The Minangkabau of West Sumatra-INdonesia
DUSUN Indonesia Pathfinder
West Sumatera-INdonesia )

Excerpted from Moon's sixth edition of Indonesia Handbook

The Minangkabau of West Sumatera

Adjacent to Batak territory in West Sumatra is the land of the Minangkabau people, remarkable for their unique matrilineal society. The Minangkabau have a level of political and social equality unique in Southeast Asia. Although sometimes called Orang Padang, they're an interior, not a coastal people. West Sumatra is almost entirely ethnic Minangkabau, who comprise about a quarter of Sumatra's total population and are Indonesia's fourth largest ethnic group.
    Most Minang are farmers who live in small independent villages. The rest are skilled traders who live in or near the towns. Due to the rich soil of the rice fields, their villages are prosperous. They are easygoing, peaceful, self-confident, hardworking, and shrewd commercially—the only ethnic group that can compete successfully with the Chinese in Jakarta. Fervent Muslims, they are one of the best-educated and most vigorous peoples in the whole country; many of the nation's intellectuals, leaders, and authors are Minangkabau. 



This ethnic group is famous for its matrilineal and matrilocal social system. Minangkabau queens are still celebrated in many old legends, such as Kaba Cindua Mato, the formal narration of which can take 17 evenings. Even afterlife beliefs are mother-oriented, reflected in the saying "Heaven is below the sole of mother's foot" (i.e., you won't get to heaven if you mistreat your mother). All decisions are made in a democratic manner. Little squabbling occurs among the Minang, as everything is ruled by strict adat, with consensus the basic principle. The culture of the coastal towns, although bearing the stamp of Minangkabau adat, tends to be more male-oriented and less democratic.

Descent And Inheritance

In this strong matrilineal society, probably the largest in the world, titles, property, and family names are handed down through the female line. Here a man's children are not his heirs. Instead, he's bound to leave his possessions to the children of his eldest sister. His nephews and nieces are therefore his kamanakan, "those who inherit." The grandmother is the grand matriarch, with her eldest brother or first son considered the family representative. Houses are very much the domain of women. Daughters usually inherit property worked collectively, and women own most of the shops.


In Minangkabau society, all the children bear the clan name of their mother. Membership in a clan—the right to use its land and the right to a clan title—is transmitted by the mother's or grandmother's brother. The family consists of a saparuik (people of the same womb)—mothers, their offspring, and their brothers. Descendants of an ancestral mother live together in one house; in the highlands, up to 30 members live under a single roof. Each clan has a chief, called penghulu or datuk, who is chosen among the brothers of certain families. The penghulu settles clan disagreements or quarrels before they go to civil courts. When a penghulu dies or grows too old to lead his people, the title passes to his first nephew or one of his brothers.


The woman's family generally initiates the marriage proposal, though if a man has his eye on someone, his family may propose also. The only restriction is that the spouse be from a different suku, or clan. In rural and coastal areas there may even be a groom price. The bride doesn't leave home; instead, the husband moves in with her. After the wedding, the bridegroom is escorted to the home of his bride, proudly taking with him all his possessions or his workshop, proving he's a man of substance. After marriage, the man will spend most of his time at his sister's house, working and eating there, returning to his wife's house only at night. A man loitering around his in-laws' place is considered lazy. Today, the men assume more responsibility for their own families. Many of the old ways are changing; in the big towns, married couples spend a symbolic few nights at the mother's house and then go live on their own.


Once, it would seem, men were used mainly for procreation, ceremony, and labor. In the past, when a boy was about 10 years old, he would move out of his mother's house and into a surau (prayer house) to live and study cooking, martial arts, and the Koran. A child is considered a member of the mother's family group; the father's group regards the child as purely a blood relative without any rights of inheritance. This doesn't mean male privileges are nonexistent or that a man is free from his responsibilities toward his own family; his guidance and wisdom is very much sought. A Minang proverb sums it up: "Anak dipangku, kemanakan dibimbing." ("Put your own children on your lap, but give guidance to your nephews and nieces.")
    The mother's brothers are referred to as ninik mamak, and the eldest among them is called tungganai. The ninik mamak are responsible for the harmony and welfare of the brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, as well as for the safety of family property. The real father stays out of family affairs, the mamak replacing him and giving advice on business deals and marrying off the children. The mamak is also responsible for the education of his sister's children, while his wife's brother is responsible for the education of his own children.


The central area of the Minangkabau culture, a group of fertile valleys surrounding three imposing volcanos (Gunung Merapi, Gunung Sago, and Gunung Singgalang), is known as the Darek. Because of rapid population growth, this central homeland area has expanded along the west coast around Padang and into much of the swampy lowlands extending toward the east coast. Areas outside the  Darek are called  Pasisia/Rantau, originally meaning "outer reaches" or "frontier" but now referring to any area where one goes out in the world to seek his fortune. Thus the word merantau today means "to go abroad"—a vital part of Minangkabau custom. From time immemorial Minangkabau men have had to leave the darek to do business, for scholastic study, or to seek more land or opportunities.
    There's really not that much to keep a man down on the farm except to wait politely until a girl or her family asks for his hand in marriage. Then, all he looks forward to is a life of working on his mother-in-law's farm under the scrutiny of his brother-in-law. With so little industrial development, and population pressure constantly increasing, half the Minangkabau males are driven from the darek to Java.
    In the past, men would leave the village for 3-12 months, returning to their families with money, goods, and worldly tales of adventure. But since the 1950s more and more are settling permanently elsewhere, and today men often take their families with them. The Minang population of Jakarta today is greater than that of Padang. Though Minangkabaus are found in pockets throughout this island nation, as well as in Malaysia and Singapore, most still retain their adat.

Spirits And Magic

Although strong believers in Allah, Minangkabau also believe in many spirits: urang jadi-jadian can become tigers; cindaku are human-appearing monsters like Dracula who suck people's blood and eat naughty children; cindai are beautiful women with long flowing hair who laugh eerily and lure unwary men; palasik make children sickly and weak.Urang Bunian an Invisible Society  .Visit Bukittinggi's market (Wednesday and Saturday), which has probably Tukang Ubek the weirdest collection of magicians, charlatans, electrotherapists, acupuncturists, drug-sellers, chanting Muslim holy men, and snake-oil merchants in the whole of Indonesia.



The Legends

The Minang attribute their origin to Adam's youngest son, who married a nymph from paradise and begat Iskander Zulkarnain, purported in some versions to be Alexander the Great. His third son, Maharaj Diraja, sailed to Gunung Merapi when the rest of Sumatra was still submerged in water. There he started the first matrilineal clan. As the water receded, the people spread out into what is now the interior of West Sumatra. Some say the word Minangkabau derives simply from pinang kabhu, meaning "original home"—their earliest homeland.
    Another legend has it that the name means "Victorious Buffalo" (minang and kerbau), alluding to a legendary fight with the Javanese. The chiefs of the Javanese and Minang decided to settle an issue with a fight between two kerbau. The Minang cunningly starved a calf for 10 days, bound a sharp iron spike to its head, and set it free to run enthusiastically for the belly of the Javanese buffalo, whom it thought was its mother. The starving calf, frantically trying to suckle, gored its adversary to death. To this day, roofs of houses and some women's headdresses are shaped like buffalo horns.


The Hindu-Malay kingdom of Minangkabau rose in the 12th-14th centuries after the decay of the Sriwijaya Empire to the east, when Indian influences began to spread into the highlands. The imprint of this Brahmanic Indian civilization is still evident: a multitude of Hindi loan words, certain agricultural skills, methods of political organization, even remains of Hindu-Buddhist monuments. They once had an Indian-type alphabet, but only the Arabic is used today.
    The royal court sat at Pagarruyung; the first royal village was Pariangan. These kings had no strong authority except to settle disputes; they were more symbolic unifiers of the Alam Minangkabau ("Minangkabau World"). The Minang also organized extensive trade and commerce with the outside world. Prior to the 19th century, the most important exports were gold and aromatic forest products. The Minangkabau have a long history of brassworking and forging iron weapons and farm tools. They used cannons and bored matchlocks long before Europeans arrived.

Advent Of Islam

Eventually, small Muslim states ruled by sultans became powerful in West Sumatra, gradually forcing the Minang Kingdom into the central regions, where it hung onto its independence. From 1820 to 1837 a violent struggle in Minangkabau regions raged, with the Dutch and the traditional adat chiefs and the Minangkabau royal family on one side, and the Padris on the other. The Padris were ultra orthodox religious extremists who tried to enforce Islamic regulations on a non-Islamic population and to eliminate such widespread pre-Islamic customs as gambling and drinking. In this prolonged and bloody rebellion, the Padris annihilated virtually the entire royal bloodline. This resulted in Dutch resolve to rid Minang territory of the Padris. A religious and political leader, Tuanku Imam Bonjol, along with his Padri defenders, held out until the last fortress fell at Bonjol and the power of the Padris was at last broken. Songs, poems, and books have been written about this folk hero.
    Today, the Minang ardently embrace both Islam and their female-oriented adat, systems which would at first appear in direct opposition to one another. It's rare that a Minangkabau husband will have more than one wife even though Islam allows him up to four. And even though women have a strong voice they still remain modestly dressed. Being Islamic and matrilineal may seem contradictory, but it is this blend that makes the culture so intriguing.



Minangkabau architecture is some of the most magnificent and influential in all of Indonesia, even seen in new government offices and public buildings on Java. The peaked, swooping roofs of many Minang buildings are reminiscent of the curved horns of the revered water buffalo and of the women's ceremonial headdress. Traditional houses are disappearing now, replaced with brick and iron-roofed structures; aside from hotels and government buildings, few of the expensive thatch-roof rumah adat are being built nowadays.

Rumah Gadang

Means "big house," the traditional Minang dwelling. Each cluster of houses in a village is often the locale of one matrilineage, with a communal surau nearby where the men and boys hang out. Bedrooms are set aside for daughters of the household and their husbands, and there's a long common room for living and dining. The back half of the house is divided into small rooms where the married and marriageable women sleep. The maternal uncle, responsible for adding on to a house or building a new one, makes sure each marriageable woman has a room of her own. An annex may be added for each daughter who comes of age, and that structure is home for her lifetime. You can often tell how many husbands and children a family's daughters have by the number of "horn" extensions on the rumah gadang, each curving skyward and adorned with swinging ridgepoles.
    In front of the rumah gadang is a long veranda used for dining and meetings, and as a sleeping area for children, elders, and guests. Raised up to three-and-a-half meters off the ground on wooden pillars with small livestock kept underneath, one must climb up and down rumah gadang on a single piece of notched timber that's pulled up quickly to thwart enemies, tigers, or snakes. The traditional house is thatched with thick layers of blackened palm. Exterior wooden walls are often carved painstakingly with scrolls and flowers, each geometric pattern colored in lavender, orange, and other pastels.

 Arts and Crafts


A technique of self-defense originating in West Sumatra. Although found in different forms throughout the country, the Minang regional version is feared and admired all over Indonesia. In fact, the art is accorded the ultimate honor: it's taught in the national military. A male is not considered ready to enter manhood until he's mastered the martial arts.
    Silek must be executed with elegance; Minang dance styles, such as the randai, are patterned after it, and many basic movements are rich with ornamental gestures. In the Painan area the deadliest form of pencak silat has been inspired by a tiger's stalking and killing methods. When performed, most of the wide variety of styles are accompanied by drums and flutes. Women also study this dramatic art form. The fighting style mudo is performed by two men. This very technical and potentially deadly mock combat dance, with dramatic pauses after each stance, is called off just before it becomes violent. And well it should: Minangkabau men can kill fish in the water with lightning blows of their feet.


The Minang have one of Indonesia's highest literacy levels, partially due to strong family support. Their traditional literature is oral, first written down only in the 16th century when Arabic script was introduced. The Minangkabau are very fond of oratory. Whenever any customary ceremony takes place, such as at a wedding party, the maternal uncle opens with an obligatory and formal speech of welcome and gratitude called panitahan, which can last up to four hours. Minangkabau men love to argue at length in their mosques and coffeehouses.
    The Minangkabau, who are perhaps Indonesia's most precocious, individualistic ethnic group, also excel in modern literature. There are more Minangkabau among 20th-century Indonesian writers than any other ethnic group. They are, after all, practically writing in their native tongue; the Indonesian language was derived in part from West Sumatra. In the 50 years of modern Indonesian literature, such important prewar writers as Rusli, Muis (Salah Asuhan), Pustaka, Iskandar, Pane, Anwar, Idrus, and the first noteworthy female novelist, Selasih (If Fortune Does Not Favor), all have come out of this region.
    These novels in their time were controversial, and some were shattering. One can even go as far as to state that the modern Indonesian novel is virtually a product of the collision between matriarchal Minang adat, patriarchal Islam, and the temptations and pressures of modern Western culture—Rusli's Sitti Nurabaya and Iskandar's Salah Pilih in particular.
    The first important modern Indonesian poet, who employed Western poetic devices and concepts in his craft, was Muhammed Yamin. One of the earliest and best known of his poems is "Tanah Air" ("My Fatherland"), published in 1920. In it, Yamin stands on the hills of his native Minangkabau country, singing of its unsurpassed beauty. His efforts revealed the potential of verse written in the Indonesian language. Rustam Effendi is another outstanding poet of West Sumatra.


In the graceful tari piring, or "dish dance," entranced dancers hold plates alit with candles, deftly twisting and turning without extinguishing the flame. Your only chance of seeing a performance is to charter one for two hours for around Rp150,000. Tari payung, the "umbrella dance," portrays a young man's loving protection of his girlfriend.
    A combination of literature, sport, song, and drama, randai is derived from pencak silat. Most often held outdoors at night, 9-20 young men in a circle are accompanied only by sharp cries from the audience. The dress is colorful and the dialogue captivating. The dance consists of a succession of slow then rapid steps, depicting the story of a wicked woman driven from her village. Annual randai competitions are held at both the kabupaten and provincial levels, and this dance form is so popular that over 300 randai troupes are now found in the highlands. Randai is performed best in the Paguruyung area, the traditional seat of Minangkabau royalty.
    Minangkabau also perform one dance demonstrating how a beruk monkey climbs a coconut tree and picks choice coconuts for its owner. While under a religiously induced trance, men in the dabuih ceremony stick themselves with steel awls, a Hindu-style show of faith.
    The Minang gamelan-style folk orchestra consists of the rebab (a stringed instrument), talempong (like a xylophone), puput (a straw flute), gandang (tambourine), drums, and many different kinds of bamboo flutes (saluang), some of which are said to put love spells on women.


Each Minangkabau village is known for its specialty: woven sugarcane and reed purses (Payakumbuh), gold jewelry (Bukittinggi), silver filigree (Kota Gadang), weaving (Pandai Sikat and Silungkang), embroidery (Pariangan), pottery (Sungai Janiah), and metallurgy (Sungaipuar). Artisans in other villages turn out bamboo carving, landscape paintings, wooden models of Minangkabau traditional houses. Antiques galore can be bought in Padang and Bukittinggi.
    A very active cottage industry is the handlooming of silk kain songket, woven with a supplementary weft of foil thread, which creates a gleaming metallic design. Formerly, these cloths were woven with pure gold and silver threads (very expensive), but now synthetic yarns are most often used. As old kain songket decay, the valuable threads are picked out and recycled.
    The women's traditional headdress is a turban with sharp conical points called Tikuluak-tanduak, which resemble the horns of water buffalo or cows. Minang bridal gowns, perhaps inspired by 17th-century European suits, are magnificent pieces of embroidery.
    Very light necklaces, pendants, bracelets, and hair ornaments are crafted here, small pieces attached to a string of light metal and then dipped in gold or silver. Intended only for ceremonial use, this jewelry is quite fragile. It's important to ascertain the quality of the gold or silver. Remember, the Minangkabau are shrewd traders; the true carat may not actually be what's stamped on the back of the piece.


The Minangkabau region of West Sumatra produces some of the best cooks in Indonesia, and it is in their nasi padang restaurants where the visitor will find the tastiest, spiciest Indonesian food. If you're in a hurry, nasi padang restaurants offer the quickest service of any eatery; they're also some of the most expensive. A rumah makan padang is sure to occupy the main street of any town or village in the country, no matter the size.
    You're first brought a cold napkin, a free glass of hot tea, a lit candle to keep the flies away, and your eating utensils, semi-sterilized in a glass of hot water. No menu is needed. All you have to do to start the unending procession of food is utter the simple word "nasi," at the same time pointing to the window filled with great basins and platters piled high with spicy-hot food. Waiters will then descend with up to 10 small dishes balanced precariously on each arm, setting them all on the table before you. You pay only for those dishes you eat, so get the prices right before diving in. Vegetable dishes are always cheapest—meat dishes can really run up the tab. The sauce from each is free so you can just order a lot of rice, eat only a couple of dishes, and use the sauce from the rest; this is what the Indonesians do. Afterwards, you're given a fingerbowl and wet napkin to clean yourself.
    Stick with the old standbys—fried fish (ikan goreng), curries, fresh vegetables (sayur-sayuran). Or try something more exotic—spiced prawns, calf's brains, steamed sweet potato leaves. West Sumatrans are especially fond of curries, eggs with chilies, and a great variety of kambing (goat), ayam (chicken), and lembu (beef) dishes. Rendang, a wonderfully flavored beef and sauce dish, requires a long time to cook and is tantalizingly seasoned with ginger, garlic, hot chilies, coconut, lemongrass, and coriander.


Transitional Events

If you're lucky you'll see a Minang procession on the road. These could celebrate, for example, that a man has just become an uncle—an even more significant transition here than when a man becomes a father. Another traditional ceremony, Batagak Panghulu, is held to replace a village headman. This two-day event is enlivened with a debating session. Dress nicely on a Sunday and you may find a wedding to go to; wedding processions could very well take place down any one of Padang's, Solok's, or Bukittinggi's streets. Usually Minang weddings start at 0700 and last all day and night, especially on the last Sunday before Ramadan begins. Weddings display a curious blend of old and new customs. The bride might wear the traditional Minangkabau wedding attire with a magnificent gaudy golden headdress, while her ladies-in-waiting cover their heads discreetly in Muslim scarves.


When it's time to prepare the rice fields for planting, many villages hold a pacu Jawi(sapi), or bull race. Cattle compete by racing down a muddy field pulling rice plows behind them. Duck racing (pacu itik) is held only in the tiny village of Limbukan near Payakumbuh. Ask about the riotous bareback horse races (pacu kuda) held at least once every three months in each of the following towns: Padang, Solok, Padangpanjang, Bukittinggi, Batusangkar, Pariaman, Payakumbuh. They're a major, well-organized event, with vividly dressed jockeys. The Minangkabau also race dogs.


Also called lagu minang, this exciting event pits bull against bull. Bullfights are usually held twice a week in the vicinity of Kotobaru, 10 km south of Bukittinggi; fights are also held in Pasarrebo, Kotolawas, and Pincuran Tujuh. Ask bemo drivers for times and locales. These events are the province of village men; few women attend. Quite popular; there could be as many as 1,000 spectators.
    There are two types: adu kerbau (a pair of water buffalo) and adu sapi or adu lembu (a pair of cattle bulls). They don't actually fight to the death; the contest is more a test of stamina and strength than ferocity. Most of the fun is watching the animated locals make their bets (up to Rp200,000 on a single wager). Buyers from the livestock markets look over the potential stud bulls: a good fighter is a good breeder. The owner, beaming proudly, might get a very good price for the victorious bull.
    A bullfight could last for a minute or an hour. Sometimes the bulls are knocked unconscious in their first impact as blood flows from their nostrils and dirt flies and horns lock, grinding and butting. Sometimes the two bulls chase each other around and the onlookers scatter in every direction, having the time of their lives. Magic is also invoked to make the bulls win. The trainers stand by each of their beasts and blow into a length of frayed rope. Called main angin, this is said to breathe strength into their animals.

Pig-Hunting/ Buru Babi

The quintessential male activity in the Minangkabau Highlands. Males of all ages, titles, and classes take part in this violent and exciting sport. There are hunt associations with elected chairmen in nearly every village; from bus windows you often see men with their hunting dogs along the roadside. Locations and times of the hunt are often posted in the town lepau (coffee shop), snack house, or toko.
    Armed with hatchets, knives, spears, and a few old rifles, as many as 50-100 men participate. The hunters pile into a chartered bus early Sunday morning and head for the wilderness. The dogs, snapping and barking, strain at their leashes. Once a pig is flushed out or a fresh trail discovered, the hunt leader (muncak rajo) gives the word to release the dogs. When the pig has been run down, the dogs start tearing at its carcass.
    Not only is it a traditional sport, but pig-hunting also helps to protect crops. It's believed that embodied in the pig—a religiously taboo animal—is the soul of an evil human sorcerer or magician who is being punished by Allah. The activity is also a sanctioned release from the rigid constraints and formalities of Minang society and its customary laws. It's a time when ordinarily refined and correct members of the community become—for one day—rowdy, roughly dressed, noisy marauders. 

Record created on 2000-04-10 03:50:28.670 

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