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.