A peek into Minangkabau culture

Where the men rule but women call the shots!
There can’t be a more contradictory sentence than the one above but it strikes true everytime in West Sumatra.

It was late afternoon but still bright when I stepped out of Padang Airport in West Sumatra (Sumatra Barat). A designated guide received me and we started walking toward the parking lot. By force of habit I always look back to see how things looked like. I did so this time too and I stopped!

Padang, Minangkabau culture
Padang Airport based on Minangkabau architecture

In front was the beautiful building of the airport with its unique architecture. It looks somewhat like Thai or Buddhist architecture but not quite. I also got flash that I had seen such architecture before, but at that moment it just eluded me.

The curving roof like a ‘U’ and the two sharp ends grabbed my attention. I would later know that this was a typical design for large houses and government buildings in this area.

Minangkabau Palace, Rumah Gadang
Pagar Ruyung Palace or locally Istano Basa Pagaruyuang . A palace fit for Minangkabau chief built using traditional techniques and materials

To understand this shape, let me tell you a story! Once there was a territorial dispute between two tribes. The two tribes decided that instead of waging a war and killing people they will let two buffalos fight and the owner of the winning bull would have the territorial right to that piece of land. One of the tribes sharpened the horns of a calf to a point (another version is, the king tied two sharp knives to its horns) and kept it hungry for several days.

On the day of the big fight, they let the calf go towards the opponent’s huge buffalo. The other tribe’s people were smirking at the folly of sending a calf to this fight. The big buffalo seeing a calf coming towards it, saw no danger at all. The calf, looking for the udder to drink milk, pierced the buffalo from under at many places and killed it.
Thus MinangKabau tribe was born. Minang – meaning victorious and Kabau meaning buffalo. The two points on the roofs look like a buffalo’s horns. Of course it is also said this design keeps the rain water away by draining it efficiently and offering lesser resistance to typhoons.

Minangkabau family
A Minangkabau family pose for me

My Guide, Mr Buddhiman, fondly called Mr. Buddy, says there are about 4 to 5 million Minangkabau people in the Western Sumatra. Although the people have been devout Muslims for many centuries, they still follow a lot of pre-islamic traditions to this day, like the practice of matrilineal form of society and they are quite proud of this tradition.

Minangkabau wedding
A Minangkabau couple in their rich wedding fineries.

 

peek Minangkabau culture
Parents of the bridegroom taking dowry to their daughter-in-laws house, in a procession, as is the practice in their Matrilineal society.
Minangkabau wedding
Dowry procession preceded by a band

Traditionally the daughter inherits the power of wealth and the males, the administrative power and provide physical security to their families. The leader would still be a male but the entire wealth and say in the household would be that of the LOH. If the women of the clan decide they could even overthrow the leader of the clan. If the son marries, he goes and lives with his wife’s family.

Men are not allowed to own properties in their names. I saw 3 or 4 rooms to one side. Mr Buddy said these were for the married daughters, who are allotted privacy of separate rooms in the Rumah Gadang (Large Minangkabau house). In the villages, it is still prevalent to see large joint families living together under one roof.

Minangkabau Palace rooms
Room within a room within a room within…..

In fact, the male children went to a religious school at a very early age and often returning only as adults. There has been a push, now, towards education for girls too. A class of small school children learning their own culture in a Minangkabau museum, greeted me and wanted to know allbout India!

Padang, Adityawarman Minangkabau Museum
A group of School Children learn about their history and tradition at the Adityawarman Museum

The houses are very colourful with carved & painted wooden motifs, high ceilings, big windows and vents to keep the inside airy and cool. In olden times, these houses were made only of wood, held together by wooden nails. The intricate wooden design and paintings tell their own story.

Minangkabau art
Intricate wood carved panels are common in a Minangkabau house

 

Minangkabau Rice Barn
Mark of wealth! Number and size of rice barns such as above.

The wealth of a family could be discerned by the largeness of the house, number of floors & rice barns in front of the house and of course the number of daughters since brides are offered large dowries by the groom’s family.

Mr Buddy, making a sad face said, “I am really a poor man you know. I have two sons and only one daughter”.

Minangkabau girl
A young girl, adorned in Minangkabau richness
Minangkabau Jewellery
Golden Bracelet. Looks too heavy for me.

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41 thoughts on “A peek into Minangkabau culture

  1. Aww I love those house!

    what’s that? room within room within room?
    Are they separated by wall or curtains?

  2. It looks really nice & interesting Minangkabau’s culture. Peoples & their dress are too intresting to know more Minangkabau’s culture.

  3. Hi Nisha,

    That rice barn is one of the funkiest buildings I’ve seen. So vertical. And neat symbol of wealth. Indonesia fascinates me. Big difference between this area and say, Bali. From culture to buildings to the land to customs, all seems to be a strong contrast to the Island of the Gods. Of course it’s quite a distance from the famous island too. Great title to this post 😉

    Ryan

    1. Absolutely ! The rice barn is very interesting in every which way. The size, shape, details of designs … all fascinate me.

      I find whole of Indonesia very rich in culture, from west to east and so different !!

    1. Thanks. The people are definitely very warm and nice. Of course , the so called technological progress is slowly eroding the old world values.

  4. WOW for the architecture! The matrilineal society resembles that of the Khasis of Meghalaya. unfortunately the condition and social rights of women are still poor there.

    1. Jennifer, I agree, Sumatra is generally not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Indonesia. However if you have the time or it is a second visit then you may consider visiting Sumatra.

  5. Wooww… a what great story, so rich in traditions and beauty.
    It’s incredible how many different cultures and costumes we can find in Indonesia, each island has their way to organize society and keep the traditions alive. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Happy Travel,

    Nat

  6. Wow what an interesting culture! And the architecture is really fascinating too. I just came back from Indonesia and was also fascinated by another tribe this time in Lombok. Getting to know a place’s culture and history is definitely one awesome perk of traveling!

    1. Thanks Darlene. We have just been to a few places in Indonesia and am already bowled over. Hope we will be able to visit more.

  7. Thanks for the introduction to Minangkabau culture – I would love the visit Western Sumatra to experience this first hand. We’re hoping to travel next year actually, so can’t wait!

  8. Love the colors and design on the wood carved panels! The “U” shaped roofs are really neat, too–very inserting story about how they are said to have come about. Looks like a fantastic spot to visit!

    1. Thanks Jenna. Once you are doe with Bali and Java , then this is the place to be. However if historic culture is your thing then This is the first place to be in Indonesia.

  9. Minangkabau architecture is so beautiful, the colours, the shapes, the care taken into each detail is just breath-taking. Very interesting to hear how other cultures run their households too, how women in the family inherit the wealth of the family? Totally on board for this girl! 😉

  10. There costumes are so colorful and ornate! I love them! Interesting how the women inherit the wealth! Totally game for that 🙂

    1. Absolutely Anna. Ha Ha Ha… you must take the plunge first. For me , I would love to attend the elaborate wedding ceremony spread over days

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