A matrilineal, Islamic society in Sumatra

Life is changing for the Minangkabau people of Sumatra, Indonesia, reports Caitlin Fitzsimmons


The emerald terraces of the rice paddies stretch to the edge of the valley, bordered by sheer cliffs and a fringe of dark green forest. A makeshift tent is perched at the edge of the fields, almost swallowed by the dramatic landscape.

Inside, Yuna kneels on the scattered straw next to the day’s rice harvest, her lithe body wrapped in a patterned dress and a simple white shawl covering her grey hair. Her tanned face cracks as she smiles and points to her land.

Yuna and her granddaughter

Yuna’s husband

“The small field belongs to me and the next one is from the other people but in friendship we are working together,” the grandmother explains. “I was born here and lived here from when I was a child to now – I am already 63 years old and I never go away.”

Yuna inherited her land in the Harau valley of western Sumatra from her mother and her grandmother before her, as is traditional for her people. This part of Indonesia is home to the Minangkabau people, believed to be the largest matrilineal tribe in the world and one that is almost universally Islamic.

This might seem an unlikely combination but for the Minangkabau there is no conflict. Hendri Chaniago, our guide from Bukittinggi, explains that the Minangkabau traditions predate Islam. “Religion is a different thing to custom and most of the time people try to follow the custom,” he says.

Today, almost every Minangkabau identifies as Muslim but Islam is a relative newcomer to this region, arriving in the Middle Ages and replacing earlier Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. The Minangkabau interpretation of Islam is highly respectful of women, amplifying rather than contradicting religious teaching. Where the Koran states that women cannot be forced to marry, the Minangkabau believe a woman should choose who to marry. While Islam says mothers deserve respect, the Minangkabau believe the mother is the most important person in the world.

Under tribal law, clan property including land and housing is held by the women and passed down from mother to daughter, though both men and women can own non-clan property. The traditional houses are distinctive for their soaring rooves with points to resemble the horns of the water buffalo, indicating the number of sleeping rooms in the house.


Living in a traditional Minangkabau house brings strict rules governing the interaction between the sexes. Each woman gets a sleeping room of her own on marriage, while boys must leave their mother’s house at the age of 10 to sleep in the men’s house and receive instruction in useful skills such as self defence and dance. When a man marries he may sleep with his wife but he must leave early in the morning and eat breakfast at his mother’s house.

IMG_0347.JPGWhile Minangkabau society is matrilineal, it is not matriarchal as the chief of a clan is always a man. The women of the clan choose which of their uncles will be the chief and they can sack him if he does not do a good job. The chiefs form groups and elect a big chief and in the old days before the Dutch there was a king, living in the Pagaruyung Palace near Batu Sangkar. This is currently a bare patch of earth, after the palace burnt down after being struck by lightening in February 2007 but there are plans to rebuild. The destroyed palace dated from 1806 and was itself a reconstruction after fire destroyed the original building.

There are now over four million Minangkabau people in central and western Sumatra, including the rural folk who follow the old traditions most closely and also the urban populations in centres such as Padang and Bukittinggi. The Minangkabau have a deep-rooted tradition of ‘Merantau’ – travelling to seek one’s fortune – that means the tribe is now spread throughout the entire Indonesian archipelago.

Most will eventually return home to this land of lush valleys and steep forested hills, home to diverse wildlife, including the elusive Sumatran tiger. The mountains surround huge lakes swathed in mist, while great waterfalls pour off sharp rock faces, nourishing the rice paddies below below. Water buffalo are everywhere and play a vital role in agrarian life as the great horned beasts are used to plough the fields.


The beasts also feature prominently in the Minangkabau mythology. Legend has it the Minangkabau fought a war against an enemy prince and the two sides agreed to fight with water buffalo instead of people. IMG_0385.JPGThe opposing army chose a big strong bull, while the Minangkabau chose a tiny calf but  fastened a dagger to its head so when the calf tried to suckle the bull, it slit him open. ‘Minang’ means victorious, while ‘Kabau’ means ‘water buffalo’.

The Minangkabau have been expert silver workers since the days of Dutch colonisation and also practise fine embroidery, highly prized for its intricate detail and sold as far afield as Malaysia. Most famous is the spicy Padang food – delicious but powerful curries such as the famous meaty Rendang, or stewed greens, chilli eggplant, curried fish, fried chicken and sambals. At a Padang restaurant, IMG_0334.JPGalmost as soon as you are seated, the staff place rice and a selection of small dishes on the table, which you would traditionally eat with your fingers.

Yet life is changing for the Minangkabau. The land is much more developed than a quarter century ago – now the province boasts excellent roads and wide coverage of mobile phone and internet communications. Development has also brought problems such as illegal logging, though the deforestation in this part of Sumatra is mild compared with the northern part of the island where the orangutans live.

IMG_0308.JPGSocially, the old structures are starting to erode. Merantau is no longer just something the young men do for a few years before returning to start a family but is now a deepheld ambition for many young people, both boys and girls. Instead of going to a nearby village or town, they are travelling to cities like Padang and even elsewhere in Indonesia – and they are not necessarily returning.

Our guide, Chaniago, comes from a Merantau family. His parents travelled to Java and Chaniago and his siblings grew up in Jakarta. While he moved back to Sumatra when he finished school and now lives in the town of Bukittinggi near his mother and sisters, his brothers and sisters are spread all over Indonesia. In every village, people spoke of their brothers and cousins and uncles who have gone away and only return once a year.

As Yuna explains, this has made life much more difficult for those left behind. “Life a long time ago was quite easy but in the last 25 years so many young people have gone Merantau and made a success outside but the back home the chief of the clan and the family have nothing and they have to mortgage the land,” she says. “If their niece or nephew never returns to help pay off the debt then the land gets narrower and narrower and they are forced to ask the bigger clans for help.”

IMG_0396.JPGMeanwhile, the traditional houses are falling into disrepair as families move into modern houses built next door. This trend, seen in almost every village, stems partly from the high cost of maintaining the old houses and partly from the growing desire for the greater freedom of a modern lifestyle.

In the village of Balimbing, the elderly Dari Alis explains that the four families of her clan had lived in the traditional house until two years ago but the building was in such a bad state, it was no longer possible. Alis prefers the traditional lifestyle but accepts the reasons for change, while her daughter Erna Wita, 41, is sanguine, saying it’s “sama sama” – the same either way. The younger generation, Putri and Zahara, both 14, say they like living in the modern houses best – and both are keen to make Merantau for study or work when they are older.

“For building a smaller house outside the traditional house the cost is much lower and the family can live together with their sons and husbands and feel more free,” Alis explains. “I would prefer to stay in the traditional house but it’s getting older and older and everybody says it’s impossible.”

Many villages and towns still retain traditional meeting houses, which also have the soaring, pointed rooves and are often highly decorated with red patterns on the external walls. But without intervention, it’s likely the region’s distinctive architecture would eventually disappear. In a bid to prevent this, the authorities have mandated that public buildings must have Minangkabau rooves – so the sweeping horns are now common on banks and petrol stations.


Traditional meeting houses

Petrol station

Hotel in Bukittinggi

Interpretations of Islam are also encroaching from the outside world, although this area of Sumatra does not have the problems of Jihad found in some other parts of the island and the wider region. Many younger women are abandoning the traditional Minangkabau dress with a simple head shawl – some in favour of Malaysian-style head scarves, others for the bare head of secular society. The older generation attends mosque services every Friday night, and also practises tolerance and lives in peace with people of all religions.



Despite the deep roots of Islam in Minangkabau society, these people wear their  religion lightly. Chaniago describes how every few months he joins hundreds of other Minangkabau and their dogs to hunt wild pigs. After the hunt they hold a big party and barbeque the pigs. Chaniago says outsiders sometimes question why they eat pork when they are Muslim, to which the Minangkabau reply, “no problem, we sit under a tree and God cannot see us.”

Travel fact box

Flights: Budget airlines fly to Padang, Tiger Airways from Singapore and Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. Return for $US60-80.

Raun Sumatra Tours & Travel (tour agency in Bukittinggi)
Web: www.raunsumatra.com
Email: info@raunsumatra.com or raunsumatra@yahoo.com
Tel: +62 752 21133

Novotel, Bukittinggi
Email: novotelbkt@padang-wasantara.net.id
Tel: +62 752  35000

Selamat (Padang restaurant)
Address: JI A, Yani 19, Bukittinggi

Minangkabau dance shows
Nightly at 8.30pm, in hall on Jalan Moh Yamin, Bukittinggi

Echo Home-Stay Cafe (lodge in the Harau Valley)
Tel: +62 752 7750306

This article was published in Anyway magazine in winter 2007/2008 and the travel box listings were up to date at that time. The original article had photographs by Peter Garmusch but the photos used on this site are by Caitlin Fitzsimmons, who also wrote the text.

Copyright to words and images is owned by Caitlin Fitzsimmons. All rights reserved.

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  1. Those beautiful swoopy rooflines make me SWOON. Just SWOON.

  2. Great post, very informative and the photos are great. Having so many really brightens up the text and makes you feel as though you are there.

  3. Fascinating example of how things change all over the world, not only in Sumatra. Though one would wish that that ‘mellow’ Islam would survive as well as the matrilinial custom. Of course, I am not a Sumatra youth that has to live with stricter rules that come with that tradition. Time and custom changes, and maybe in some respect that is not bad, though I think we all loose a little of our identity with it. Great reading!
    .-= Fida´s last blog ..Dec 31, Sleeping in a doghouse =-.

  4. Most of the Minangkabau prefer to think and tend to say that there’s no conflict exist between tradition and Islam. But actually that’s absolutely untrue. In the early of the 19th century, there’s war -a big one- between the Adat groups (who held tradition) and the Islam fundamentalist. The war ended with some sort of written deals between the two parts. the Minangkabau tradition that we know today, is a tradition that had been ‘Islamized’, with the main principle “adat basandi syarak, syarak basandi kitabullah” (adat/traditions are based on Islamic rules (syarak), and Islamic rules are based on Al-Qur’an). Any traditions that clash with the Islamic rules and values, are supposed to be banned. Yet today, the conflict is still there, hang beneath the surface. The thinking that tradition and Islam are in an absolute harmony, is just a euphoria.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective. – Caitlin.

  5. Living as I do now in Thailand I see a lot of building with ‘pointed’ roofs and I must say that it is a lovely and very uplifting style of building. What I particularly like is the fact that this style can be used on both the grandest and humblest of structures.

  6. My parents are both of Minang ancestry (Mum born and raised in Jakarta). This is Minangkabau: http://t.co/8N4lLUML