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PRONUNCIATION: mee-NAHNG-kah-BOW (as in "bow down")
LOCATION: Indonesia (Sumatra and other areas)
POPULATION: 5.5 million
LANGUAGE: Minangkabau
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Indonesians


The Minangkabau (also called "Minang") are one of the few matrilineal cultures surviving into modern times (and the largest currently existing), a distinction even more striking as theirs is virtually the only such society within the Islamic world. Their very name ("victorious [menang]" "buffalo [kabau]") reflects their independent spirit. According to legend, for a bullfight held in lieu of battle, the Minangkabau pitted a tiny water buffalo calf against the giant beast representing the Javanese invaders. The Minangkabau secretly affixed blades to the calf's horns; the calf, taking the larger animal as its mother, knifed it to death while seeking an udder.

Wet-rice agriculture made its earliest debut on Sumatra in the Minangkabau home valleys, but it was the region's gold that first attracted foreigners. In the 14th century, the half-Javanese, half-Sumatran prince Adityavarman established the first kingdom near the coveted mines. This was probably the distant ancestor of the Pagurruyung monarchy (actually, three co-rulers of limited power) of later centuries.

Increased external trade, with Gujerat (India), Aceh, and Malacca, brought Islam to the Minangkabau by the 16th century. By the end of the 18th century, the new religion had spawned the Paderis, puritanical reformers bent on purging the Minangkabau lands of everything contrary to Islam as they understood it, including the matrilineal Pagurruyung aristocracy. Although, after more than three decades of war (1803– 1837), the reformers largely succeeded, the upheaval invited the intervention of the Dutch. The Dutch East India Company had made its first appearance in the Minang region in 1663.

Under Dutch rule, the Minangkabau, to a greater extent than most other Indonesian peoples, pursued modern education. Minangkabau intellectuals were to play key roles in the nationalist movement; one of them, Muhammad Hatta, became Indonesia's first vice-president. Nonetheless, independence disappointed Minangkabau desirous of regional autonomy and an Islamic state. In 1958, Minangkabau and Toba Batak military leaders backed the establishment of the "Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia" (PRRI); Jakarta crushed the rebellion swiftly but left Minangkabau feeling no better than a conquered people. Stability and prosperity under Suharto's New Order reconciled the once-disaffected with the central government.


Numbering 5.5 million (2000 census), the Minangkabau locate their original homeland in the fertile volcanic highlands of West Sumatra, specifically in three valleys, Tanah Datar, Agam, and Limapuluh Kota. From there they spread outward into neighboring mountainous areas, reaching into other Sumatran provinces and down into the swampy western coastal plain as far north as Meulaboh in Aceh and as far south as Bengkulu. In addition, Minangkabau can be found in cities throughout the archipelago, particularly Jakarta. Minangkabau constitute 88% of the population of their home province of West Sumatra (3.74 million out of 4.25 million) and are the sixth largest ethnic group in Indonesia; a 1.76 million-strong diaspora lives in other provinces (constituting 15% of the population in North Sumatra, 11% in Riau, and 5% in Jambi). Crossing the Straits of Malacca as early as the 15th century, they founded Negeri Sembilan in the 18th century, now one of Malaysia's states; 300,000 Minangkabau were estimated to be living in that country in 1981.

This wide distribution results from the merantau tradition: because women possess the rights to village lands, men wanting to acquire wealth for themselves have long migrated from the Minangkabau homeland to do so, either temporarily or permanently. Increased land scarcity beginning in the 19th century has led more and more Minangkabau to merantau.


The Minangkabau speak a language very close to Malay, but it is readily distinguishable from Malay, e.g., cognates differ usually in the final syllable: Malay pusaka, pasisir, perut versus Minang pusako, pasisie, paruik. The important Malay particle yang ("that" or "which") is nan in Minang.


Remote mountain or jungle spots may be tampek-tampek nan sati, places charged with supernatural power. Spirits feared by the Minangkabau include puntianak, women who from afar suck the blood out of an infant through the soft spot in its skull (the fontanel). Palasik are women who have an innate power (which, however, they cannot control) to render children sickly. People may enlist the services of dukun, practitioners of magic and herbal medicine, to combat malevolent spirits or to victimize others (as in menggasing, sending poison to another's bloodstream through the air). As a defense, many carry amulets, a particularly potent one being crystallized elephant sperm.


The Minangkabau are among the peoples most-committed to orthodox Islam in the archipelago. Despite conflicts between that patriarchal religion and their own matrilineal traditions, Minangkabau consider both integral to their culture. Islamic reform movements over the last two centuries have eliminated virtually all traces of pre-Islamic beliefs, although there are Minangkabau who recognize various types of spirits as well as the power of magic.


Minangkabau observe the major Islamic holidays [SeeIndonesians .]. One festival, which because of its Shi'ite character has very few counterparts elsewhere in predominantly Sunni Indonesia, is the colorful and lively tabuik (tabut) of the West Sumatra coast, a celebration in commemoration of the death of the Prophet Muhammad's kinsmen Hassan and Hussein at the battle of Karbala (ad 680).


Surrounding birth are several rites (of waning importance nowadays): one at the sixth month of the pregnancy; the playing of the talempong (metallophones) to greet the birth; the burial of the placenta; the infant's first touching earth (at 40 days of age); its first haircut; and, at three months of age, a formal visit to its father's family. Corresponding to circumcision for boys, a "doing up the hair" (menata kondai) ceremony is held for a girl who has experienced her first menstruation.

Because of matrilineal traditions, the wedding process among the Minangkabau does not conform to the pattern general to Indonesia. Not only men but also women may issue a proposal (via intermediaries, as usual elsewhere). Despite the requirements of Islamic law, a Minangkabau man does not pay a bride-price. On the other hand, the bride's family may pay the groom's an uang jemputan (handed over during the ceremony). Of greater importance is the exchange of symbolic goods, such as krisses (short daggers), between the two families.

Funerals follow general Islamic guidelines. Before the deceased is carried to the cemetery, the coffin is raised so the deceased's children may pass under it three times in order to prevent excessive grief (and dreams about the dead) from afflicting them.

See also the article entitled Indonesians .


Villages (nagari) consist of clusters of houses belonging to different matrilineal lineages (local branches of far-flung suku). A lineage that descends from the original founders (urang asa) of the village possesses rights to more land than other lineages, and its head has the exclusive privilege of bearing a title. Among the lineages that settled later, those (usually related to the urang asa line) that enjoyed some status in their native place were eventually able to buy land and gain equality, except for being barred from holding the above title, with the dominant lineage. Other lineages, on the other hand, suffer an inferior status in the village, obliged to serve the dominant lineages in various capacities, and, in the case of those lineages with known slave ancestry, their members may be shunned as marriage partners.

A council composed of the heads (penghulu, males) of all the lineages manages village affairs (though under the modern Indonesian state this amounts to little more than dispute arbitration). Traditionally, four groups share leadership responsibilities in the village: niniek mamak (heads of paruik, the extended matrilineal family); religious officials (imam and khatib); the cerdik pandai (individuals with education); and bundo kanduang (senior women). Wealth and education, both secular and religious, have become as or more important than hereditary titles in determining status. Indeed, only some of the Minangkabau traditionally recognized aristocratic principles (those following the Koto-Piliang norms, as well as those in Aceh-influenced Pariaman); others, those adhering to the Bodi-Caniago pattern, preferred egalitarian practices, such as having elected rather than hereditary penghulu.

Etiquette requires that one's language and behavior express deference to older people, a careful formality to relatives by marriage, and affectionate patience to those younger; people of the same age, even strangers, should show mutual respect. Parents prefer to correct a child out of the hearing of others, though sometimes they may judge it suitable for these others to hear. Women who are blood relations or on intimate terms may embrace each other after a long separation, but it is not proper for a man to greet even a related woman with an embrace. According to some, a man and a woman should never shake hands. Women should not squat as men do, nor sit unaccompanied on the roadside or elsewhere frequented by men.

Traditionally, young men and women (e.g., a boy and his uncle's daughter) could exchange glances only at large celebrations. One opportunity for interaction (in the Pesisir Selatan area) is afforded at weddings where young men enter a house playing tambourines while the young women, sitting above in the pagu (open attic), rain flowers down on them. A young woman lowers a flower and a cigarette on a string down to the young man of her desire; he replies by sending her a ring or other valuable wrapped in a cloth.


Raised 2 m (6.5 ft) off the ground on numerous pillars, the traditional Minangkabau house, or rumah gadang ("big house"), is famous for the ridge beams of its roof sections that sweep up to a sharp point at both ends, evoking water buffalo horns. Stretching out north to south, the house is entered through a roofed staircase to the door on one of the long sides. A room for receiving guests runs the length of the house. Behind it along the back wall are the rooms (bilik) for the married sisters of the family (added when each weds); the house pillars, 3 m (10 ft) apart, determine where the partition walls of each bilik will be. At one end of some houses, the floor is raised to provide a sitting place (anjueng) for those of superior status. Where there is no anjueng, the spot is occupied by a room for the youngest sister and her husband. The kitchen occupies a small building, usually at the back, accessible by a small bridge.

Nowadays, most people occupy single-family houses; traditional ones are called tungkuih nasi ("rice packet," referring to the hornless roofs).

The village (nagari) consists of the nagari proper (houses and wet-rice fields) and the taratak (forests, dry-crop fields, and sometimes the dwellings of non-owning caretakers). The nagari proper includes a mosque, a village council hall, a place for a weekly or twice-weekly market, and surau, halls for daily prayer that is also where the community's unmarried men sleep.

West Sumatra has a Human Development Index (combining measures of income, health, and education) of 71.2 (2005 score), higher than Indonesia's national score of 69.6 and the ninth highest in the country (out of 33 provinces). West Sumatra's GDP per capita is us$9,784, very high for Indonesia (cf. us$10,910 for North Sumatra, us$6,293 for Central Java, and us$2,919 for North Maluku). In 2000, the level of infant mortality, at 52.66 deaths per 1,000 live births, was moderate for Indonesia, worse than provinces on Java but better than most in eastern Indonesia.


A Minangkabau belongs to his or her mother's clan (suku) and traditionally lives in an extended family (paruik, meaning "[common] stomach or womb"), which consists of all individuals who trace their ancestry back to a common great-grandmother matrilineally.

The 96 named suku trace back to an original four: Bodo, Caniago, Koto, and Piliang. One must marry outside one's suku. Custom preferred a man to marry his maternal uncle's daughter, though he might also choose his paternal aunt's daughter or the sister of his sister's husband; today, the choice is not so restricted). Within the paruik, children's interaction with their mother's siblings is hardly less close than that with their parents.

Formerly, a husband visited his wife only at night, retaining residence in his mother's village; these days, he moves into her house after the wedding. If a man takes more than one wife (a practice condemned by younger people), he commutes between their houses, which may mean between one house in his native place and another where he has migrated. For children, it was the mother's eldest brother (mamak) who served as the male authority figure; the mamak, moreover, managed the affairs of the paruik in general. The mamak's relations with his sister's husband tends to be formal. Parents-in-law, on the other hand, are known to spoil their children-in-law. If a man migrates with his wife, his parents-in-law may join them, while his own parents will not. After divorce, the husband must move away, leaving the children with his wife.

As the nuclear family increasingly displaces the extended family as the norm, the role of the father and his kin grows proportionately. It has become common for a deceased man's wife and children to challenge his sister's children's traditional claim to his property. Custom traditionally distinguished between harato pusako, property (mainly land and heirlooms) retained by the suku or its branches in perpetuity, and harato pacarian, (usually moveable) property earned by a man that he could bequeath as he wished.


As everyday wear, men wear shirts, trousers, and a peci cap [SeeIndonesians .]. Older men still wear serawa (long pants with a drawstring) and a teluk belanga (tunic) or a "Chinese" shirt and sometimes a head cloth rather than a peci. Women wear a sarong and baju kurung (long-sleeved kebaya) and a tingkulak (head wrap covering the hair); urban women who wear modern clothing put on traditional clothing while in the village.

Ceremonial attire for men consists of: a tunic with short sleeves that widen towards the opening; trousers; a songket (gold- and silver-embroidered) cloth wrapped around the waist to hang just below the knee; a sash over the shoulder; a saluak headdress; and a kris (short dagger) tucked in the front. Women wear the baju kurung; a songket sarong with a matching sash over the shoulder; earrings; several necklaces, one on top of another; and bracelets on both arms. Most distinctive is the women's headwear: the cloth is folded (the precise manner is unique to each village) to look like horns (tanduk or tilakuang). Brides don elaborate headdresses of gold.


Rice is the core of the Minangkabau meal. The usual side dishes (samba) are (often salted) fish and boiled vegetables, such as cabbage, water spinach, cassava or papaya leaves, eggplant, amaranth, and banana blossom. Less often, Minangkabau eat dishes of meat (except pork) fried in coconut oil or stewed in coconut milk and heavily spiced with lots of chili and such seasonings as garlic, onions, ginger, galangal, pepper, salt, turmeric, and lemon grass. The most renowned Minangkabau dish is rendang, chunks of water buffalo meat stewed for hours in coconut milk and spices until the liquid reduces to a thick coating; the meat keeps for a very long time and sustains travelers on long journeys. Other dishes are gulai kambing (goat meat in a coconut milk sauce), dendeng (spicy dried beef), and singgang ayam (fried chicken). Drinks include kopi daun, a "tea" of dried coffee leaves.

"Padang" restaurants throughout Indonesia serve Minangkabau food. A waiter lays out several dishes at once on the customer's table; the customer is only charged for the portions that he or she has taken. Their great popularity among non-Minangkabau in Muslim-majority Indonesia is partly due to the assurance that the meat served there is halal, prepared in conformity with Islamic dietary regulations.


In 2005, West Sumatra's level of literacy stood at 95.98%, high by Indonesian national standards (see also the article entitled Indonesians in this volume).


Vocal music includes dendang (singing), zikir (Arab-style chanting), and selawat (invocations from the Qur'an). Instruments include bamboo flutes (saluang and bansi), the tambourine (rebana), the drum, the kecapi (a zither), and the violin.

Dances (all dynamic) include: the fan dance, portraying the interaction of young men and women; the umbrella dance. depicting a couple's love, often danced by a bride and groom; rantak, consisting of martial arts moves; and sauik randai, representing the happy mood upon finishing a day working in the fields or fishing. Dabus is pencak silat martial arts movements performed as an artistic expression.

At ceremonies such as weddings, people are quick to improvise poems (pantun and syair) and aphorisms. Traditional literature includes an epic, Kaba Cindur Mata. Although writing in Malay for publication by the Dutch colonial government's Balai Pustaka publishing house, early 20th century Minangkabau writers produced novels depicting conflicts between tradition and modernity within their native Minangkabau society; many of these became the first classics of modern Indonesian literature.


Agriculture provides the majority with a livelihood. Rice from irrigated fields is the main subsistence crop, while dry-field vegetables (peanuts, potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes, and chili) are grown for the market. In outlying hilly areas, Minangkabau open the land with swidden (shifting-cultivation) methods, planting first dry rice, maize, cassava, pumpkins, or the like, then leaving the plots fallow for a couple of years, and finally planting perennials, such as rubber, cloves, cinnamon, pepper, coffee, and coconut, sugar palm, or fruit trees. With these perennials, farmers are able to participate in the cash economy.

Minangkabau raise chickens, ducks, cattle, water buffalo, and goats for meat. Fishing (in the sea, lakes, and artificial ponds) provides farmers with supplementary income.

Lacking sufficient land, or unsatisfied with the limited returns from farming, and, because of the merantau tradition (migration to acquire wealth), open to an itinerant lifestyle, many Minangkabau seek wealth through commerce. Minangkabau business owners, rather than Chinese as elsewhere in Indonesia, dominate the local economy, marketing agricultural products and the craft specialties of individual villages.


The local form of martial arts is called kumango, a version of the pan-Malay-Indonesian silat. One common game played by 5–15 year olds is galah, in which one team (variable numbers) attempts to block the members of the other team from running a course from a starting point to the end of the playing field and back to the starting point. Males (very rarely females) of all ages enjoy catur harimau ("tiger chess"), a board game with stone playing pieces where one player's "tigers" attempt to eat up the other player's "goats" (the moving and placing of pieces requires skill and strategy).


See the article entitled Indonesians .


Intricate carving, often painted, decorates the pillars and walls of the rumah gadang (the traditional Minangkabau house). Particular (usually plant) motifs correspond to different parts of the structure and symbolize virtues (e.g., the tangguak lamah design signifies humility and courtesy).

A few villages continue to produce the ceremonially important songket, cloth brocaded with gold and silver threads.


See the article entitled Indonesians .


West Sumatra's Gender-Related Development Index (combining measures of women's health, education, and income relative to men's) is 60.7, 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 54.2, almost as high as the national GEM (54.6).

Contemporary Minangkabau notions of gender relations are influenced by distinct and often conflicting discourses: Minangkabau matrilineal values and customary law (seeInterpersonal Relations and Family Life) and patriarchal pan-Islamic and Indonesian nation-building/modernizing ideologies. Mothers, for instance, continue to advise and guide their children even when they are adult, and, if they are senior women (bundo kanduang) within their lineage, they wield authority beyond their own immediate household (Islamic values, however, do not extend her power into children's adulthood and to households other than her own). As the ultimate controllers of property (most importantly of rice lands), women regularly speak up in kinship group and community decision-making gatherings, as they would not generally in other Indonesian cultures. At the same time, as in many other Indonesian cultures, aggressive verbal self-assertion is looked down upon as displaying powerlessness rather than power, with the result that male elders can have their way simply by saying as little as possible.

The genuinely central place of women and especially of mothers in Minangkabau culture is countered by the authority positions traditionally given to men (a man would have authority over his sister's property but not over his wife's) and by Islamic notions. For example, the idea that women unlike men attain adulthood before learning to master their passions, or that a person gets his or her essential character and status from his father's sperm, and, therefore, family's seek men of "good seed" for their daughters. Dutch colonial and later Indonesian national governments have favored the male lineage head (penghulu) over other types of community member traditionally participating in community decision-making processes, including the bundo kanduang through whom property was inherited. The Indonesian national government recognizes the father as the head of the household and channels forms of development aid, such as instruction in new agricultural techniques, to men rather than to women. It has applied the title "Bundo Kanduang" to "model mothers" judged according to an Islamic/Western patriarchal framework, shifting it away from its traditional Minangkabau meaning of a senior woman with great power and authority within her lineage. Women who are junior according to traditional matrilineal lineage hierarchies may raise their status by invoking their husbands' rank within non-traditional hierarchies, such as the Indonesian bureaucracy. Modernization, including increased emigration and the increased value of remittances from migrants, is increasing the importance of the nuclear family as the expense of the extended family and of the lineage and proportionally reducing the power of senior women.


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—revised by A. J. Abalahin