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Volume 42, Number 4July/August 1991

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On Culture's Loom

Written by Anne Summerfield and John Summerfield
Additional photographs by Joseph Brignolo and Anne Summerfield

The village was vibrant with an expectant air of victory. Under the watchful eye of the clan chieftain, two men were testing the keen edges of knives they had just sharpened on a nearby stone. Down at the stream, JL three boys were scrubbing a young - and very hungry - nursing baby water buffalo that had been deliberately kept from its mother for three days. On this day of legend in the mid-14th century, a buffalo fight would settle the question of who should rule the central highlands of the Indonesian island of Sumatra: local residents or invading armies from Java.

When the invaders had first appeared a few days earlier, the village leader proposed to the Javanese a way to save the lives of brave young warriors on both sides. He suggested that the opponents agree to abide by the outcome of a water-buffalo fight: If the local buffalo won, the Javanese would withdraw; if the invaders' buffalo won, the Javanese would become rulers of the rich central Sumatran region.

As the hour of battle approached, the invaders brought their combatant, a huge male buffalo, to the arena at the edge of the village. Then the defenders appeared. They had firmly tied the newly sharpened knives, pointed upward, on each side of their hungry baby buffalo's head. The invaders, overlooking the significance of the knives, greeted the puny adversary with hysterical laughter. But the laughter was soon stilled. When the young buffalo sighted the adult, he rushed forward, expecting food at long last. As he raised his head to nurse, the stiletto-sharp knives pierced the belly of the giant buffalo, killing it.

Since that fateful day, this group of Sumatrans has been called the Minang (winning) kabau (water buffalo) people. According to the legend, one horn of the losing buffalo was entrusted to the custody of the village of Minangkabau, where it and the knife-sharpening stone are still proudly displayed by the current pangulu, or village chieftain.

Who are these inventive Minangkabau people? From where did they come? Since they had no written language before the 16th century, the Minangkabau's record of their own history is oral, and their origins are shrouded in mystery embellished with speculation. One legendary account begins with three sons of Alexander the Great sailing east to the Land of the Sunrise. Along the way the three parted company and one, Maharaja Diraja, landed on the peak of Sumatra's Mount Merapi, then surrounded by water. When the water receded, he and his entourage descended the mountain and established the first village in what is now known as Pariangan, in west Sumatra.

Over the years villagers often gathered in groups to listen to wandering troubadors regale them with interpretations of the oft-repeated, age-old tales of the Minangkabau's origins and history. Given the freedom that a purely oral tradition allows, as tales are passed from generation to generation, these origin stories are probably a mixture of myth and reality. Tracing the Minangkabau's origins back to Alexander the Great, in the fourth century BC, can hardly be documented - yet the strongly democratic system of the Minangkabau in some respects closely resembles that of ancient Greece.

With the acceptance of Islam in the 16th century, a written language emerged. But written Arabic alone could not provide all the characters required to set the sounds of the Minangkabau language on paper, and characters from the Persian alphabet were added. This mixed alphabet was used to transcribe the Minang-kabau's oral tradition into their first written history, called Tambo (from the Sanskrit word for origins).

According to the Tambo, a power struggle once arose between two half-brothers who were clan leaders, Datuk Ketemanggungan, an elitist, and Datuk Perpatih, an egalitarian. The two decided to resolve their differences by a test of strength. Datuk Perpatih took the kris, or dagger, from his belt and drove it halfway into a nearby stone to prove his might. Whereupon Datuk Ketemanggungan picked up a wooden stick and thrust it completely through the stone, proving his superior strength and claiming victory. A truce ensued and it was agreed that followers of each could adopt the system of administration advocated by their leader.

To this day the stabbed stone is enshrined in the village of Lima Kaum, where it stands as testimony to the truce that accepted two organizing concepts as equals: Ketemanggungan's Koto-Piliang group recognized a hierarchy of clan leaders and Perpatih's Bodi-Caniago group recognized equality among all clan leaders. Ceremonial houses and meeting houses (balai) of the former group have an elevated floor at each end of the house, where higher-ranking clan leaders sit during meetings. Bodi-Caniago houses are all on one level. Both social structures have endured.

A somewhat different origin and history emerges from recently discovered archeological evidence. It is now believed that ancestors of the Minangkabau migrated south from Indochina several thousand years ago, traveling by boat up the Straits of Malacca that separate Sumatra from present-day Malaysia. From the Straits, they proceeded west and north up central Sumatran rivers, finally settling in the rich fertile valleys of the central Sumatran highlands at the base of the volcanic Mount Merapi.

These immigrants apparently were already skilled carvers and weavers. Even today Minangkabau textile motifs bear a strong resemblance to tfiose of the T'ai people of Laos. In addition, however, motifs seen on old carved stone menhirs and in 19th-century weavings may reflect an earlier exposure to the bronze-age Dongson culture of mainland Southeast Asia. The impact of this Indochinese culture was felt throughout the entire region of today's Indonesia. Bronze Dongson frog drums have been unearthed at many sites along the 17,000-island Indonesian archipelago.

Local deposits of gold provided an early trading commodity for the Minangkabau. Traveling down-river to the east coast of Sumatra to exchange their gold for goods and other forms of wealth, they encountered Arab, Persian and Indian traders en route through the Straits of Malacca to China, and Chinese traders on the opposite path heading west. Accordingly, the Minangkabau, shortly after the time of Christ, were probably already in contact with the rich fabric traditions of China, India and the Middle East.

As Minangkabau society prospered and expanded, its beliefs and rules of acceptable social conduct became refined and codified into a system known as adat, or customary law, an important element in the codes of conduct of most Indonesian ethnic groups. But for the Minangkabau, adat is more than traditional law; it encompasses the whole structural system of their society. At every ceremony - birth, circumcision, marriage, thanksgiving, investiture of a leader or funeral - adat prescribes the ceremonial garments participants are to wear, seating arrangements for the ceremony, items of food to be served and orations to be delivered. Sumptuous ceremonial textiles richly embellished with gold and silver bring an air of majesty to these many important events in the lives of the Minangkabau.

The Minangkabau are now devoutly Muslim. Yet a keystone of their enduring adat is a matrilineal system in which ancestral property, such as rice paddies or traditional houses, is owned by the women and inherited by the eldest daughter. Men undertake the most physically demanding work and are responsible for maintaining and interpreting the adat. The Minangkabau have managed through the years to strike an acceptable balance between the teachings of Islam and their inherited traditional rules. What the visitor finds in the Minangkabau highlands today is a society grounded in the joint tenancy of religious belief and customary law.

The arts of Minangkabau society are lively, rich and steeped in tradition. Great skill and artistry are evident in carving, architecture, gold- and silversmithing, dance, drama, music, oral traditions, literature and, not least, weaving. Walls of the majestic traditional houses (rumah gadang) with their pinnacled, upswept roof lines reminiscent of buffalo horns are elaborately carved and painted with adat sayings or with motifs that recall adat-related aspects of nature.

Exquisite jewelry of gold or silver filigree and granulation, part of the traditional ceremonial costume, resembles traditional Islamic jewelry of the Middle Ages. Techniques for making this precious jewelry were introduced by Ottoman metalsmiths who came to Sumatra in the 15th century or earlier. Minangkabau dances range from simple, unchoreographed general-participation dances to extremely" complex and difficult ancient dances of great power. A dance of particular interest is the pencak silat, a round dance accompanied by song and through which the dancers practice the physical skills that constitute Minangkabau martial arts.

Perhaps the most widespread of the arts in the 19th century was weaving. Women in most villages were weavers, but not of everyday garments. Everyday clothing was usually made of cloth traded from India or imported from other areas. It was the creation of splendid, elaborate ceremonial textiles that occupied the fabled looms and taxed the skills of Minangkabau women. The splendor of these textiles produces a stunning visual impact in the long, colorful processions associated with important ceremonies.

To a casual observer, what is striking about these ceremonial garments is their sheer splendor. They are rich with gold and silver threads, colorful silks and sophisticated, intricate motifs, expertly woven. But to the initiated, the magnificent weavings also symbolize aspects of the adat that still largely govern the social behavior of the highland Minangkabau. Motifs woven into men's and women's ceremonial garments, and even the structure of the garments themselves, point wearer and observer alike to the proverbs and prescripts of adat and to the social status of the wearer. The pangulu, or clan leader, may be quickly identified by his hat, his silver-headed walking stick and the silk fabric, often either Indian patola or Javanese batik, tucked around his neck or draped over his shoulder.

Married women are easily distinguished from unmarried women. Certain shoulder cloths may be worn only by married women. Some sarongs may be worn only by women who have three or more children. A particular sarong, the lambak empat, worn by unmarried young women of the district of Limo Puluh Koto, is bordered on the bottom with four woven metallic bands. Each band stands for a behavioral skill the ideal young woman should possess: frugality, serenity, managerial ability, wisdom. Women's ceremonial garments often depict their role in society. Family relationships are spelled out in the choice of ceremonial costume. In a Payakumbuh village wedding procession, an onlooker can easily distinguish women of the bride's family from women of the groom's family by noting which of two sarongs each participant is wearing. Family wealth may be evident from the amount and quality of gold a woman is wearing.

Perhaps the most spectacular part of her ceremonial costume, a woman's headdress is often folded to represent the horns of the water buffalo for which the society is named. Because women own the houses, it seems appropriate that their headdresses should imitate the upswept lines of the house roofs. These headdresses that today identify the wearer as coming from the Minangkabau province of west Sumatra often go beyond that to pinpoint her specific village.

Reference to adat is not limited to the folds or structure of a ceremonial garment. The Minangkabau say, "Nature is our teacher," and instructional motifs woven into their ceremonial textiles frequently refer to animals or plants that are mentioned in age-old sayings or proverbs. The motif called katupek refers to a fist-sized rice container made of interwoven strips of coconut-palm fronds. Uncooked rice is packed into the container, which is then boiled until the individual grains blend into a soft, homogeneous mass. The frond container is peeled away as the cooked rice is eaten. Katupek is used especially as a ceremonial food during the lebaran festival ('Id al-Fitr) that marks the end of the Muslim fasting month, bulan puaso (Ramadan).

According to Indonesian lore, however, each constituent of katupek also has symbolic significance. The rice stands for material goods, the container stands for the light of faith. In Indonesia the coconut frond from which the container is made is called janur. Nur, a word of Arabic origin, means light. The katupek, then, is considered to be a symbol for one whose faith is strong enough to provide for all material needs. As a katupek is boiled, the frond container becomes stronger, just as a person's faith becomes stronger and more durable as it faces and overcomes obstacles.

In textiles woven more than a century ago in the Minangkabau village of Koto Gadang, the katupek is represented as a large diamond that contains an X made up of two crossed bands decorated with S's. Additional small circular motifs also contained in the diamond are symbols for ceremonial rice.

Pacuak rabuang is the bamboo shoot, represented in weavings as an isosceles triangle. Bamboo has important connotations for the Minangkabau. They say that man should be like the bamboo: When it is young, it serves as a nourishing food. It is useful. When bamboo grows taller, it becomes tough and can no longer be eaten, but is helpful, serving many uses such as in scaffolding, containers, and musical instruments. Just so, when a man is young and strong and works hard, he is useful. When he becomes older, he is not as strong but is in a position to be helpful.

The bamboo motif also stands for the leaders of the community. Each of the three corners of the triangle represents one of the three leaders; the adat leader or pangulu, the religious leader or mufti, and the cerdik pandai, the intellectual or scholar. A row of "bamboo" triangles forming a decorative band across a textile is called the paga nagari, or village fence, representing the leaders who protect the spiritual and intellectual life of the inhabitants.

Itiak pulang patang is a weaving motif whose name translates literally to "ducks go home in the afternoon." The meaning is derived from the actual behavior of ducks that have spent the day swimming in the rice paddies, eating insects and fertilizing the growing rice: They waddle home in a straight line and seldom stray from it, just as a good Minangkabau seldom strays from tradition. Ducks in the rice paddies are also cited as a metaphor for another aspect of Minangkabau social behavior. Baby ducks will swim away from their mothers to explore their surroundings, but they don't swim far away and are sure to return. This activity is a model for the young Minangkabau male, who is expected to leave his motherland to explore the outside world, where he will gain knowledge and, one hopes, fortune. He is expected to bring those gains back to his motherland and reenter her society.

Saik kalamai is a piece of special ceremonial cake made of glutinous rice, coconut milk, and palm sugar. The motif that represents it in weaving is an individual diamond. This cake is also called wajik, a word derived from the Arabic wajib meaning obligatory, since the host is obliged to serve the cake at ceremonies. Many motifs found in Minangkabau ceremonial textiles represent such ceremonial objects. For example, individual rhomboid figures filled with four S motifs are said to represent kipang, a ceremonial cake made of peanuts. Four rhomboid figures arranged in a certain way to enclose a small space are called sajamba, a single plate from which four persons eat ceremonial food.

In the textiles embellished with these and other motifs, the Minangkabau have captured the brilliance of their tropical homeland, a region filled with blossoms of red and yellow ginger, cannas and purple and orange bougainvillea, among a myriad others. Their countryside provides great visual sweeps of fertile rice paddies that lead the eye to distant volcanic peaks. The Minangkabau have translated the majesty and sweep of these vistas to the roofs of their traditional houses, to women's headdresses, and to splendid processions that frame their major ceremonies. But perhaps a more profound majesty lies in the integrity of these people who, during their long history, have experienced colonization, occupation, industrialization and other inroads of modern civilization without diluting the essence of their culture.

Drs. John and Anne Summerfield were curators of the first American exhibition devoted to Minangkabau textiles, at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., and are co-curators of an expanded exhibit of Minangkabau ceremonial objects to open in September at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

This article appeared on pages 20-28 of the July/August 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1991 images.