views updated


ETHNONYMS: Gajo, Utang Gayó


Identification. The Gayo live predominantly in the central highlands of Aceh Province in Sumatra, Indonesia, and are Sunni Muslims. Gayo refer to themselves as "Urang Gayo," meaning "Gayo people," primarily on grounds of command of basa Gayo, the Gayo language.

Location. The Gayo homeland lies across the Bukit Barisan Range in Aceh Province, between 4° and 5° N and 96° and 98° E. The range divides the homeland into four plateaus, each with a river system along which Gayo have settled. The largest concentration of settlement is the town of Takèngën (Takengon) by Lake Lauttawar. The area gradually declines in elevation from about 1,500 meters in the north to about 500 meters in the south. Northeast trade winds bring heavy rains in a four-month period between October and March; the southeast trades can bring a lighter rainfall between April and September.

Demography. The 1980 population of the district of Central Aceh was 163,339, of which about 140,000 were Gayo speakers. In the 1980s about 45,000 Gayo resided in other districts in the Aceh highlands and about 25,000 lived elsewhere in Indonesia, giving a total population of about 210,000 Gayo.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Gayo language belongs to the Western Indonesian Branch of the Austronesian Family and lexically is most closely related to the Batak Subfamily. The presence of Mon-Khmer loanwords suggests early coastal contacts with some Mon-Khmer-language-speaking societies. The earliest known writing in Gayo used the Jawi script (Arabic letters) but since the 1950s most Gayo have used standard Indonesian orthography. By the 1980s most Gayo had at least minimal competence in the Indonesian language.

History and Cultural Relations

Substantial written references to the Gayo only begin in the late nineteenth century. It is likely, however, that the Gayo homeland belonged to the Islamic kingdom of Aceh in the seventeenth century and that Islamization of the area had begun by that time. At the outbreak of the Aceh-Dutch war in 1873, Gayo possessed a strong sense of ethnic distinctiveness but recognized a nominal Acehnese suzerainty. Some Gayo continued to resist the Dutch after the invasion of the highlands in 1904. During Dutch occupation (1904-1942) Gayo developed a thriving cash-crop economy in vegetables and coffee, attained a relatively high level of basic education, and participated in the movements of Islamic modernism and Indonesian nationalism. Gayo fought to maintain Indonesian independence (declared in 1945) and participated in the provincial Darul Islam rebellion against the central government (1953-1962). Gayo took part in the postcoup massacres (GESTAPU) of 1965-1966 and, unlike most of Aceh, voted for the government party, GOLKAR, in the 1970s and 1980s.


In the 1980s Gayo lived in isolated households, small mountain hamlets, larger clustered villages, and in towns and cities. Villages ranged in population from one hundred to several thousand persons. Precolonial villages consisted of one or more longhouses, which were raised on stilts and divided into kitchens and sleeping rooms for three to nine nuclear or extended families. Houses were clustered together for protection, often on a hill. Gayo began to replace longhouses with low, single-family dwellings in the 1920s; some longhouses remained in the south in the 1980s. A single-family house has a roof of palm leaf or corrugated iron, a front public room and rear kitchen with a raised eating platform, and sometimes a sleeping room.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In 1980 about 70 percent of the residents of Central Aceh (and perhaps SO percent of Gayo residents) were engaged in farming. Others engaged in trade or civil service. Most Gayo farmers grow rice (usually with irrigation) or coffee. Most rice farmers puddle their fields with the hooves of water buffalo, and transplant, weed, and harvest local varieties of rice by hand. A few plows, but no tractors, are in use. Gayo also grow tobacco, yams, cassava, soy beans, potatoes, avocados, and a range of citrus fruits. Hard cakes of sugar are made from the sap of the sago palm (Arenga pinnata ). Many Gayo fish in the rivers and in Lake Lauttawar, using nets and hooks. Water buffalo, goats, chickens, and ducks are kept.

Industrial Arts. Gayo manufacture fishing equipment, embroider designs onto manufactured cloth, and work as tailors. Gayo also own and operate village rice hullers and, in Takèngën, several large coffee-processing plants.

Trade. Sundry and eating shops are found throughout the region, and Gayo traders carry goods overland to the most remote communities. Sugar, rice, coffee, oils, other foodstuffs, and clothes are marketed within the homeland, while horses and water buffalo are driven to the coasts for sale. Coffee exports are largely controlled by Acehnese and Chinese, although in the 1970s Gayo traders became more active.

Division of Labor. In rural settings women and men jointly perform many of the major agricultural tasks either as a household unit or in mixed-sex labor groups. Plowing, puddling fields, fishing, and long-distance trade journeys by foot are undertaken only by men. Most child care, firewood gathering, cooking, and weeding is performed by women. Women often control household budgets, operate shops, and trade in cloth and foodstuffs. In Takèngën, women as well as men work in the civil service.

Land Tenure. Individuals control plots of agricultural land. Villages hold residual rights and once could block sales, but in the 1960s individuals used the courts to gain the right to sell land outside the village. The amount of available rice land has grown only slowly, but in the 1970s and 1980s large forest areas were cleared by smallholders for coffee growing. Forest clearing has produced problems of fire damage and soil erosion in the region.


Kin Groups and Descent. Two major combinations of social units appear in the homeland: (1) a village divided into distinct kin categories, each associated with a different village office, and (2) kin categories that extend across several villages and are centered in a mother village. In both cases membership in the category can be traced through males or females, but claims to uniquely patrifilial ties carry weight in intravillage political matters.

Kinship Terminology. An Iroquois system was in use throughout Gayoland, but a generational system without a cross/parallel distinction has been used increasingly since the 1970s, reflecting changing marriage patterns and the Islamic bilateral ideology.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The village and the supravillage kin categories are exogamous. Although marriage between second cousins is permitted, most Gayo consider a third-cousin relation to be the proper minimal distance. Polygynous marriages, though permitted, are rare. In rural areas most marriages are between couples who already were acquainted. The two major marriage forms followed in the 1980s were: (1) virilocal marriages with bride-wealth and a counterpayment of bride goods that established a lasting exchange relation between two kin categories, and (2) uxorilocal marriages with little or no payment that obliged the couple to support the wife's family. Although the choice of the couple's village of domicile was fixed by the marriage form, nearly all virilocally married couples and many uxorilocally married couples left the parents' household after an initial period of residence. As the clearing of new lands for cash cropping grew more attractive in the 1970s, more marriages were contracted without specifying domicile. Divorce once meant that the party who had married into a village left with no property, but since the legal reforms and economic changes that began in the 1960s, most divorcing couples divide common property equally.

Domestic Unit. Households vary in size from single persons to three-generation extended families. Households generally eat together, but adolescent boys often sleep as a group in the village prayer house. The household is the basic unit of production and consumption, and has a common household budget.

Inheritance. Prior to independence (1945) households passed on property to children who remained in the village after marriage, and favored the child who had cared for the aged parents. In the 1960s individuals began to petition the newly established Islamic court to redivide estates along the lines of Islamic property law. The success of these requests, and broader changes in religious education, led many Gayo, particularly those living in and around Takèngën, to apply Islamic law in dividing their own estates.

Socialization. Parents, resident grandparents, and siblings raise children. Care givers emphasize the importance of a sense of shame (kemèl ) and respect for others according to kin relation. Physical punishment is rare.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Kin relations and village structure play an important role in organizing everyday interactions. In the precolonial and colonial periods the highest-level rulers could claim prestige and high social status, but Gayo society before and after independence has been characterized by basically egalitarian sociopolitical relations among individuals and among villages.

Political Organization. The Gayo homeland has been part of the republic of Indonesia since independence in 1945. Most of the Gayo homeland lies in the district (kabupaten ) of Central Aceh in the province of Aceh. The homeland also includes parts of three other districts. Each district has a head, under whom serve the heads of subdistricts (kecamatan ) and villages (desa ). For the most part the village corresponds to the basic Gayo political unit, the sarak opat, meaning "four elements" and referring to the three village officials plus the remaining villagers. In the precolonial period the homeland was divided among six domains, each with a domain lord (kajurun ); the authority and prestige of these lords varied greatly.

Social Control. The importance placed on avoiding embarrassment and shame exerts a strong guiding and restraining influence on conduct, as does the role of the kinship system in organizing respect, avoidance, and cooperation. The Indonesian police and army maintain a presence in all subdistrict capitals and exercise their police powers readily.

Conflict. In the precolonial system conflicts between villages were settled by public-resolution sessions and sometimes were mediated by a third party. The colonial and Indonesian governments assumed jurisdiction over all criminal matters.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Gayo have been Muslims at least since the seventeenth century. Beginning in the late 1920s, modernist Muslims (kaum mude ) sought to purge religious practices of "improper" elements. They focused on rituals of propitiation, the form of worship (salat, semiyang ), and marriage exchange. Other religions are represented in the town of Takèngën by Chinese (Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism) and a small number of Batak residents (Christian). In rural areas Gayo communicate with guardian spirits, ancestors, and prophets, as well as spirits sent to cause illness. In the modernist town environment such activities are less common, but healing through exorcism is widely practiced.

Religious Practitioners. Each Gayo village has a religious official (imëm ) who assists at weddings, funerals, and religious festivals, but every Gayo man and woman carries out duties as a Muslim, including burying the dead, bringing children into the world, and worshipping God. Healers exorcise illness-causing spirits from patients. Associated with each mosque is a sermon giver and one or more attendants. Government-appointed officials register marriages, divorces, and reconciliations under Islamic law. A district branch of the national Council of Ulama delivers opinions on religious matters.

Ceremonies. Gayo observe a number of festivals according to the lunar Muslim calendar, most notably the prophet Mohammed's birthday (Molud, Arabic Maulud en-nabi), the Mohammed's birthday (Molud, Arabic Maulud en-nabi), the feast after the fasting month (Reraya, Arabic Id al-fitr), and the day of sacrifice during the pilgrimage events (Reraya Haji/Korban, Arabic Id al-adhal). The life cycle is marked by ritual events. Seven days after birth the child is ritually bathed, introduced to the natural and spirit worlds, and given a name. Circumcision (boys) and incision (girls) takes place at varying times during youth. Wedding celebrations include the Islamic ritual (nikah ) and formal exchanges of speeches and goods between the two parties. Most ritual or ceremonial events center on a ritual meal (kenduri ).

Arts. Gayo art is largely verbal. The didong, sung poetry, once involved a single performer, but since the 1950s has pitted two teams of men and boys against each other. The teams trade songs and insults throughout the night. Saèr, religious poetry, was an important instrument of religious change in the 1930s and 1940s. Saman is a series of songs and chants, usually with religious content, that is performed by a line of kneeling boys and resembles dhikir religious chanting. Although Gayo once built water vessels, wove, and carved, these skills became obsolete because of the availability of cheap imported goods; in the 1970s and 1980s, only the art of embroidering Gayo designs remained.

Medicine. Gayo utilize spiritual healing, local knowledge of leaves and roots, and the medicines available through the local polyclinics. Healers attribute illness to the activities of malevolent spirits.

Death and Afterlife. At least since the late 1920s Gayo have differed among themselves about the nature of death, with some holding that postmortem communication with the dead is possible and morally important for the deceased's well-being, and others arguing that such attempts deny the act of God that took the person out of this world and thus represent the illegitimate supplication of spirits. Postmortem chanting (sammadiyah ) sends blessings to the deceased, and graves of important ancestors sometimes are visited as part of the healing process.


Bowen, John R. (1991). Sumatran Politics and Poetics: Gayo History, 1900-1989. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bowen, John R. (1993). Muslims through Discourse: Religion and Ritual in Gayo Society. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Forthcoming.

Snouck Hurgronje C. (1903). Het Gajoland en Zijne Bewoners. Leiden: E. J. Brill.