Sumatra is the sixth largest island in the world and since the time of Marco Polo has been referred to as the ‘island of gold’. It is the most resource-rich island of Indonesia, including its tea, pepper and rubber plantations, and oil, tin and other mineral resources. Lying on the equator, Sumatra has a monsoonal climate and although more rain falls between October and May, there is no extended rainless dry season. Despite large-scale deforestation, Sumatra still has millions of acres of unexploited rainforests which provide building materials. The great hardwood trees required for large scale construction are now, however, in strictly limited supply.
Sumatra is home to one of the most diverse range of peoples in the South East Asian archipelago and this diversity is reflected in a range variety of often dramatic traditional homes known as rumah adat. The most common housing forms have traditionally been wooden and raised on piles, built of locally gathered materials, with steeply pitched, roofs. In addition to the Minangkabau’s rumah gadang, the Batak of Lake Toba region build the boat-shaped jabu with dominating carved gables and dramatic oversized roofs, and the people of Nias build the fortified omo sebua houses on massive ironwood pillars with towering roof structures.
The Minangkabau are indigenous to the highlands of central Sumatra. Their culture is matrilineal, with property and land being passed down from mother to daughter, while religious and political affairs are the province of men. The Minangkabau are strongly Islamic, but also follow their own ethnic traditions, or adat. Minangkabau adat was derived from animistic and Hindu beliefs before the arrival of Islam, and remnants of animistic beliefs still exist even among some practicing Muslims. As such, women are customarily the property owners; husbands are only tolerated in the house at certain times and under special conditions, and must return to their sisters’ house to sleep. Complementing this practice is the custom of merantau whereby many of the men will travel far afield for work, returning only periodically to their village of origin. Money earned on these trips is remitted for the building of contemporary rumah adat.