In the depths of Sumatra, I met a charming community known as the Minangkabau and was captivated by their culture and traditions – as well as their houses!
The Minangkabau ethnic group is indigenous to the Minangkabau Highlands of West Sumatra in Indonesia. Their culture is matrilineal and patriarchal, with property and land passing down from mother to daughter, while religious and political affairs are the responsibility of men. Today 4 million Minangs live in West Sumatra, while about 3 million more are scattered throughout many cities across Indonesia. The Minangkabau are famous for their dedication to education, as well the widespread diaspora of their men throughout southeast Asia, the result being that Minangs have been disproportionately successful in gaining positions of economic and political power throughout the region. The co-founder of the modern-day Indonesia, Mr Hatta, was a Minang, as were the first modern heads of state of both Malaysia and Singapore.
The Minangkabau are strongly Islamic, but also follow their ethnic traditions, known as “adat”. The Minangkabau adat was derived from animist and Hindu-Buddhist beliefs before the arrival of Islam, and remnants of animist beliefs still exist even among some practicing Muslims. The present relationship between Islam and adat is described in the saying “adat founded upon Islamic law; Islamic law founded upon the Qur’an”. I wasn’t aware that the Minangkabau were Islamic, not that Sharia Law was in force here. I guess from a westerner like me, I was a little saddened to see Sharia Law, but who was I to argue?!
Because Minangkabau men, like Acehnese men, often migrate to seek experience, wealth, and commercial success, the women’s kin group is responsible for maintaining the continuity of the family and the distribution and cultivation of the land. These family groups, however, are typically led by a penghulu (headman), elected by groups of lineage leaders. I found the chain of command in the Minangkabau community a little confusing at times, but it all makes sense now, and in fact I quite respect this local society – they have their heads screwed on! For example, as early as the age of 7, boys traditionally leave their homes and live in a surau (a prayer house and community centre) to learn religious and cultural (adat) teachings. When they are teenagers, they are encouraged to leave their hometown to learn from schools or from experiences out of their hometown so that when they are adults they can return home wise. I think this is a great way of bringing up the children, as the teenagers here can do something positive to enhance their education and future lifestyle.
Of course, one of the main reasons I wanted to visit this area of Sumatra was to see the awesome Minangkabau houses, which are called Rumah Gadang. I had seen amazing architecture elsewhere in Indonesia, such as the Batak houses in North Sumatra, and the Tongkonan houses – home to the reclusive Toraja People – in Sulawesi. However, the architecture of the Minangkabau communities were just so striking and visually appealing that I always to walk around the corner and see another structure in the distance. The Royal Palace here, as well as other government buildings are all built in the same style, although it was the traditional homes of the regular people that I wanted to learn about most.
Rumah gadang literally means “big house” in the local language. The architecture, construction, internal and external decoration, and the functions of the house reflect the culture and values of the Minangkabau. A rumah gadang serves as a residence, a hall for family meetings, and for ceremonial activities. In the matrilineal Minangkabau society, the rumah gadang is owned by the women of the family who live there; ownership is passed from mother to daughter. Much like the Tongkonan in Tana Toraja, the houses here have dramatic curved roof structure with multi-tiered, upswept gables. Shuttered windows are built into walls incised with profuse painted floral carvings. The term rumah gadang usually refers to the larger communal homes, however, smaller single residences share many of its architectural elements. Today, rumah gadang architectural elements, especially its horn-like curved roof can be found in modern structures, such as governor and regencies office buildings, marketplaces, hotels, façades of Padang restaurants and Minangkabau International Airport. This Minangkabau architectural style has simply became an image of the whole area of Sumatra, and it is very valuable for tourism – as it obviously brought me all the way out here!