History of the Karambit

By Steve Tarani

Since before recorded time, different cultures around the globe developed different tools based on their needs. Some developed superior fishing tools, while others developed tools for planting crops. Tool design and application are a direct result of era and geography. A seaside dwelling tribe would develop different tools than would a mountainous or plains tribe. When various peoples migrated from one geographical location to another they brought with them their tools and way of life - sometimes peacefully, as in migration, and other times by war, as in the case of conquest.

According to my masters and the oral tradition that was passed down from master to student for centuries, prior to 1280 AD, most of West Java was part of the indigenous Pajajaran kingdom. The Badui tribe of West Java, the aboriginal people of Sunda, considered to be the ethnic group of the Pajajaran, lived relatively peacefully until the coming of the Majapahit empire (circa 1351 AD). At that time the Badui tribe quickly migrated to the rugged mountainous regions of the west, brought their weapons with them and remained self-governed.


Steve Tarani training in West Java with Bapak Sesepuh S, Suherman of the Budhi Kancana Pusat school of Pencak Silat in 1995.

tiger-2.jpg The kings of the ancient Sundanese kingdom were considered very powerful. When a king died, his subjects believed that his spirit flitted into the jungles and became the spirit of a tiger. There are two terms for the tiger that rules the jungles of West Java. One is Harimau, which is the generic Bahasay Indonesian word for tiger, and the other is Pak Macan (pronounced "Pah-mah-chahn" - sometimes anglicized and spelled Pamacan) which loosely translates to "great tiger." Thus, the great tiger is very much revered by the Sundanese.

So awed were the ancient Sunda peoples by the power and ferocity of the Pamacan, that the common blade of the people was patterned after the shape of the claw of Pamacan. This very large blade was known as Kuku Macan, or "claw of Pamacan." Literally translated as "tiger claw", the Kuku Macan was revered symbolically as well as practically employed.



Originally wielded in battle, the oversized Kuku Macan was a bit cumbersome to manipulate, so it was scaled down to smaller sizes, which augmented maneuverability. Much like the ancient European broadsword, which was eventually reduced from a two-handed heavy slashing weapon to a light single-handed thrusting weapon, various permutations of the Kuku Macan were developed based upon practical usage. As the saying goes, "Necessity is the mother of invention". Like the development of the Western dagger, the Kuku Macan blade design came in smaller sizes and eventually found itself in the smallest size - the very personalized Karambit.


The Karambit is also referred to as the Kuku Bima (literally "the claw of Bima"). Pre-12th century influence as a result of Hindus settling in Indonesian archipelago, brought the Mahabharata ("great epic of the Bharata Dynasty") and the Ramayana, (two major epics of India, valued for both high literary merit and religious inspiration), to Java. Contained within the Mahabharata is the Bagavadgita ("the Lord's song") which is the single most important religious text of Hinduism. Bima is one of the most revered characters from the Mahabrapta.




Also known as Kuku Hanuman (literally "the claw of Hanuman" -a character from the Ramayana pictured to the right), the magical claw, which protrudes from between the center of the hands of Bima and Hanuman - has become recognized as a symbol of the martial arts of the Indonesian archipelago, namely Pencak Silat and is often attributed as one of the roots of the overall Karambit design.

The graceful and efficient curvature of the tiger's claw (designed by mother nature) in combination with the mystical hand weapons of the ancient characters of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana - the Kuku Macan, Kuku Bima or Kuku Hanuman - where forged together with steel and bone by early village-dwellers to create the ancient Karambit. In modern times as the Karambit (now much smaller in size than its battlefield-sized ancestor) is now recognized internationally as a traditional weapon of Indonesian Pencak Silat.

When a fighter unsheathed a battlefield Karambit in ancient times, the cutting edge was almost always smeared with some type of deadly poison, which acted almost instantly upon entry into the bloodstream via laceration of the flesh. Even the smallest cut was enough to usher the poison into the bloodstream. Knowledge and use of poisons derived from various species of poisonous frogs, snakes, scorpions and spiders were considered an essential element of a warrior's arsenal of close-quarter combative skills. These poisons rapidly accelerated death and were mostly feared for their nearly instantaneous killing power. This is another reason why Pencak Silat techniques and systems such as Sabetan and Rhikasan focus on the immobilization of the hands at close quarters.

The personal Karambit (smaller version of the battlefield Karambit) was primarily designed for targeting the nerves and joints. As a result of such a small cutting surface, most cuts cannot be made deep enough to kill someone. That is why the Karambit can be considered a personal self-defense tool. In contrast, the blade of the Karambit Besar (larger or battlefield version of the personal-sized Karambit) is longer and thus permits deeper cuts. According to the ancients, the battlefield Karambit was preferred not only for its superior length but for the fact that you could, as a result of the lengthy cutting edge, "spill the entrails of your enemies onto the ground." However, as it was in the West, with the advent of battle-worthy and functional firearms, bladed weapons became obsolete on the battlefield and relegated to the utilitarian uses of knives that we see today.



Often used as a last line of defense in ancient times when the larger Clurit was made inoperable, the smaller personal Karambit targets included the eyes, testicles, the Achilles tendon, carotid artery, biceps, forearm and wrist. A particularly nasty target of ancient times was the clavicle (collar-bone). Executed perfectly the Karambit would catch the collarbone (tip pointed down) and is then quickly turned from palm down position to palm up position which, using your body weight, would snap the bone thus rendering your enemy's weapon arm useless.

Specifically designed as a close-quarter self-defense weapon, the Karambit of old was additionally quite difficult to see in the hand due to its method of deployment and cover of the fingers. Doubly menacing was that it could not be disarmed as a result of its forefinger-grip design. It was unique to any other blade at the time as it could be used for both a medium and close fighting ranges without changing distance of the striking arm. It was also the only blade used in battle that could cut twice with a single arm stroke. All other blades of that era need one motion for one cut. The ancient battlefield Karambit was unique because:

  1. It could not be easily seen.
  2. It could not be easily disarmed
  3. It could change ranges without body movement
  4. It could deliver two strikes in a single arm motion.


Bapak Suherman - one of the last masters of the Karambit and teacher of Guru Besar Herman Suwanda.

Although quite a remarkable weapon, and as fierce as it looks, its primary application in this modern era is utilitarian. The multi-functionality of this tool is what truly sets it apart from the many different other types of utility knives.

Used in training by martial artists who practice the art of Pencak Silat, and in some cases used as an implement of personal defense (much like any modern pocket knife or even a steak knife for that matter!), its small tip and blade length are not conducive to delivery of lethal blows and the Karambit cannot be used for effective thrusting and thus cannot be considered a dagger.

However, when used correctly it can deliver convincing motivation to any would-be attacker to leave you for another victim!

Originally used for personal backup, the Karambit could be employed as an "add-on" with specific styles and systems of training. For example, the Cikalong and Rhikasan systems of Mande Muda Pencak Silat, are the base systems of hand immobilization and close-quarter technique. Once you became proficient in these systems in empty-hand application, you could then easily "add on" the Karambit to your technique.

Today, although no longer used on the field of battle, the Karambit is employed as a utility tool, a martial-arts training implement and can also be used for personal protection at extreme close quarters as a last line of defense.

In 21st-century America, the Karambit has found a home with campers, hunters, martial artists, collectors, knife enthusiasts and defense-minded citizens who choose to carry a utility knife that can also be used in the event of assault on their person. As with any tool of value, it becomes the responsibility of its owner to know how to care for and safely operate it.


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