back.
Abdullah learned his rencong-making skills from his own father when he was a young boy. In 1972, at the age of eleven, he felt he was proficient enough to start up his own business, which he has been operating successfully ever since. In 1995 he won first prize in a province-wide contest held by the Aceh Handicrafts Council (Dewan Kerajinan Aceh). The winning entries were in the categories of skill in making rencong weapons and rencong meupucok (rencong with a hilt decorated in real or imitation gold). I dont mean to sound conceited, he says. What is important to me is qualityand, well, my rencong are much different from the rencong made by other people. He is very attentive to the refinement of each part of the rencong-making process: the careful heating, hammering, sharpening and chiseling of patterns into the blade made of brass or steel alloy; the hollowing, filing and carving scabbard and hilt out of buffalo horn or ivory to precisely fit the blade; and the making of the ring (klah) adorning the scabbard of bullet casings, in tin or lead.
Abdullah and his family are typical of the residents of Sibreh district, renowned for their abilities as blacksmiths. Besides Desa Baet Mesjid, the neighboring villages of Baet Meuseugoe and Baet Lampu-Ot are also home to heirs to the art of making weapons. All three communities are within easy reach of the Banda AcehMedan state highway intersection, about twenty-five kilometers east of Banda Aceh city, where many shops sell Acehnese handicrafts to visitors. The residents involvement in the rencong handicraft industry has had a dramatic impact on the economies of the three villages, so that the men generally prefer to become rencong smiths over working their rice fields, and many of the children opt to learn their fathers craft.
Muhammad Jamil has been selling rencong at Pasar Aceh for ten years. He says that the war in Aceh has not dissuaded him from selling rencong in public. On average he manages to sell three to five rencong to customers every day, at prices ranging from Rp10,000 for small wooden replicas up to Rp80,000 for medium and large brass pieces.
Deny, another rencong merchant with a stand Aceh Shopping Centre, agrees that the business makes good money. Most of the rencong buyers are outsiders. Usually, they are members of the security forces, who buy rencong as souvenirs to send back home, he says. He also promotes the rencong in his kiosk on a website complete with pictures, prices and contact addresses for the store and workshop, and takes orders by e-mail.
Djoko, a journalist from Banyuwangi, East Java, collects rencong as souvenirs. He is interested in their history and uniqueness. I like to collect things that are unique to the places I visit. The rencong blade is incised with holy verses, see?thats what I like most about it. A few days ago, a friend of mine arrived in Banda Aceh, and I gave him a rencong, too Djoko says.
Djoko is concerned that the Acehnese have begun to neglect the rencongs existence. At the place where Im staying, there are no symbols showing the rencong as a specialty of Aceh, not a single rencong in the house, whereas really, this is a precious heirloom, just like a keris. For us Javanese, the keris is something we take special care of, especially a keris that has spiritual power, Djoko adds, in his thick Javanese accent.
According to this two-time visitor to Aceh, it is the conflict and war that crushes peoples spirits and makes them not care too much about their heirlooms: I am concerned that now that the rencong has turned into a mere souvenir, it will become extinct, remaining in name only, a legend of the past. Whats more, the rencong is a consumer item only for outsiders. How would it be if the outsiders and guests stopped visiting Aceh altogether? Who would buy these rencong? Would the memory of the rencong survive?
Muhajir (22), a native of Bireuen Regency, North Aceh, concurs with Djoko. He feels that the more conflict there is, the scarcer the rencong becomes. Muhajir himself has only seen the replicas made of brass. As for a genuine rencong, in all my life I have never seen one, says this student of the Maritim Nusantara Academy. But Muhajir hopes that young Acehnese will not forget the existence of the rencong as a symbol of the resistance and heroism of Acehnese fighter of days gone by.
Outsiders like Djoko may bring home a rencong and say it is the most precious and beautiful Acehnese object. But he forgets how deeply rooted is the grief that accompanies this beautya form of beauty forged out of suffering and always concealed.[l]
 Some sources say that the rencong was already known during the first Islamic Sultanate in the 13th century, and some attribute the first use of the rencong to Sultan Ali Mughayat Sjah, rather than his son, although the essence of the story is similar.
*) This article was published ini Latitudes Magazine Volume 38, Maret 2004. Latitudes is monthly magazine that focus on art, culture, and tourism. Latitudes based in Bali.
**) Fakhrurradzie MG is a journalist who lives in Banda Aceh.