The karambit is believed to have originated among the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra where, according to folklore, it was inspired by the claws of big cats. As with most weapons of the region, it was originally an agricultural implement designed to rake roots, gather threshing and plant rice. As it was weaponised, the blade became more curved to maximise cutting potential. Through Indonesia’s trade network and close contact with neighbouring countries, the karambit was eventually dispersed through what are now Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines.
Culturally the kerambit was a subject of condescension in Java because of its history as a weapon of the agrarian peasantry, as opposed to the kesatria (warrior class) who were trained in the keraton or palace. European accounts tell that soldiers in Indonesia were armed with a kris at their waist or back and a spear in their hands, while the kerambit was used as a last resort when the fighter’s other weapons were lost in battle. Nevertheless, it was popular among women who would tie the weapon into their hair to be used in self-defense. Even today, silat practitioners regard it as a feminine weapon. The renowned Bugis warriors of Sulawesi were famous for their embrace of the kerambit. Today it is one of the main weapons of silat and is commonly used in Filipino martial arts as well.
Superficially the kerambit resembles the jambiyah but there is no connection. The jambiyah was always designed as a weapon and serves as a status marker, often made by skilled artisans and jewelers using precious stones and metals, whereas the kerambit was and still remains an unadorned, modest farmer’s implement and useful utility knife.