The Toraja people were originally from central Sulawesi in Indonesia. They are about 1.5 million strong but less than 500,000 live in their native land, the remainder have sought work in Makassar or Jakarta. By doing this, they can send money to their family in Tanah Toraja.
Their traditional burial customs are expensive to practice, particularly for the noble caste. The caste system is still used in Toraja society; there are nobles, warriors, traders, free men and “slaves”, the last ones being well treated and respected. A “slave” can cut tie with the family he works with at his own time and will.
When someone dies, the body is quickly embalmed but it stays at home, up to one year sometimes, so family and friends can come and see the dead who is considered “very sick” until the burial ceremony takes place. For this ceremony, the family will first buy buffaloes (one animal and up to two hundred, depending on how wealthy was the dead). The price of each buffalo depends on the marks of his robe; one with the proper “white” marks on the head can fetch several tens of thousands dollars.
Then they prepare the temporary bamboo huts to welcome the guests. The enlarged family, the friends, and all the people who have been familiar with the dead are invited; the family of the dead “gives back” to every person who has helped in one way or another to enable the dead to become wealthy.
The ceremony is now ready to take place. Generally, it lasts several days. Each day, the male slaves of the family sacrifice one to several buffaloes followed by pigs (bought at the market). They prepare the meat to feed everybody while the women prepare the drinks.
Some men dance while singing the main events of the dead’s life. All the guests bring gifts. The ceremony master states the names of the guests and their gifts. When all the gifts have been given, the dead is ready to be buried. As the earth is here to give birth, corpses cannot be buried and so the Toraja entomb the bodies in cliffs or large boulders.
It takes six months for a man to chisel out the grave from a boulder.
In addition, the nobles and warriors have the right to have their effigy sculpted in wood and displayed on a “balcony” near the grave.
If they are really wealthy and have sacrificed at least 200 buffaloes, a megalith can be raised in a specific field close to their village.
When a little baby dies, he is not strong enough to reach heaven by himself, so the Toraja entomb him in a big tree trunk so the tree can help the baby to go to heaven. The tree shall be alive and if the tree dies, a part of it is transferred to another tree that becomes the next “passeur d’âme”.
I learned about the Toraja burial practices during my short stay in Tanah Toraja, a very nice part of Sulawesi surrounded by mountains. Our guide, Otto who is part of the noble cast, was very helpful in teaching us all the customs of his tribe.
“From Angkor to Bujang Valley”. That was the title of the conference which took place at Alliance Française of Kuala Lumpur on Jan 25th. And as you all know, when MVs hear the words “Bujang Valley”, they tend to flock like birds on a wire. And indeed a large audience, comprising quite a few MV docents, trainees, and trainers, gathered to listen to Dr Daniel Perret, researcher from the French School for Asian Studies. The talk was mostly oriented towards the program of research in South-east Asia and the archaeological methods employed by this unit.
The French School for Asian Studies (Ecole française d’Extrème-Orient) is a public institution under the Ministry for Higher Education and Research. It was founded in 1898 in Saigon and, therefore, started its activities mostly in what was French Indochina. Today it is established in twelve countries, with eighteen research centers, from India to Japan. In Malaysia, the Center is hosted by the Department of History, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya. It conducts research in cooperation with the University of Malaya, UKM, JMM…
A lot of research has been devoted to Indochina: it included, from 1992, the rehabilitation of many Angkor Temples, but the center has also been active in countries such as Laos (Vat Phu Temple -11th-13th century CE), Vietnam (Quang Ngai wall, a 19th century fortified wall extending for 127 km in the Champa region), and Myanmar (inventory of 2,800 monuments in Pagan (Bagan) -1044-1287 CE-).
Dr Perret himself has devoted a lot of his activities in Indonesia, mainly Sumatra, and in Malaysia, including in the Bujang Valley.
In Sumatra, research, which has now turned away from the exclusive study of temples and monuments, has been devoted to the evolution of three settlements, Barus (on the west coast), Padang Lawas (central Sumatra) and Kota Cina (on the north-east coast).
All research on human settlements, in the absence of temples, must be correlated with other types of data (archaeological findings – Chinese ceramics being often important for dating, local epigraphy, local literature and traditions, foreign written sources).
In the case of Barus, a Tamil inscription (1088 CE) indicates that the earliest known inhabitants were Tamils, a fact in accordance with local literature and tradition. Other sources include the “Sejarah Raja Raja Barus” (late text from 19th century), an Armenian maritime chart (12th century), the Archives Cairo Geniza (11th-13th century), Marco Polo’s writings (13th century), many Chinese and a few Portuguese and VOC sources. One of the difficulties conducting archaeological research in Indonesia is the concentration of layers which do not exceed 30 cm in depth and, hence, chronology is often difficult to establish between the different artifacts found. Nevertheless, interesting findings could relate the settlements to Indian presence and trading activities with many parts of Asia: for example pottery, analogous to Cambay Ghee pots still used in Southern India. A figurine, dated between 12th and 16th century, analogous to an Old Bahrein figurine (12th-14th century) was also unearthed. Stoneware was also found originating from China, and also Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Japan (in particular originating from Hizen kiln active in the first half of the 17th century).
In Padang Lawas, archaeological research had been very active in the past, about 30 Hindu-Buddhist monuments and some 1,039 inscriptions (in Malay, old Sanskrit, paleo-Sumatran) had been catalogued, but nobody was interested, until recent years, in the settlements themselves. One of the astonishing findings, related again to trade activities, was a Bukhara Dirham, dated 1003-1004 CE, from the Qarakhamid/Ilek Khan Dynasty.
In Kota Cina, where some Hindu-Buddhist images were found in the 1970’s, the site for digging had a particularity: there was a lot of water infiltrating the soil. That was a big problem because water had to be pumped out regularly, but also a big benefit as water better preserves organic remains. Hence, wooden construction pillars, animal remains (mostly turtles) and also human skeletons were found. The site also yielded some 160,000 pieces of earthenware (around 1,5 t), making it the biggest site in Sumatra, but also more than 1,000 coins, mostly Chinese. The dating of all these findings ranges from the end of the 11th century till the beginning of 14th century, but analysis is just beginning.
Dr Perret’s research in Malaysia was devoted first to the cataloguing of Batu Aceh tombstones: 450 of them were studied in Johor. In Bujang Valley, Dr Perret studied glassware. Some 6,000 shards were categorized, many of them (about 95%) coming from jarlets (a small type of vessel, about 3 cm for the rim and the base, 6 cm for the height). A recent book has been edited by Dr Perret (together with Zulkifli Jaafar) and published by JMM, “Ancient glassware in Malaysia – The Pengkalan Bujang Collection”.
Finally, Dr Perret explained how external interference can bring some kind of perturbation to academic work and spice it up a little. When he and his team found a human skeleton at Kota Cina, although it seemed clearly to be dated a few hundred years before the discovery, it appeared it could make a criminal “cold case” as the skeleton had both hands and feet bound together…so the local police claimed the skeleton for forensic investigation! Fortunately, when a second skeleton was found the police considered they had enough with one and left it to the archaeologists…
We, MVs, are very lucky to know that the Perak Man died from a tooth infection, otherwise we could have been caught in another episode of “NCIS Lenggong Valley”!!
On the first day of February, Jean-Marie, my husband and I went to a Puja Pantai (sea healing ceremony) at Pulau Carey, which is about one hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur. A Puja Pantai is a Hari Moyang (spirit day) for the fishing Mah Meri villagers.
JM joined us early at our home so we could be at Kampong Bumbun at 9am, as instructed by the young lady in charge. Actually, we had plenty of time to visit, for 3 to 4 times, the museum in this charming cultural village. Now we know plenty about the Mah Meri culture and wood carvings!
Finally we were invited to wear a nice origami headdress and instructed to keep it on our heads throughout the ceremony so the spirits could recognize us as guests.
Then we took our car to join the procession coming from Kampung Judah, another Mah Meri village. Jean-Marie and I followed the procession while my husband had to follow by car as he could not leave the car on the road side. We walked with the crowd, trying to take pictures on the way of the shaman, the musicians, the navy soldiers who were there to carry the busot jantan (a mound made of bamboo frame and plaited palms leaves).
After about 2 kms, we turned left and, there, the shaman and his helper sanctified the cross road to show the way to the spirits.
Finally we arrived at the beach where we waited about two hours while the shamans chewed betel, smoked, and ultimately came to a trance.
Then, to please the spirits, there was a Jo-oh dance. Several young ladies began to dance around the busot jantan. A male mask dancer joined them and finally the shaman entered the dance.
Following the dance, the procession went to the beach itself to join the rumah moyang now that the tide was low.
Raja Abdullah and Yap Ah Loy have been pushed centre-stage to battle it out as founders of Kuala Lumpur, relegating to the background the two entrepreneurs who had developed a trading post at the confluence of Klang and Gombak Rivers, a trading post that would grow to become Kuala Lumpur. No street names laud their contributions but Hiu Siew was the first Kapitan Cina (Chinese Captain) of Kuala Lumpur and Ah Sze could have been either the second or third Kapitan had he wanted the job.
Their story starts in Lukut where they were joint owners of a tin-mine. It was here that they contracted a friendship with Sutan Puasa, a Mandailing trader servicing the Ampang tin mines, on whose advice they moved to the future Kuala Lumpur. Lukut was, until the border treaty of 1878, a part of Selangor and under the control of Raja Jumaat, an enterprising and capable leader. In 1857, Raja Abdullah, brother of Raja Jumaat, took 87 Chinese miners from Lukut and they started mining activities at Ampang, about five kilometres inland from the confluence. Raja Abdullah’s men were by no means the first miners at Ampang; this honour belongs to the Sumatrans who were probably there from as early as the 1820s. However, the increased activity brought about by Raja Abdullah’s team saw traders from Lukut moving to Ampang where they supplied the miners with food, essential items, opium, and spirits.
Goods bound to and from Ampang were loaded/unloaded at the confluence and, in all likelihood, a settlement existed there from an early period. However, the trading post had to be expanded rapidly in order to keep pace with the increased activity at Ampang and Sutan Puasa succeeded in persuading Hiu Siew and Ah Sze to relocate there. He also paved the way for them by introducing them to the local Malays and their acceptance by the Malay community saw Hiu Siew being appointed as the first Kapitan Cina of Kuala Lumpur.
The exact location of this trading centre has not been identified. However, it is said that when Yap Ah Loy became the third Kapitan, he appropriated the property of Liu Ngim Kong, the second Kapitan, who had himself appropriated the property of Hiu Siew. We know that Yap Ah Loy’s house was located near the river, at the present site of the Pacific Express Hotel, and it is possible that Hiu Siew’s property was at this same location and that Yap Ah Loy’s ‘market’ was originally Hiu Siew’s.
The head panglima (commander) to Hiu Siew was Liu Ngim Kong. Liu had previously been panglima to the Kapitan Cina of Sungei Ujong and Yap Ah Loy had acted as his assistant during that time. When Hiu Siew passed away in 1861/62, Liu took over his role as Kapitan Cina as well as, purportedly, his private property. Liu invited Yap Ah Loy, who was Kapitan Cina at Sungei Ujong, to join him in Kuala Lumpur. The wealth of Kuala Lumpur induced Yap Ah Loy to move and he took over the position of Kapitan Cina after Liu’s death in 1868.
Ah Sze, in the meantime, had become among the wealthiest traders in Selangor. He also had mining concerns in Kanching which, together with Ampang (and Kuala Lumpur), were the only Chinese enclaves in Selangor north of Lukut at the time. Ah Sze was kingmaker. He had twice rejected offers to be Kapitan Cina: first after the death of Hiu Siew and again after the death of Liu. However, the selection of Liu Ngim Kong and Yap Ah Loy as the second and third Kapitans respectively were made in consultation with Ah Sze. The relatives of Liu Ngim Kong were unhappy with the ascension of Yap Ah Loy to the position of Kapitan and his appropriation of Liu’s property. Their attempt to redress the situation saw the murder of Ah Sze, seen as a powerful ally of Yap Ah Loy. This was done in order to weaken Yap’s position.
Kuala Lumpur was already a rich and flourishing settlement before Yap Ah Loy moved there. This was in large part due to the efforts of Hiu Siew, Ah Sze, and Liu Ngim Kong who come across as very capable leaders. However, information on them is scarce as they have largely been ignored in historical writings. One possible explanation for this is that the bulk of historical records come from the British whose official involvement in the Selangor state starts only after the treaty of 1874. They had involved interactions with Yap Ah Loy but only cursory dealings, if any, with the other three.
Fruit Parachu, or Parachu Buah Buahan as it is called in Malay, is the second form of ancestral worship that the Chitties observe in a year. The first is the Bhogi Parachu in January. This second Parachu is observed for a month between June 15th and July 15th. The time period is fixed and the individual can observe the Parachu anytime within this period. Many tend to observe it on a Sunday for convenience.
This article records a visit to Gajah Berang, Melaka, on 3rd July 2016 to observe the Fruit Parachu ceremony held in the home of Nadarajan Raja, an elder of the Chitty community.
The house was full of activity by the time we arrived at 2 pm. The ondeh ondeh was being prepared by Nadarajan’s wife and sister-in-law. Ondeh Ondeh is brown palm sugar wrapped in a rice paste coloured green from pandan (screwpine), then boiled and smothered with grated coconut. His brother, Raj, was preparing the chili to make the chili cucumber with onions. Others were frying fish, making the fish curry and the roe with belimbing (carambola). Those who finished some of these then started cutting the fruits. All this was done in a friendly atmosphere with a lot of bantering with each other. The main event, to call it that, is the making of the pulut tekan.
The preparation of the day usually starts with making the pulut tekan. This is a white glutinous rice cake pressed firm, parts of which are with a blue tint to form a design. The whole process can take some seven hours. The rice is first cooked. Then the coconut milk is added and the rice steamed. A portion of this rice will have a blue colouring added. This colouring is from the blue coloured bunga telang (blue pea or butterfly pea). The rice is continually tested for the right consistency and when the rice is steamed to the right softness, it is drained and pressed into a 10 cm deep wooden square box. It is spread out in layers between the white and the blue rice to give the desired design. The inside of the box is lined with banana leaves. A wooden cover is placed on top and weights are laid on the cover to slowly press the contents of the box into a hard cake. The usual weights are two grindstones.
When it is ready after some hours, the weights are removed and the box is taken and placed on the table. The hardness is tested and if not right, it is placed back under the weights. When ready, the top of the box is lifted off. The sides of the box are removed and this leaves the cake on the base. The banana leaves are then carefully removed.
An approximate 5 cm thick block has to be cut which will have a nice design of the white cake with blue colour. This is left to the individual, in this case, Shanmugam, another of Nadarajan’s brothers. The selected block of pulut is placed on a tray covered with a banana leaf cut to the shape of the tray. The blocks that are not used for the offering, are cut into smaller portions and placed in a bakul siah, a tiered lacquered wooden basket.
The seri kaya is also prepared earlier. This is coconut jam but a firmer type. A portion is cut and placed beside the pulut tekan for the offering. Another portion is placed in the bakul siah. A portion of the kuih ginggang, red and white layered cake is cut for the offering as well as a portion to be put in the bakul siah.
A few bakul siah are prepared in a similar way. The children then take these and present it to various close relatives or friends living in the neighbourhood. They, in turn, give some of their preparation if they are observing on the same day.
Nadarajan then got the front living room floor cleaned. One by one, Nadarajan and Shanmugam placed the various items on the floor.
The display is laid out on the left of the entrance of the house. Two red candles with a kuthu vilakku, (Indian oil lamp) in between are placed in the centre. On the centre of the oil lamp is a hibiscus flower for decoration. There is a brass bowl (chembu) with tulasi (holy basil) in between the candles. These are flanked by two young shaved coconuts with incense sticks stuck in as shown below.
In the front centre is a large banana leaf laid with the head on the right. The head is the top of the banana leaf, or the narrowing part. In the centre is a bowl of bunga rampai, scented flowers. There are also seven betel leaves lightly smeared with lime powder. In front on the left are seven cigarettes of tobacco wrapped in tobacco leaf and on the right are five modern cigarettes. This is seen below.
On the floor on the left, there is an arrangement of five cups and a teapot with tea. Next to this is a tumbuk (stone pestle and mortar) and an old wooden tepak sireh set (betel leaf and betel nut set). Three betel leaves are smeared with lime paste and wrapped with a piece of pekak. Pekak is a pink hard powder which turns red when eaten with the betel leaf. This wrap is then crushed in the tumbuk (mortar) and placed among these.
On the right is an arrangement of four cups with black coffee and one with Milo. There is also a tin of coffee with milk and a can Guinness stout.
In front of this is the tray of fruits, a tray of watermelon, the kuih, a plate of fried noodles, kuih from the neighbours, some Indian savouries and three opened durian fruits.
The fruits that Nadarajan prepared were jackfruit, mata kuching (related to the longan or soapberry), mangoes, dragon fruit, jambu air (water apple or water rose apple), salak, watermelon, durians, grapes, apples, oranges and pears. Local fruits are used as much as possible but nowadays, common foreign fruits are also added. This also depends on the availability of the fruits.
The variety of kuih served were, the pulut tekan, seri kaya, kuih ginggang and ondeh ondeh. Offerings included some additional kuih sent by neighbours. These were the same glutinous rice but the white and blue being separate, angku (red tortoise cake), wajih (glutinous rice with sugary syrup and other local kuih.
The fruits and other edible items are usually the favourites of the ancestors and are presented in odd amounts.
In front of these are a brass bowl of vibuthi (wood ash), a brass bowl of water, an earthenware holder for smouldering charcoal and benzoin resin. This latter gives off smoke. There are also two pieces of kidney shaped wood.
The ceremony starts when the nearby temple bell is sounded off at 6.30pm. Nadarajan as the head of the household, takes the earthenware holder and goes to the outside of the house. He holds the holder up and invites his parents and ancestors to come and partake in the offerings.
He then comes into the house and shows the holder to the items on the floor, circling over all the offerings. Next, he goes to the pictures of his father, his aunt and his grandfather and circles the pictures with the holder. These pictures are decorated with the jasmine flowers and incense sticks. He comes back to the living room and places the holder on the floor. His brothers and other male relatives or close friends will do the same. This is followed by the females in the family and close friends.
Finally, Nadarajan will cut the young coconut open. With this the ceremony is over.
The guests are then invited to dinner. Nadarajan served rice with fried fish, fish gravy, watercress, chili cucumber and fish roe with belimbing.
Despite Malacca being a small place, Chitty practices vary from which part they come from. Those at Gajah Berang and Bacang use milk rice while those from Tranquerah use nasi lemak.
The kuih here are referred to as wet cakes. Others prepare dry cakes, as in not oily, such as kuih bakul, kuih bahulu, kuih kacang soya etc. Admittedly, there is now a mix which includes Nyonya, Malay and perhaps Portuguese kuih as well. This is the result of the many years of assimilation and intermarriages between them. It must be remembered that these groups have been together for 500 years.
Generally speaking, one wonders about the origin and the reason behind the use of the various items. One simple reason is that these are the things most commonly found in the vicinity. Some have magical or mystical properties ascribed to them from so long ago that the meaning or reason is lost today.
There must be some explanation as to why rituals are being performed and certainly not simply for the sake of doing something. Again the routine has caused the significance to be eroded with time. After all, the Hindu religion has been practised for thousands of years and the Chitties have been performing these for some 500 years. Many rituals have been performed by the temple priests only, as only they were educated in these matters. The ordinary folk followed and believed in what was done.
But now we live in an age where education levels have vastly increased resulting in individual thinking and questioning or in fact, re-inventing all things. While we continue to perform and believe in these rituals, it is now left to the current generation to study the religion, history and reintroduce the rituals so that when these are performed, it is done with a greater understanding and this in turn reinforces the faith.
The Kedah Tua International Conference (KTIC) in Sungai Petani kick-started on 21 May 2016 with Dr Stephen Oppenheimer presenting the first keynote address. His presentation focused on using genetic phylogeography to trace the migration patterns in South East Asia. Two pieces of DNA are used to build a gene network: mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) which is passed from mother to daughter and Y-chromosome (NRY) which is passed down the male line. As these two pieces of DNA do not recombine during reproduction, they are transmitted unchanged through the generations allowing scientists to trace human migrations through random mutations that occur in these DNA strands.
A large part of Dr Oppenheimer’s presentation centred on a recently published paper that used genetic methods to study the ancestry of inhabitants in island South East Asia (ISEA). For the past 30 years, the Out of Taiwan theory has held sway to explain these origins. This theory is based primarily on linguistic evidence; the antecedents of Austronesian languages spoken in ISEA can be traced to the aboriginal population of Taiwan. By extension, Southern China is theorised as their original homeland. The Austronesian speaking population is said to have arrived in Taiwan from Southern China around 6500 ya. From Taiwan, they moved into the Philippines around 5000 ya and reached southern Philippines by 4000 ya. From here, there was rapid dispersal to the rest of ISEA and Oceania with arrival in the Pacific by 3000 ya.
A model that combines this Holocene colonisation with an earlier Pleistocene colonisation from Southern China via the mainland has successfully withstood attacks from detractors who favour a homeland from within the Sunda shelf. The Out of Sunda theory proposes that the inhabitants of ISEA originated from within ISEA itself and that it was the sinking of the Sunda platform which provided the impetus for dispersal. This turns things around and places insular South East Asians as ancestors of the aboriginal Taiwanese. Genetic evidence has been employed by scientists on both sides of the divide to support their views. The recent study conducted by a group of international scientists, of which Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer was a part, is the most comprehensive undertaken to date. It uses a combination of mtDNA, NRY, and published genome-wide data. The results are surprising in that while they mostly support the Out of Sunda theory, the study also detected minor migrations during the Late Holocene from Taiwan, corresponding to the Out of Taiwan time-frame. However, the study noted that these migrations did not have much influence on the ISEA gene pool and that the impact was mostly cultural and linguistic.
The story of human migration starts around 85 000 ya in East Africa when a group of Homo sapiens (modern humans) crossed the Red Sea into the Arabian Peninsula and then travelled along its coastline into the Indian subcontinent. All humans outside Africa are descended from this single exit. These beach-combers continued around the Indian Ocean coast to arrive at Lenggong Valley in the Malayan Peninsula by at least 74 000 ya. They then traversed the edge of the Sunda platform before moving north into Indo China and Southern China as well as south into Australia. It should be noted that an earlier migration out of Africa arriving at the Levant around 125 000 ya failed to populate the world as the onset of an ice-age either killed the population or forced them back into Africa.
The diagram above shows clusters of gene types (mtDNA). The green circles represent gene types in Africa and the large circle on the right shows gene types in the rest of the world. The single exit out of Africa is represented by the haplogroup L3 which gave rise to two important branches outside Africa. The M branch evolved in present day India and is found in all humans outside Africa except Europeans and Levantines. The N branch evolved around present day Pakistan/Iran and is found in all humans outside Africa including Europeans and Levantines. The M supergroup gave rise to M9 which evolved in SEA around 50 000 ya. M9, in turn, gave rise to the haplogroup E which developed in Sundaland around 23 000 ya. This haplotype is widely dispersed and some of its daughters can be found in Taiwan; 15% of all gene lines in ISEA and Taiwan belong to haplogroup E.
One of the main reasons behind the wide dispersal of haplogroup E was the sinking of the Sunda platform caused by three rapid rises in sea levels between 15 000 and 7000 ya. The effects of these sea level rises can be seen in the genetic record – genetic drift, equivalent to extinction, corresponds to the three distinct rises in sea levels. The extinctions were followed by a major expansion of haplogroup E which expanded throughout ISEA, as far north as Taiwan, and east of Guinea. As the land halved and the coastline doubled, the population adapted itself to maritime activities allowing them to carry their genes far and wide.
The Austronesian migration can be seen through mtDNA haplotype M7c3c. It has a similar distribution as E but goes in the opposite direction. Coming from China into Taiwan, it spread from Taiwan into SEA around 4000 ya. This haplotype is present in around 8% of Indonesians.
The diagram above shows that, along the route out of Africa, Sundaland has the highest number of founding branches, 30 in total, making it the most diverse place outside Africa. If we look at the indigenous populations of the Malayan Peninsula, 86% of their lineages come from locally founding Sunda lineages and 14% from East Asian lineages. For the Malay population, around 58% of their lineage is from local Sunda founding lineages, 38% from East Asia, and 4% from South Asia. Of the local Sunda lineages, 33% of these lineages go back 60 000 – 25 000 ya. Of the East Asia lineages, only 7% are from Taiwan.
The Malayan Peninsula not only facilitated movements from Indo China and East Asia to ISEA (the spread from Indo-China to ISEA associated with Hoabinhian culture is about 20 000 ya), it also facilitated movements from Africa to Indo China, East Asia, and Australia.
Archaeological evidence supports the assertion that Lenggong Valley was a key area on the migration path of humans. Kota Tampan in Lenggong Valley has yielded a stone tool making workshop covered in ash from the volcanic eruption that created Lake Toba in Sumatra. This ash dates to 74 000 ya attesting that modern humans must have arrived in Lenggong Valley before this eruption took place. The Lenggong Valley has also shown continuous settlement from 40 000 ya to present. The finding of a stone hand-axe dated to 1.83 million ya at Bukit Bunuh, about 1 km away from Kota Tampan, shows that Lenggong was also on the migration path for Homo erectus, an earlier species of the Homo genus. This hand-axe was found buried in suevite. Its discovery puts Lenggong Valley on the migration path of Homo erectus, whose best known representatives are the Java Man (700 000 years old) and Peking Man (500 000 – 300 000 years old).
The state of Negeri Sembilan lies south of Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Its original founders were ethnic Minangkabau émigrés from Sumatra who probably arrived during the heydays of the Melaka sultanate, which attracted Muslims from around the region to seek their fortune. Negeri Sembilan possibly refers to the people of nine townships of West Sumatra that settled the area. The present sultan and his family are all of Minang ancestry, their culture is matrilineal, and their palace is a grand version of the distinctive bull-horned Minangkabau Rumah Gadang house.
The Minangkabau ethnic group occupies the province of West Sumatra, famed for its beautiful landscapes of lakes, tropical rainforests, and the Bukit Barisan mountain range. They speak Bahasa Minangkabau, which shares many common features with Malay. Most Minang are farmers; those living in the coastal areas work as fishermen. They are known for their handicrafts such as cane work, silverware, embroidery and most of all, woven traditional textiles, particularly songket cloth.
The Minangkabau embraced Islam early on; they were one of the first conversions in the archipelago, following Aceh. Islam is central to their culture, distinguishing their adat from that of other animist ethnic groups. However, following Islamic law, representations of human forms are not allowed and animals feature only in stylised form. Unlike other ancient cultures of Sumatra, the Minangkabau have been in contact with outside influences for centuries, widely assimilating from cultures with which they came into contact. Arabic, Indian and Chinese influences can be observed in their textiles and arts, particularly those of the coastal areas.
West Sumatra is divided into nagari (negeri or autonomous townships). Their culture is matrilineal, unusual especially within an Islamic community. Kinship and inheritance are passed down through the female line, giving the women of the Minangkabau a unique importance and great respect. The Minangkabau people are also distinguished by their arts and philosophy which are both expressive and dynamic, yet hold closely to their prevailing traditional values and the belief of ‘alam takambang jadi guru’ (nature is mankind’s best teacher), meaning that the natural world should guide their lives.
In a Minangkabau extended family, children belong to the maternal line. It is the responsibility of the mother’s brother to raise them. Throughout his married life, a husband maintains close contact with his own mother’s family, often leaving his work tools and other possessions at her home and helping out his own family in agricultural tasks. After marriage, he gradually moves his belongings to his wife’s home and increases the time spent there only when the marriage seems secure, i.e. after daughters are born. Divorce is common usually instigated by the woman if her husband fails to provide her with a daughter, without which the kinship line would be broken. Men tend to hold little property themselves because of complications arising in inheritance matters, especially after a divorce, when they can lose everything to their wife.
The Rumah Gadang, or Big House, is a communal home shared by the extended matrilineal Minangkabau family. This type of house is often lyrically referred to as gajah menyusu anak (‘elephant suckling her offspring’), referring to the juxtaposition of the large house with its soaring upswept roof and the miniature rice barn nestled in its shade. The unusual roof shape is often compared to a mountain, perhaps reflecting the towering peaks of the surrounding Bukit Barisan range. The ornate wall panels are adorned with richly coloured stylised plant and animal motifs symbolising such qualities as bravery (buffalo), co-operation (duck), alertness (cat), good luck (cicak) taken from the domestic animals that feature in their daily lives, typical of the homespun folklore of the Minang people.
The buffalo horn gonjong decorative feature on the roof is a distinctive element of Minangkabau design, referencing the legend of their origin as well as demonstrating the importance of daughters. The gonjong is associated with women: the traditional female Minang headdress, the tengkuluk tanduk has a similar shape. This is particularly unusual because in most cultures the bullhorn has male connotations. The number of bullhorns on the roof of a Rumah Gadang indicates the number of married daughters belonging to the house.
West Sumatra is regarded as one of the most notable regions for the production of songket cloth; historically Koto Gadang, Payakumbuh and Bukittinggi in the highlands were at the centre of manufacture. The songket from Koto Gadang is considered to be the best quality in terms of technical skills, materials and the various and distinctive motifs that make them difficult to copy.
The uniqueness of songket lies in the supplementary weave of gold and silver thread and the complexity of its designs, rich in motifs of an affirmative and natural theme. Songket weaving is commonly done by women. Motifs on Minangkabau songket conform both to their philosophy of the natural world, and their folklore, steeped in traditional wisdom. The common sense of women is noticeable in the symbolism of their songket designs and in the wearing of the cloth. The male sisamping (Malay: samping), the short sarong, must be tied with a large hanging fold at the front, shaped like a tongue. This is a warning to men to guard what they say in public. One can almost hear the admonitory voice of a wife! Many Minangkabau songket motifs retain delightful meanings that have probably been lost elsewhere. The teluk berantai linked chain motif, known to the Minang as saluak berantai, signifies the strength of a community when its members cooperate and work together. Itiak pulang patang ‘ducks returning home at dusk’ reminds that wherever one travels in life, one always returns to one’s home or traditional values. The ubiquitous triangular pucuak rabuang, or young bamboo shoot, represents the usefulness of bamboo in all its stages just as members of the community should be ‘useful in youth and beneficial in old age’.
The Minang people have a great respect for learning, demonstrating an openness to external ideas and influences that is rare in traditional cultures. One interesting practice is the tradition of merantau, where young men are encouraged to leave their home villages and travel either to other islands, or even further afield. In modern times this has even extended to young women. This temporary exile exposed the young to fresh ideas and new skills, which on their return would benefit the community at large. The Minang are a dynamic culture, and although their population is small, they have made an exponentially large contribution to the archipelago. In Indonesia and Malaysia, many professionals, politicians and intellectuals were traditionally of Minang origin, particularly women of note. Minangkabau communities are to be found all over the archipelago, set up by those who travelled and settled elsewhere, hence the prevalence of Padang food (nasi padang, a speciality of the region) on many other islands. The famous dish beef rendang is arguably of West Sumatran origin although many Malaysians might disagree!
The Minangkabau people of Negeri Sembilan maintain a matrilineal customary system unique amongst Malay, called the adat perpatih, Although in Islamic law the husband of the matriarch would be the ultimate authority, amongst the Minangkabau he is considered orang semanda (an outsider). The authority of the family stays firmly with the maternal side, although the husband would support and assist in decision-making. This might appear to be unworkable arrangement but amongst Minangkabaus it becomes a courteous social collaboration that encourages cooperation and discussion between the two families.
In Negeri Sembilan and other parts of Malaysia, one can still see examples of the gonjong or bullhorn finials on upswept roofs in the Minang house style both on private houses and public buildings. A stylised version, known as ‘silang gunting’ or crossed scissors, is more common as can be seen on the gable ends of Sri Menanti, the old palace of the sultans of Negeri Sembilan.
Although songket of fine quality is produced in Malaysia, it is still customary for Malays of Minangkabau descent to source their cloth from the Bukittinggi region, especially for weddings. The Chinese-inspired Minangkabau wedding headdress, bunga suntiang has also become popular for brides.
The matrilineal Minangkabau have made a distinctive mark on Peninsular Malaysia, not the least in the example of female empowerment within a Muslim community. Their dynamic influence has enriched Malay culture until today it has become an integral part of the Malaysian identity.