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LOCATION: Indonesia (Sumatra)
POPULATION: 2–3 million
LANGUAGE: Acehnese
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Indonesians


Located at the northernmost tip of Sumatra, Aceh has been the region of Indonesia most exposed to influences from the Islamic Middle East and Islamized India. Even the physical appearance of the coastal population reflects this: a great many Acehnese have Arab or Indian features. The Acehnese seem always to have played a key role in the trade linking India and China. Their closest linguistic relatives are the Cham of central Vietnam; their languages preserve a common fund of Austro-Asiatic loanwords that indicate intimate contacts with Mon-Khmer peoples. A network of kindred communities may have run from Vietnam to Sumatra through the Malay Peninsula, particularly as the earliest trade passed over the Isthmus of Kra instead of rounding the peninsula, as it did later.

The most renowned early state recorded in the Acehnese region is Samudra (meaning "ocean," from which the name "Sumatra" probably comes). Still pagan when Marco Polo stopped there in 1292, it was already Muslim in 1323 when the famous Arab traveler Ibn Battuta passed through. Under a new name, Pasai, the kingdom became the model Islamic court in the archipelago. In its immediate vicinity, however, were other independent states: Barus, Daya, Lamri, and Aru. In the territory of Lamri, Sultan Ali Mughayat Shah established the kingdom of Aceh at the beginning of the 16th century. The new power profited from the Portuguese capture of Malacca; Muslim merchants (and later Protestant Dutch and English) sought refuge at Aceh, and the sultanate carried on a holy war against Malacca's new Catholic rulers from 1540 to 1630.

These years, particularly during the reign of the autocratic Sultan Iskandar Muda ("Young Alexander"), constituted Aceh's Golden Age. Acehnese ships carried pepper to ports in the Red Sea, providing half of Europe's supply. Acehnese power extended far south on Sumatra (sultan's viceroys were placed over the Minangkabau, Simalungan Batak, and Karo Batak) and into the Malay peninsula (Kedah, Perak, Johor, and Pahang fell under its sway).

In 1629 an Acehnese armada was destroyed in an attempt to take Malacca; from that point, Acehnese power began a slow decline. Bloody succession struggles led the Acehnese aristocracy to accept a series of female rulers in the 17th century, despite the conflict with Islam's male bias. The power of the central government weakened as that of local lords (uleebalang, who controlled river mouths and thus the trade of the interior) grew.

The diffusion of political power to regional overlords did not harm Aceh's economic vitality. Its wealth, particularly in pepper, attracted attacks by foreigners, such as the Americans and French, in the 1820s and 1830s. Because of a mutual defense treaty between Aceh and Britain, the Dutch did not launch a major invasion until 1871. Warfare with the Acehnese lasted from 1873 to 1906 and cost the Dutch much in money and men.

The Indonesian Revolution took a particularly bloody form in Aceh; ulama (Muslim religious leaders) directed popular fury against the uleebalang, who were virtually exterminated as a class. In 1953, not wanting to be included with Christian Batak in the province of North Sumatra, Acehnese began a revolt against Jakarta that lasted for 10 years. In the end, the central government granted Aceh the status of "Special Region" (Daerah Istimewa), with autonomous jurisdiction over religion, education, and customary law. This special status notwithstanding, Suharto's New Order regime (1966–1998) exploited Aceh's natural resource bounty (natural gas, petroleum, gold, silver, and copper) without benefiting the rural majority of Acehnese, provoking the emergence of a separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM—Gerakan Aceh Merdeka) that went into armed rebellion in the late 1980s; this in turn was answered by brutal military repression that killed 2,000 Acehnese in 1989–1991 and made thousands of others refugees within their own homeland or in neighboring provinces. The years immediately after the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998 were marked by Acehnese continuing to mobilize to demand autonomy and the central government going back and forth between conceding greater autonomy and resuming military offensives against GAM insurgents.

The guerilla war was again in full swing when a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated Aceh on 26 December 2004, killing 230,000 and leaving over 500,000 homeless. The epicenter of the earthquake was right off Aceh's coast, though the resulting tsunami struck as far as Thailand and Sri Lanka. The catastrophe led GAM and the Indonesian government, under the mediation of Finnish ex-president Martti Ahtisaari, to reach a peace agreement (signed on 15 August 2005). With financial help for reconstruction coming from many foreign governments and organizations, Aceh is recovering. In 2006 the economy began to experience positive growth (7.7%). Aceh now enjoys the expanded autonomy granted in 2002, including the implementation of Sharia (Islamic law), the right to retain 80% of revenues from petroleum and natural gas production and receive foreign direct investment and not via the central government, and a new official name, "Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam" (literally, "The State of Aceh, Abode of Peace," i.e. "domain of Islamic government").


The Acehnese inhabit coastal lands along the northernmost end of Sumatra, as well as river valleys leading into the interior (the high mountains and thick forests of the interior are the home of another ethnicity, the Batak-related Gayo people). Acehnese comprise 50-70% of the population of the Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam, or 2–3 million people. There being no large cities (the capital of Banda Aceh counts only 80,000 inhabitants), the majority of Acehnese live in small towns in the fertile coastal plain, most hugging the modern 600-km (375-mi) road between Banda Aceh and Medan in neighboring North Sumatra province, Indonesia's greatest metropolis west of Jakarta.


The Acehnese language is related to Malay but is even closer to the Cham languages of central Vietnam. The vocabulary of Acehnese and Cham includes some basic words adopted from Austro-Asiatic languages (modern representatives of that family are Khmer, Mon, and Vietnamese). Until the 17th century, Acehnese used Malay in Arabic script as their sole written language; in the 17th century they began to produce literature in their own language.


Traditional Acehnese believe evil spirits reside in forests, swamps, river mouths, and banyan trees. The jen aphui (fire spirit) appears as a light in the night. The sibujang itam is a coarse, scary, but magically potent being whom one can enlist for evil purposes. The geunteut is a giant who squeezes down on sleeping people. The burong are women who have died in childbirth. They are clothed in white and have unnaturally long fingernails and a hole in their back. The burung tujuh are seven sisters who died in childbirth whose spirits threaten those giving birth.


As befits a region long known as the "front porch (srambi) of Mecca," the region where all Southeast Asian Muslims used to embark on the Haj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), the Acehnese are regarded as among the most devout Muslims in the archipelago and their culture as the most inseparable from Islam. A saying expresses this: "adat ngon hukom lagee zat ngon sifeuet," meaning, "[Acehnese] custom is to [Islamic] law as the essence is to manifestation." Islamic law (Sharia) influences every aspect of family life: weddings, marital conflicts, civil suits, funerals, and inheritance.

The lowest-level religious court is held after Friday prayer. The Acehnese support the national Islamic political parties such as, formerly, the modernist Muhammadiyah.

The Acehnese are zealous in their observance of three of Islam's five pillars: going on the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj); paying the tithe (zakat); and fasting (puasa) during the month of Ramadan. Many are less consistent in performing the five daily prayers. Pantheistic mysticism has been widespread, and it is common to make pilgrimages of the graves of famous mystics.

Outside the scope of Islamic orthodoxy is the use of magic to ensure success in agriculture and other enterprises. Ritual meals to bless rice cultivation (kenduri blang) and fishing (kenduri laut) include Islamic elements, such as Arabic prayers and the chanting of the surah "Yasin" from the Qur'an. There is a tradition of female shamanism. Dukun (spirit healers) issue sijunde, spells that can cause sickness or death or that can counteract the action of other spells. Healing includes exorcistic practices aiming to "cool" the sick person. Dukun also specialize in interpreting dreams and omens.


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Rites of passage generally resemble those of the Malays (see. A boy's placenta is buried under the spot where rain-water draining from the roof comes down, and a girl's placenta is buried under the entry ladder. Features of the wedding process specific to Acehnese are as follows: the representative (teulangke) of the man's side presents the woman's side with gold and other valuables (kongnarit); if the latter accepts them, this renders the betrothal binding. In addition, the man's side must deliver a bride-price (jeunamee) of 50–100 g (1.75–3.5 OZ) of gold; alternatively, the bride-price may be given to the couple later as a peunalang to buy a separate house or rice land. Preparatory to the wedding are the malam berinai, during which the bride is made as beautiful as possible and the bridal dais is decorated; and the mandi berlimau, in which an old woman gives the bride her last bath as a single woman. The procession (intat linto) of the groom to the bride's house is accompanied by noisemakers and the chanting of the Barzanji and selawat Nabi (tales of the life of Muhammad).

Children are buried in their father's family burial place (bhom). Modernist Muslims (Muhammadiyah) do not perform the post-funeral prayers for the deceased that others do.


Under the sultanate, the following hierarchy of political units existed: several gampong (villages) led by a keusyik (geucik), grouped into a mukim led by an imeum. A number of mukim fell under the jurisdiction of an uleebalang or, in the capital region, formed into one of three sagoe each under a panglima, kin of the sultan. Originally, the title imeum indicated the head official of a mosque, but its bearers gradually gained worldly power; sultans recognized the more powerful ones as uleebalang (regional lords, hereditary, and largely autonomous). The uleebalang appointed and could dismiss the keusyik; the latter was responsible for ensuring village security and prosperity and for arbitrating disputes. In addition, each village had a teungku (a person knowledgeable in Islam to head religious observances and take charge of the meunasah), ureung tua (an elected village council), and a tuha peut (an expert on customary law). Of this structure, only the gampong and mukim remain under the Indonesian bureaucracy.

In the 19th century, society divided into the following classes: the sultan and those of royal blood; nobles (uleebalang); peasants; slaves; and ulama, a group of religious leaders not tied to a particular locale. Sultans' descendants carried the titles ampon for males and cut for females; the uleebalang, teuku; and the ulama, teungku. Nowadays, the only distinction recognized is that between the wealthy and the non-wealthy.

Touching the head, especially that of an older or higher-status person, is a grave insult. When meeting people, one must always greet them. One must speak politely and softly, especially with an older or higher-status person. Guests must be offered betel to chew before drinks are brought out. The duty to participate in community works binds villagers together: they cooperate to build the village mosque and other common buildings and, on Fridays, repair water channels and roads and clear away underbrush. Villagers also help each other build houses and establish wet-rice fields.

Traditionally, there was no free interaction between young men and young women. According to social norms, a man may not enter a house if the husband is not there. In the husband's absence, a visitor may not enter even the yard. If he has happened to, or must, enter the yard, he coughs to signal his approach so the women of the house can withdraw to the interior. These strictures are changing, one major reason being the fact that boys and girls are not separated in school. Nonetheless, censorship of sex-related material from films is considerably stricter in Aceh than elsewhere in Indonesia (where films edited by Jakarta authorities are screened).


A village (gampong) consists of 50–100 houses, with the houses of kin clustering or lining up with no more than a fence separating them. Each village has at least one meunasah, a structure that is open on all sides and raised on piles. It serves as a prayer hall and school, and as a place where the village's young men and houseguests sleep and public ceremonies are held.

Facing the sea or the south, houses are raised on 20−24 posts, each 30 cm (12 in) in diameter and 2.5−3 m (8−10 ft) in height (either wooden or bamboo, depending on family wealth). Floors are usually made of wooden planks, sometimes of bamboo; older houses employed rattan cording instead of nails. Roofs are two-sloped, 2−6 m (6.5−20 ft) high, and of plaited sago palm-leaf, lasting 20 years. The front room (seuramoe keue) is an open veranda where the children sleep, as do guests during weddings, funerals, and other celebrations. The middle room (tungai) contains a central corridor with the romoh inong on the left and anjong to the right (sleeping quarters for the women of the family and the parents respectively). The kitchen is in the back room (seuramoe likot) or in a room of its own (tiphik). Poorer families house their married daughters in annexes to the main dwelling. Harvested rice is stored inside the house in a krong pade or berandang. The garden contains coconut, citrus, and banana trees.

Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam has a Human Development Index (combining measures of income, health, and education) of 69 (2005 score), almost as high as Indonesia's national score of 69.6. Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam's GDP per capita is US$7,752, moderately high for Indonesia (cf. US$10,910 for North Sumatra, US$6,293 for Central Java and US$2,919 for North Maluku, with income from petroleum and natural gas production added, Aceh's GDP per capita reaches US$12,679, among the highest in the country). In 2000, the level of infant mortality, at 39.71 deaths per 1,000 live births, was the fourth lowest in the country (after the national capital region of Jakarta, the highly urbanized Yogyakarta region, and North Sulawesi). Neglect by the central government and the effects of insurgency and military repression, compounded now by the devastation of the earthquakes and tsunamis of December 2004 and March 2005, have long denied Aceh a level of development fully commensurate with its resource wealth, a situation slowly being corrected since the post-tsunami peace agreement.


Following Islamic strictures, marrying an uncle or aunt or a nephew or niece is taboo. Nor should first cousins, especially the children of two brothers or of two sisters (parallel cousins), marry each other; this, however, occurs often, despite being thought very unlucky.

Except in some areas where the choice depends on whose parents are wealthier, in general a newly married couple lives with the wife's parents. As part of the marriage contract, the wife's parents pledge to support the couple until the first child is born, or for 3−4 years (the exact duration depends on the amount of the bride-price). In the case of poorer families, the husband does not reside in but rather only visits his wife in his in-laws' house, still regarding his own mother's village as his home. If the spouses are from the same village, the man will sleep in the meunasah when not with his wife. In some regions, many husbands trade or grow coffee far from home and only return for Ramadan festivities.

Parents-in-law and sons-in-law are very formal with each other until the birth of the first child. Parents-in-law will sleep in a back room to avoid hearing or running into a son-in-law; they will even speak to him only through the wall. A man feels much closer to his younger siblings-in-law; the latter can act as intermediaries between the man and his parents-in-law if the wife is out.

Children tend to be closer to their mother than to their father and are more likely to bring up their problems with the former (mothers raise the children, while the fathers are usually away all day working). Relations between fathers and grown children tend to be rather distant, with the father often appearing as an "autocratic" authority figure. Moreover, although the father's siblings are responsible for his children should the father die, children still tend to feel more intimacy with the mother's siblings. Grandparents love to spoil their grandchildren; because of this, parents prefer that their children not stay with their grandparents.

Only wealthy men take more than one wife at a time (a legitimate reason, according to Islam, would be the first wife's failure to bear children). Interference by parents-in-law in a couple's affairs constitutes the most frequent cause for divorce. If a wife dies while the couple is still being supported by the parents, her parents give the husband a refund of half of the bride-price or, alternatively, give one of their other daughters to him as a wife. If a husband dies, one of his brothers almost always takes the widow as his wife.


Everyday wear for men consists of a shirt, sarong, and peci cap. Some women wear Acehnese-style black pants and the baju tukok, a short-sleeved shirt; most wear a long-sleeved shirt and a sarong, with a sash over the shoulder.

For ceremonies, men put on a collared jacket, long pants (cekak musang), a sarong (pendua) over it, a peci cap (makutup), and a rencong (a slightly curved blade) tucked in the front. Women attire themselves in a cekak musang, with a pendua of silk woven on a traditional pok teumpeun loom over it, a shirt covering the hips, a waist sash (pending), and jewelry (necklaces, bracelets, and anklets). A bride wears a kulah kama crown with golden hairpins, and flower blossoms. The groom wraps a head cloth around the peci and puts a kulah kama on the front.


Meals consist of rice and fish. Supplementary foods include cassava, sweet potato, maize, and jeneng (a kind of wild tuber). Jeneng are mixed with grated coconut or granulated sugar and eaten with coffee as breakfast. Acehnese prepare sticky rice in various ways: as bu leukat keurabee, mixed with grated coconut and salted; as bu leumak, cooked with coconut milk; as bu leukat kuneng, steamed with coconut milk and turmeric; and as bu leukat meukuah, cooked in a coconut milk sauce and optionally mixed with banana or durian. They also enjoy kanji (congee, a gruel of rice or sticky rice) cooked with coconut milk and sometimes mixed with mung beans.

Foods for special occasions include the following: timphan, rice flour boiled with grated coconut and sugar; pulut panggang, sticky rice mixed with coconut milk and grilled; and guleeplei, a combination of maninjau fruit, green pepper, banana blossoms, young maninjau leaves, tamarind leaves, string beans, and small shrimp, eaten with rice. One special Ramadan food is ibupeudah, rice gruel mixed with 44 kinds of edible leaves and sprinkled with grated or finely chopped coconut.

Because Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol, those who do so must drink it secretly. Popular drinks include sweet palm-saps, sugarcane water, and coconut juice. Rather more exotic is air madu, the "honey" secreted by an uno, a kind of spider; dukun specialize in collecting this fluid.


In Aceh, religious education is compulsory from age seven. This entails first instruction in reciting the Qur'an at a village meunasah then goes on to further education at a pesantren. In 2005, North Sulawesi's level of literacy stood at 95.98%, high by Indonesian national standards.


Traditional dances include the tari ranub lampuan, depicting young women offering betel to guests; the Arab-influenced seudati agam for males and seudati inong for females; the saman, where dancers sit in a row on the ground, performing coordinated hand and body movements in a dynamic rhythm; and the ramphak, a female dance displaying courage in fighting the Dutch. One type of musical performance is rapa-i, playing the rebana tambourine to accompany chanting.

Many of the classics of Malay literature were created in Acehnese cities, e.g., the Pasai royal chronicle Hikayat Raja-Raja Pasai;the heretical mystical poems of Hamzah Fansuri; and the Nuruddin ar-Raniri's Bustan as-Salatin (the Garden of Kings), an encyclopedic work on history and politics. Prose and poetry in the Acehnese language only began to be written in the 17th century. One classic is the Hikayat Perang Sabil (Chronicle of the Holy War), a narrative of the Dutch war.


The majority of Acehnese support themselves through wet-rice agriculture. Most fields begin as sectioned-off swampland; only some rely on irrigation from rivers and streams. Men, working cooperatively, manage irrigation, while women plant and weed. Swidden (shifting-cultivation) fields far from the village provide supplementary crops, such as dry rice, chilies, papayas, sweet potatoes, and vegetables. Formerly, pepper was the primary cash crop; now it is coffee. An alternative to farming is life as a trader, marketing agricultural produce.

Fishing is another major source of livelihood; traditionally, pawang guilds, each consisting of a chief and a boat crew, partitioned a stretch of coast among themselves. Acehnese also keep cattle and water buffalo, selling their animals as far away as Medan. A dairy industry exists, though it was introduced and remains in the hands of Bengali immigrants.

In the past, the primary exports were plantation-produced rubber and palm oil. Nowadays, oil and natural gas production supports local development.


Pencak silat, a Malay-style martial art characterized by the dance-like grace of its hand movements, is a popular sport; many women practice it.


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Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam's Gender-Related Development Index (combining measures of women's health, education, and income relative to men's) is 62.1, higher than Indonesia's national GDI of 59.2. The province's Gender Empowerment Measure (reflecting women's participation and power in political and economic life relative to men's) is 55.5, also higher than the national GEM (54.6).

The position of women is relatively high. For instance, a wife does not automatically submit to her husband's wishes. She takes an active part in wet-rice cultivation and within the home wields much power (the children fear her more than the often-absent father). Women have exercised leadership roles in Acehnese history; there were several queens in the 17th century, as well as a female military commander, Malahajati. However, a woman, especially one about to be married, cannot leave the house without her parents' supervision. When parents die, daughters inherit the house while sons get the rice fields, which usually end up under women's control, in any case, as men seek their livelihood away from the village. The ideal is for parents to build a house for each of their daughters as she marries, often spending their last years in a shack surrounded by the houses of their married daughters; if they cannot afford to build a separate house for a married daughter, they may leave their house to her and move into the kitchen (a separate structure).

Acehnese women suffered greatly during the struggle between GAM guerrillas and the Indonesian military. Many were brutalized, driven from their homes, and forced, with their children, to endure life in refugee camps (where they were even denied control of a kitchen of their own, the one place they were master in a society where Islamic teaching is interpreted to support patriarchy). Worse yet, many were raped by government soldiers. In the wake of the war, over 377,000 households are headed by widows. Women played an active role in promoting peace, from organizing regency-wide days of communal prayers to negotiating with the Indonesian army and presenting statements to the United Nations Committee in Geneva.


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—revised by A. J. Abalahin