Parangs

Parang: the Malay machete

Take the parang beneath the stairs

Use the whetstone on an edge grown dull

That faith be kept safe in prayer

Prostrate daily five times in full.

Ambil parang di bawah tangga

Kalaulah tumpul asah di batu

Agarlah iman tetap terjaga

Laksanakan solat yang lima waktu

Gardening in the tropics is a constant battle against the jungle. Being properly armed means carrying a machete. From Brazil to the Congo to the island of Borneo, farmers wield some form of long, sturdy knife for slashing and hacking back the relentless encroaching green. The Malaysian machete is the parang.

 

Sarong

Short parang with limewood handle.

 

Although less well known than the princely kris, the parang is a beautifully designed instrument, preferred throughout the tropics. Special features stand out:

  • The handle and blade are well balanced opposing curves, forming the shape of an “S”.
  • The parang is hammered by hand in workshops from superior steel rather than stamped out of sheet metal .
  • The blade is wedge-like, with a thick back edge giving it excellent heft and a powerful stroke.

A good parang can replace an axe for tree-felling, as in the pantun:

 

In the cut lies the art of felling

The parang blade afterward is ground

There are limits in the art of ruling

Cross the line and protest resounds.

Adat merambah ada tebasnya

Sudah menebas parang diasah

Adat memerintah ada batasnya

Melewati batas orang membantah

 

wedge blade

Thick, wedge-like back

 

An ordinary parang from the hardware store is finished by inserting a hot tang (puting) into a plastic handle (hulu) and sold as a naked blade. You can even buy the blades and plastic handles separately. Relatively lower cost parangs like the one pictured below are exported around the tropics from no-nonsense workshops like this one.  The blades can come loose over time, but they are easy to repair.  I’ve had the parang below for more than ten years, and I’ve had to reset the handle twice.  Just jam an old plastic shopping bag – or as much of one as will fit – into the slot.  Heat the tang over the gas stove till red hot.  Insert the tang into the slot.  The plastic will sizzle and fume, so do it outside.  Once it has cooled it’s as good as new.

 

ordinary parang

Ordinary parang with plastic handle

 

The discerning villager will prefer a more elegant tool.   At Hari Raya Korban time, all the men show up with gorgeous heirloom parangs with a wooden sheath (sarong) and wooden handle, secured by a metal band at the hilt.  Artisanal parangs like these are not available at the hardware store. In my area, a retired gentlemen produces them right in his driveway. The blades are fashioned from truck leaf springs. A variety of tropical hardwoods are worked into the handles and sheaths. Lime and other fruit trees are popular woods for the handles.

 

artisanal parangs

Unfinished parangs at the workshop

 

The most demanding way to make the sheath is to dig out a solid block of wood with an awl or pick. I’ve never seen one made this way, but the old guys talk about it. Another option is to saw a strip on one edge and dig in from there. I met an old craftsman in Sungai Pergam, Bagan Datoh, who still made some that way, the advantage being the sheath remains an entire piece of wood. It’s a whole lot easier to just cut the block in half and glue the two peices back together afterward. In the picture above, you can see the two sides of the unfinished sheaths held together by a strap. To prevent the two pieces coming apart as the blade is drawn, one piece is slightly deeper than the other, holding a groove that the edge of the blade rests in. Interestingly, there is no attempt to shape the sheath to fit on a belt. Instead, people will simply knot a nylon cord around the sheath and use the cord as a belt. It seems a poor match for such a handsome weapon, but it does get the job done.

Take a care when you fish for mackerel

A parang-fish doesn’t cut your hand

Take care when playing humble

Be not a slave to any man

Baik-baik mengail tenggiri

Takut terkena ikan parang

Baik-baik merendah diri

Jangan menjadi hamba orang

Anyone interested in ordering a handmade parang can send me a private message.

Pantuns sourced from Malay Civilization, English translation mine.