Search Results for Category: Minangkabau

The History of Minangkabau


Maharaja Diraja and his followers landed on top of Mount Merapi (in the district of Tanah Datar) which was still surrounded by water. The face of the earth expanded, the number of inhabitants increased, and finally the early settlements were established in the district of Tanah Datar. And the nagari, the basic Minangkabau political organization, were founded. That was how the history of Alam Minangkabau begins, at least according to the tambo, the Minangkabau traditional historiography.

The earliest archeological evidence, can be found in the district (luhak) Limapuluh Kota, one of the district, besides Agam and Tanah Datar – traditionally regarded as the heartland of the Minangkabau world. Archeological remains, scattered in several hundred sites and dating from 3000 to 2000 BC, consist of menhirs, sometimes decorated with ornaments depicting birds, crocodiles, and buffalo heads. They must have been used as meeting ground were ceremonial gatherings took place.Once the heartland was secured, it ceased to expand, but the Minangkabau people continued their geographical explorations and established new nagari. The new territories, called rantau, grew in accordance with the expansion of the Minangkabau people.

If the heartland was ruled by the pangulu – matrilineal inherited representatives of the people, the rantau territories were ruled by the aristocratic raja. It was most probably also in the rantau that the supranagari political organization was firstly established.

Buddhist stupa, still standing near the confluence of two branches of the Kampar River in the eastern part of Minangkabau ( now lying in Riau Province ), may attest to early Indian influences in the cultural and political sphere. Muara Takus was a Buddhist centre of learning, frequented by many monks from China and India. The area was perhaps also visited by traders since it produced gold and aromatic woods. Similarities in architectural features with Buddhist remains found in Thailand ( Haripunjana or Lampun etc. ) are strong indications that the area in those times was part of a greater world extending over mainland Southeast Asia.

One of the kingdoms in the eastern part of Minangkabau was Dharmasraya which may have flourished in the 11th and 12th centuries. Its remain are found in Rembahan, at the banks of the Batanghari River in the present Kabupaten Sawahlunto Sijunjung.

In the competition with the maritime kingdom of Sriwijaya for the supremacy of sealanes in the Straits of Malaka, King Kartanegara of Singasari (East java) sent a military expedition to Sumatra in 1275, known in history as the Pamalayu.

The name Malayu, according to Prof JG de Casparis, most probably was used to refer to the whole river system of Batanghari, whereas Melayupura, its capital, at time shifted upstream and downstream according to (political? ) Circumstances. Until the 13th century the capital was located at Muara Jambi, but later it was moved westward to the Langsat River to the place of Dharmasraya ( Padang Rocok ) where a statue of Amonghapasa ( a gift of Kartanegara to the Malay King ) was erected in 1286.

Perhaps the capital was moved again at the time of Adityawarman who established his capital at Surawasa ( Suroaso ) near present Pagaruyung. Heirlooms of the kings of Pagaruyung are still preserved today. Nowadays Pagaruyung is a nagari in the neighbourhood of Bukit Gombak and Suroaso, called the region of Tigo Balai, in the regency Tanah Datar, about five kilometers from Batusangkar. The three Balai are Balai Janggo, Kampung Tengah, and Gudam. It is an area which has yielded many inscriptions from the time of Adityawarman (14th century).

As the story goes, Adityawarman was welcomed by Datuk Indomo, the symbolic representative of the Koto Piliang, who gave him a piece of land. Then Adityawarman established a fortified settlement and proclaimed himself as King of Pagaruyung. However, Adityawarman never ruled Minangkabau, which consisted of numerous independent nagger under their respective pangulu . The king was only the symbol of unity of the Minangkabau world. Remains of this kingdom are still found in Pagaruyung and have also found their way to many museums abroad. The statue of Adityawarman which was found in Sijunjung is now housed in the National Museum in Jakarta.

Batu Batikam (Pierced Stone) found in Limo Kaum, Batusangkar, is – according to the tambo – linked with the emergence of two phratries in Minangkabau tradition: Koto Piliang and Bodi Caniago, established by two legendary adat givers, two half brothers with a common mother and a different father. Datuk Ketemanggungan, the son of an aristocratic father, got into a heated dispute with his brother, Datuk Perpatih nan Sabatang, the son of a commoner, over the proper system of governance. In their rage both stabbed the same stone with their keris. The hole is still to ne seen, and so their descendants can reflect on the duality of the Minangkabau unified adat system.

Bodi Caniago and Koto Piliang in Minangkabau philosophy are regarded as two complementary phratries. The adat counsil of Koto Piliang which recognizes the hierarchy of panguluship is characterized by its tiered floors, whereas the balai adat of Bodi Caniago has a level floor which reflects its refusal to recognize any hierarchy in the pangulu system. Both systems, however, are based on mufakat (deliberation and consensus) in every decision of social importance.

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Social Organization


Genealogically speaking, the matrilineal Minangkabau social organization consisted of four levels : The kaum, paruik, payuang, and suku.   Kaum is the smallest genelogical unit who traditionally occupied one rumah gadang ( a big house with horn-shaped roofs ).  In  the old days, although the central figure of the ingerited communal house was the oldest woman, the head of the house was usually a male, the mamak ( uncle) who was sometimes alho called tungganai.

A group of a maximum of four kaum forms a paruik ( womb). A bigger group is called payuang ( umbrella ) , and the biggest one is the suku ( clan ).  The suku was traditionally an exogamous group.  One of the major functions of these genealogical units was to secure the orderly transfer of the sacrosanct inherited land.  Another function, of course, was to take care of the ranji, the genealogical register.  After all, it is the register that should be used to determine one’s right to the pangulu ship.

A man is actually only a guest in his mother’s house.  He may inherit the family adat title, but it is his sisters who would acquire the landed property.  As a member of his adat community he is involved in two types of social networks.  He is a nephew to his uncle ( mamak ) or an uncle to his sister’s children.  But at the same time he is responsible for the father – son network, being a son of his father or a father to his children.  Therefore, it is expected of Minangkabau males to put into practice the traditional proverb : Anak dipangku kemenakan dibimbing, putting one ‘s children on the lap while holding the hands of nephew and nieces.  An individual male then is expected to fulfill both sets of responsibilities.  In a conflict between son and nephew – naturally a very common phenomenon, considerable tact is necessary.  It is like ‘drawing a hair out of flour so that the hair does not break and the flour is not scattered’.

A settlement can be called nagari if it consists of four elements, viz, a balai adat ( adat council hall ), a mosque, and a communal bathing place.  A fortified dusun, is called Koto which eventually might become a nagari.  According to the tradition the simplest settlement is called taratak ( hamlet )  which might grow a dusun ( compound).  The oldest nagari in Minangkabau is, according to the myth, Pariangan Padang Panjang, Tanah Datar.

A nagari was obligarchically ruled by a group of pangulu or heads of matrilineal clans.  The Dutch colonial government appointed one of them as the Chief Pangulu, known by the people as Angku Palo.  After independence, the nagari, became the lowest administrative unit in West Sumatra.  With the application of the Desa Ordinance of 1979 which was uniformally applied over the whole Republic, the lowest administrative unit is called desa.  Since then nagari only indicates an adat community, and the rank of pangulu was reduced to a member of the Adat Consultative Council, Kerapatan Adat Nagari.

According to an old saying, a Minangkabau girl is the butterfly of the communal house ( limpapeh rumah nan gadang ).  It has a dual meaning. Firstly, she is the price of the family, being the symbol of the lineage continuity, and at the same time she is a treasure to be guarded.  Ideally each daughter of dthe house is allotted an individual room whis is placed in a row facing the large living room.  She would share this room with her husband.

Formally adolescent boys are not allowed to sleep in the communal house.  They have to spend the night with their fellow age – group in the surau (the village mosque) where they also can spend the evening studying to recite the Qur’an.  After marriage the young man would become the honoured guest of his wife’s rumah gadang.  Although this sleeping arrangement may no longer be obediently followed, the function of the rumah gadang as the sacred inherited property remains unchanged.  It is adat that “neither cracks in the sun nor rottens in the rain “.

Minangkabau- side by side with Java and Bali – has the reputation of having a highly developed agricultural system, particularly in its water management for irrigation and its rice pounding technology.  In Batu Bapaek (literally, hewed stone), Tanah Datar Regency, one can find of the oldest known irrigation system in Minangkabau.  A hole was hewed in a rock to let the water flow and irrigate the rice fields.

All problems dealing with water management and distribution should be decided at meetings under the chairmanship of the Tuo Bundo (the irrigation head).  With the consent of the meeting, the Tuo Bundo may decide the time to make repairs and to start the planting season.  Both occasions are usually proceeded by a communal festivity called   Alek Kapalo Bundo.  This may also be the time for folk performances.

The most popular pastime after the harvest season is kite flying.  Sometimes a contest is held which is preceded by adat ceremonies.  The game of kite flying in a way has its own educational purposes.  Boys are not expected to buy their kites.  They have to make it with their own hands.

The first lesson is the art of balancing the bamboo frame and the proper use of the thread.  As said by the traditional saying: “Hefting the weight, measuring the length.  Tightness may break, looseness may slacken.  Knowing the wind may turn around, and skilled in unraveling a knot”.  In other words, the whole process of kite-making and kite – flying is by itself an education in leadership.

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Public Leader (Pangulu)


In Minangkabau the relationship between the individual and society is like “bamboo on the step river bank”.  They are two entities that cannot be separated.  This inseparable link is determined by the cycles of authority and obligation in which the object and the ultimate source of autorithy reside in the same locus.  The kemenakan (nephew), symbolizing the individual, must acknowledge the authorithy of his mamak (uncle).  In turn the latter depends on the pengulu who should base his judgement on mufakat (consensus) which is the expression of the society’s wishes and wisdom.

An Individual in this hierarchical order of authority is, therefore, under the full control of his society.  The pepatah adat (adat aphorisms), however, emphasizes that the kemenakan is not only the object but also the ultimate source of authority.  A penghulu may outwardly be the king, but essentially he is the subject of his kemenakan.  His power is not based on his personal charisma but on the legitimacy invested in the panguluship by his kemenakan.  A penghulu “is great because he is made great by his kemenakan”.  His authority is based on sakato alam, the consensus of his small world, his people.

The right and obligation of the individual are determined by the particular level of social organization in which he is involved.  As a member of the family he is expected to stand by this lowest level of social organization.  In inter-clan relationships he must be a champion of his nagari.  The higher the level of the social organization, the fewer his rights and the heavier his responsibility.

But again, the rights and obligations of the individual in this hierarchical social organization should also be seen in the context of the dependency of the higher levels on the lower.  The existence of a nagari which is a small world within the context of the Minangkabau World is dependent on its suku, which in turn is formed by a conglomeration of matrilineal families.  The cycle is completed with the essential obligation of the family towards its members.  With this circular concept of authority and reciprocal world in which all components, though different, are of equal importance.

This concept not only affirms the wisdom of the “harmony of contradictions” but also underlines the prevailing individualism in the Minangkabau social system.  The installation of a pangulu is usually conducted in an open space or in the adat hall (balai adat).  The adat requirement prescribes the slaughtering of one or more buffaloes.  Like in the other adat ceremonies, the occasion of a pangulu installation (batagak pangulu) is also accompanied by an exchange of adat speeches a pangulu by common agreement (sakato alam).

A rare adat occasion, pangulu installation are always accompanied by festivies and communal meals.  After the installation one should always address the new pangulu with his gelar (adat title) as it is forbidden, according to adat, to address him with his name.  As a pangulu, the new datuk has to abide by so many rules of conduct.  In traditional agricultural Minangkabau society he is not allowed, for example, to climb a tree, to carry a load on his head, and to move in haste.  He is always expected to walk like a gentleman, step by step, in a regular rhythm.

The costume of a pangulu has a symbolic meaning showing his leading position in the adat community.  Deta (headdress), made of a long piece of un sewn cloth and fashioned in pleats, symbolizes his wide views and deep understanding about various problems.  Baju (blouse), collarless and without buttons, represents the pangulu’s function as a protector of his children, nephews and nieces, with an open mind, wise and prestigious, tolerant, and a leader of many followers.

Sarawa (trousers) with a wide waist demonstrates the pangulu’s freedom of movement according to the proper way of the adat, fairness in his treatment of his children, his nephews and nieces, and showing his greatheartedness.  Si Sampiang, a cloth embroidered with gold threads to cover the waist, symbolizes the richness of the pangulu’s soul.  He is expected to expedite all kinds of good works.

Ikat Pinggang, a cloth with a length of five cubits and a width of one cubit decorated with golden threads and fastened around the waist with one corner left dangling.  This is the symbol of the pangulu’s ability to lead and unite his children, his nephews, and nieces.   Sandang,a small quadrangular piece of cloth which is worn over the shoulders.  At its end a key and other tools are hanging on a chain, showing that the pangulu is fully equipped to carry out the adat.

Karih (a dagger) with a corrugated blade symbolizes the pangulu as a leader skilled in strategy and tactics.   Tungkek – (a walking stick) made of hard wood. Its end is made of horn and the handle is made of silver, indicating the pangulu as somebody who is regarded as an ‘older’ man.  Terompa (sandals) made of cow skin. Its peculiar form and function as a base on which he stands symbolizes the clear base of his actions.

Although generally adhering to the same pattern, the pangulu’s dresses show local variations, especially in the way headdresses are pleated.  They also wear a special dress for certain civil ceremonies.

Filed under : Minangkabau