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Monday, October 3, 2022

Mysterious Minangkabau

A mountainous area in West Sumatra, around the three mountains (Mount Marapi, Mount Singgalang, and Mount Sago) in central Sumatra, Indonesia, this area formed a kingdom known from at least the 7th century as Malayu

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

INDONESIA: From its beautiful highlands, lush green paddy fields, volcanoes, powerful rivers, stunning traditional architecture to its captivatingly vibrant society, rumah gadang traditional houses and the famous Padang cuisine, West Sumatra is easily Sumatra’s most authentic and interesting culture.

Read also: Indian Temples of Sumatra

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I had the privilege to visit this province three times and was received by the local leadership with great warmth and hospitality and met some of the most amiable human beings, which is not easy to forget.

Padang state museum. Photo credit: Raghu Gururaj

Padang is the capital city of West Sumatra, but the most enthralling part of the region is surely its highlands.

Photo credit: Google Images
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A drive away from the outskirts of Padang city will give a fresh breath of air. Vast blankets of rich agricultural fields present themselves throughout the drive. Lake Maninjau, about 6 hrs from Padang city, is one of the most scenic, but more charming are the great views one can see on the way to the lake.

One can also see the village of Nagari Pariangan on the way, which is considered as one of the initial settlements of people in this region. This village reminds us of the originality of the village’s community life, layout and architecture.

Photo credit: Google Images
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This is the land of the Minangkabau community, a distinct ethnic group that forms 85% of the population of this province. The same name is used to denote the highland region as well. The word “MinangKabau” is a conjunction of two words, minang (“victorious”) and kabau (“buffalo”).

There are a few legends associated with the origin of this name, but the most compelling is a little folklore which is narrated to all visiting tourists. According to the story, when the Minangkabau heartland was confronted by a small Javanese army, the Minangs cleverly persuaded the Javanese to hold a fight between their respective buffaloes to decide the victor, instead of getting into a real ground battle. 

Photo credit: Raghu Gururaj

So this little legend says that it was agreed that in the battle of the buffaloes, the Javanese would retreat if their buffalo lost and the Minangs would surrender if theirs lost. Even at this point in the saga, there are a few versions, but the most funny and widely believed tale is that the Javanese fielded a giant buffalo while the Minangs deliberately chose a calf, that had been kept starving for sometime. The Minangs also tied a sharp knife on the nose of the calf. So as the calf was set free, it made a natural dash to the female buffalo looking for milk. Not suspecting any danger from the calf, the giant buffalo’s motherly instinct allowed the calf to suckle, but in the process got knifed by the instrument tied to the calf’s nose. Thus the story of the victorious calf of MinangKabau. To commemorate this event, the West Sumatran named their land and people “Manang Kabau” (winning buffalo).


West Sumatra has an interesting history too. The Minangkabau land was probably ruled by a distant Melayu kingdom founded in modern day Jambi province of Sumatra, which explains the dominant Melayu influence on the Minangkabau region. In late 7th century, Melayu kingdom was overcome by the Sriwijaya Empire, which was then based in what is today’s Palembang city in South Sumatra. When the Sriwajaya and Sailendra dynasties declined around the 11th century in their fight against the Chola kings from South India, most likely Sriwijaya empire shifted from Palembang to present day Muaro Jambi in Jambi province.

In the 13th century, Minangkabau was fighting the Mauli and Singhasari kingdoms, both of which were predominantly Mahayana-Vajrayana Buddhists. Renowned historians reckon that it was under the rule of King Adityavarman that Minangkabau developed its unique culture which incorporated both Malay and Javanese elements.

The death of Adityavarman led to a civil war which created two factions, but the one which identified itself more with pre-Javanized Minangkabau and the matriarchical social system became the dominant one, thus laying the foundation of present day MinangKabau community. It also based its language on the Melayu language. As seen, this eventually led to the development of the Minang language, which is widely spoken in the region. With the rise of the Sultanate of Malacca in 15th century, the Minangkabau royalty became a major maritime gold trading power.

Batusangkar palace. Photo credit: Google Images

But what is most interesting is that until this point, despite the influence of Buddhism, Minangkabau had continued its belief in animism. But with the arrival of Indian Muslim Gujarati traders, and from the Middle East and the growing influence of Malacca between 16th and 18th centuries, Minangkabau came under the influence of Islam. Islam got entrenched in the region after 19th century. But the Padri war in 1837 resulted in a cultural revolution, after which the top leaders worked out an agreement which firmly placed Minangkabau societal values on Islamic law.

Matriarchical society

The Minangs draw their lineage from certain ethnic communities of Malaysia. But what sets this community different from the rest of Indonesia is that it was predominantly matriarchical and also one of the world’s largest. Women play a significant role in the society. But at the same time, it is also a complex social system where women and men share power and control based on a principle of interdependence and mutual responsibility.

Gender is a major factor in inheritance and the rules underpinning the matriachical system are based on a set of rules and regulations known as adat, that are applicable to the daily life of the Minangkabau. The adat is a highly internalised bunch of hereditary conventions that become applicable from one Minang generation to the next.

Photo credit: Raghu Gururaj

There are some fascinating details about adat. For example, ownership of landed property passes from mother to daughter, although a father can hand over his business, profession or earnings to his son. No wonder that a Minang family yearns to have a daughter ! I was also told by a local official that in case a family bears a son who looks like his father, then the son is given up to childless siblings to be raised by them.

It is adat that guides matrilineal inheritance, but the Minang are mindful of the fact that such a tradition might conflict with Islamic dictums. So to accommodate and harmonize both regulatory requirements, Minangkabau have skillfully made a distinction between high and low inheritance. “High inheritance” denotes property, including houses and land, which only women can inherit. A father can pass on to his children, assets which are “low inheritance”, like his earnings and savings. This latter inheritance follows Islamic law, a complex system which dictates, in part, that sons get twice as much as daughters.

But if a Minang family does not have a daughter, then the inheritance will go to the niece of the younger or older sister. The whole idea is to ensure financial independence and security of Minang women.

Fascinating ethnic customs

There are other equally intriguing customs. Minang girls who wish to get married, will have to buy their husbands. The purchase price is negotiated with the future groom. Obviously the price will vary depending how highly educated or rich is the potential groom. Not only that, the bride’s family are encouraged to pay for the wedding festivities also. These are especially true in a place called Padang Pariaman in West Sumatra.

The wedding customs are complex and even more intriguing. As in other cultures, the bride’s family visits the groom’s family (‘maresek’) – nothing strange there. The family of the groom visit the bride’s family to seek the blessings of her uncle (father’s brother or ‘mamak‘), The groom’s family present cigarettes and receive betelnuts in return. There is also the practice of picking up the bride to be brought to her father’s home (‘Babako’) and the henna ceremony (‘Bainan night’) for the bride. But then the groom is picked up and brought to the bride’s house on the Bajapuik night for formalizing the marriage contract.

After marriage, the groom seamlessly moves in with the bride at her house. It is common to see sisters and unmarried family members living in the same house or close to one another.

Minang women value their significant status in social and public life, especially during adat ceremonies and festivals. Tari Piring is one of the most famous traditional Minangkabau dances performed by both young men and women together.

Tari Piring dance. Photo credit: Raghu Gururaj

Rumah Gadang House

One of Minang icons is the Rumah Gadang or Rumah Bagonjong (“house for the Minangkabau people”), which is the traditional home of the Minang. It is part of Indonesia’s rich cultural assets with a high historical value and a social identity. The architecture, construction, internal and external decoration, and functions of the house all reflect the culture and values of the people. The Rumah Gadang House style of buildings features a string of buffalo horns, symbolising the victory of its buffalo over its opponents. Major government offices, residences, banks, public buildings and even private houses are built with this unique and fascinating architecture.

Unique ethnic traditions

Some of the region’s unique ethnic traditions and customary events are preserved to this day, like the ceremonies of Batun Mandi, Balimau, Makan Bajamba, Batagak Pangulu and Batagak Kudo-Kudo, Tabuik party, Pacu Jawi, and Pacu Itiak.

Batun Mandi Ceremony is a traditional ceremony to thank for the birth of a child and a way of initiating the baby into the world. This involves a special bathing ceremony, usually done at Batang Aia river and a festive procession.

Kudo-Kudo Batagak is associated with the building of a traditional Minang house. Relatives and friends are invited who usually gift some traditional materials for building the new house. This is interesting because the community expresses its support to the family that is about to build the house.

The Tabuik celebration is a tradition of the Pariaman community which commemorates the death of the grandchildren of the Prophet Muhammad. This is marked by a week-long procession (Tabuik Hoyak), which carries a pair of 10 metre high wooden statues of the grandchildren. The procession wears a very festive look, with tourists also participating.

Photo credit: Raghu Gururaj

The Pace Jawi cow race can be compared with the Kambala buffalo race practiced in South Karnataka. A similar tradition exists in Madura in NorthEast Java, where a buffalo race (karapan sapi) is held annually. But in Pace Jawi, the jockeys bite the tail of the cow to egg it on, instead of using a stick !

I was fortunate to witness the Pacu Itiak (Duck Race). The birds are released at the same time and the fastest to reach finish line is the winner. Usually the distance is about 1000 to 1200 metres to the dash line.

Indian connection

Early Chola Kings ruled over Sriwijaya and Sailendra kingdoms during 7th and 8th century AD.  In the 13th century, Chetti traders from South India arrived in this region. Later in the 18th century, Indian Gujarati and Tamil muslim traders started coming to the region seeking gold, silk and spices in exchange for cotton and textiles. The distinct Indian influence can be seen today is many of the cultural mores and cuisine of West Sumatra.

One specific Indian muslim tradition still being practised in West Sumatra is the Serak Gulu. Each year, after the call for prayer on the day coinciding with 1 Jumadil Akhir 1441 Hijriah, (end January), the ‘Little India’ enclave in Padang is buzzing with activity. Tons of granulated sugar wrapped in colourful small sacks are readied to be thrown by important personalities from the rooftops of buildings, which are gratefully accepted by the people. This tradition is still practised in parts of muslim inhabited regions of Tamilnadu. This tradition is so important to the local leadership to forge communal bonding and harmony with people of Indian descent in West Sumatra, that it has included this festival in their annual calender of cultural events.

Photo credit: Raghu Gururaj

Padang Cuisine

Minangkabau has a proud cuisine tradition, which many consider as the best in the whole of Indonesia. One of the hallmarks of Padang food are their famously savory and spicy taste and flavour. There is a strong Indian influence in their cooking tradition. Chilli, cardamom, ginger, garlic, onion, coriander, curry and coconut milk have become an integral part of Minang cuisine.

The iconic ‘Rendang’ (chicken or beef dish with special curry) is the show piece of Minangkabau cuisine. It was declared the most delicious food in the world by CNN in 2017. Indonesia is considering to file documents to include rendang on the UNESCO’s world cultural heritage list.

It is so much loved that today that ‘Padang’ chain restaurants dot the streets of every city in Indonesia. Dont be surprised to see Padang restaurants in some world capitals of Europe and North America.

Realising the special nature and uniqueness of the Minangkabau culture, there have been calls from the community to rename the province of West Sumatra as the land of Minanakabau.


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