Minangkabau Life and Culture

by Fred Rice

The Minangkabau people live in the province of West Sumatra, Indonesia. They are gifted with a unique culture that sets them apart from any other people in the world. A traditional Minangkabau style roof

When you travel throughout the land of the Minangkabau, you see various traditional Minangkabau houses which have the shape of a buffalo's horns. Similarly, Minangkabau-style hats also have this shape of the buffalo's horns. There is a legend about the origin of the Minangkabau which explains this interesting traditional style.

According to legend, once there was a disagreement between the Minangkabau people and the Javanese. Rather than involve themselves in a war, however, which would cause much needless bloodshed, the two peoples agreed upon having a fight between their buffalos. The Javanese had a huge, strong buffalo, fierce, and powerful. On the other hand, the Minangkabau people had a small calf. The Javanese were confident that their huge, powerful buffalo would easily defeat this tiny calf. How could a tiny calf beat a huge, ferocious buffalo? What the Minangkabau did was they took the calf away from its mother, and did not feed it any milk for a several days before the big fight. Just before the fight, they attached sharp, iron knives to the tip of their calf's horns. As the buffalo and the tiny calf were let into the ring, the calf, starving of milk, saw the buffalo, and thought it was its mother. Hurriedly, the calf went to the underside of the buffalo, looking for milk. As it did so, the sharp knives on the calf's horns pierced the under-belly of the huge buffalo. The huge buffalo was killed, and the Minangkabau won the war. This is how the Minangkabau got their name, according to legend, for "minang" means "victory," and "kabau" means "caribou" or "water buffalo" in the Minangkabau language. This is also the source of those buffalo's horn-shaped rooves and hats of the Minangkabau people. Because of stories such as this, the Minangkabau people are known for their cleverness. The story also symbolizes the strength of the more nurturing system of the Minangkabau culture, represented by the calf looking for its mother's milk, which is able to defeat a more brutish system which on the outside appears strong, represented by the buffalo.

Perhaps the best known fact about the Minangkabau is their matrilineal cultural tradition. The Minangkabau are, In fact, the world's largest matrilineal group. In this tradition, the family name is not passed down from the father to his children, as it is in most cultures. Instead, the family name is inherited from the mother. Furthermore, inheritance continues through the generations from mother to daughter. This is especially true of the ancestral home, which remains the property of the Minangkabau women. Due to their matrilineal culture, Minangkabau women play an important role in the leadership and decision-making process of the traditional village government.

Another interesting aspect of Minangkabau culture is the religion of Islam. The traditional way of inheritance in Islam is from the father to both sons and daughters. The Minangkabau tradition of inheritance therefore clashes with the general Islamic understanding regarding inheritance. The Minangkabau have solved this problem by finding a middle ground between the traditional Minangkabau inheritance system, and the one prescribed by Islam. In this system, some items (such as the ancestral home) are passed down from mother to her daughters, while other items follow the traditional Islamic method of inheritance. The family name continues to be passed from the mother to both her daughters and sons. In this way, the Minangkabau have managed to keep their culture, and yet continue to be known throughout Indonesia as strong Muslims.

Within Indonesia, the Minangkabau people are well-known to be good businessmen. This comes partly from Minangkabau culture. In Minangkabau culture, a young man has to leave his house to seek his fortune. Thus, young Minangkabau men are, according to traditional customs, put in a "make or break" situation, they have to succeed or they cannot support themselves. Once they succeed in their business, these Minangkabau men send money home back to their families and usually return to their village to live in their wife's house or bring their wife to their home away from home. This is one of the reasons why, throughout Indonesia and even now some parts of the rest of the world, you can find traditional Padang-style Minangkabau restaurants, serving food in a Minangkabau style. You will also find the many Minangkabau as both small and large merchants all over Indonesia.

The Minangkabau have a fascinating history and culture. Why not visit West Sumatra and sample Minangkabau hospitality for yourself?

© 1998 Fred Rice