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ETHNONYMS: Dempo, Pasemah


Identification. The name Ogan-Besemah" refers to an ethnolinguistic grouping of peoples living primarily in the province of South Sumatra, Indonesia. Members of the several peoples comprising this grouping consider themselves more akin to each other than to their neighborsthe Komering to the south, Malay speakers to the east, and Rejang to the north. Residents of the area sometimes refer to the entire grouping as Ogan" or "Dempo" people, but more often distinguish between two subfamilies (hence the hyphenated name used here): the Besemah subgroup to the west (often written "Pasemah") and the Ogan subgroup to the east.

Location. The Ogan-Besemah area covers most of South Sumatra Province, from the outskirts of Palembang city on the east to the mountainous border with Bengkulu on the west. The area rises from the eastern peneplains to a high coffee-growing region in the west.

Demography. The province of South Sumatra (103,688 square kilometers) had about 6 million inhabitants in 1989; probably about half that number are of the Ogan-Besemah grouping (censuses do not ascertain language or ethnic affiliation). During the past quarter-century Besemah peoples have expanded southward into Lampung Province.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Ogan-Besemah dialects are in the Western Indonesian Branch of the Austronesian Family and are closely related to Malay. They form a continuum or chain of intelligibility across the area. Speakers distinguish among dialects on the basis of degree of difficulty. Within the Besemah category speakers group the Lematang, Kikim, Lintang, and Besemah dialects as highly mutually intelligible, and the Semende (or Semendo) dialect as somewhat more distant. Among Ogan dialects are Enim, Musi, Rawas, and Ogan proper, all highly mutually intelligible. These languages were once written in a local Sanskrit-derived script (generally called Ka-Ga-Nga), which is rarely used today; only Latin and Arabic scripts are taught in the schools. Nearly all Ogan-Besemah speakers are also fluent in the Palembang dialect of Malay, and many also command the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, which is derived from Malay.

History and Cultural Relations

The Ogan-Besemah region was relatively independent of coastal Malay rulers. Dutch rule began in 1816, but was largely limited to the area around Palembang city. Local rulers carried out active resistance to Dutch conquest, and only in 1866 was the entire area officially under colonial control. The dialectal differences within the area are not the basis for clear-cut contrastive social identities. Since independence in 1945, Ogan-Besemah people have occupied important posts in local and national government. Within the province they have alternated with Komering people for control of the governor's office and the patronage positions that follow, accentuating the local sense of a division between the two groups. Besemah people have played the most important political role within the Ogan-Besemah grouping.


People in the area live largely in villages (dusun ) ranging from several hundred to several thousand persons in size. In the western half of the area villagers may spend much of the year living in small dwellings (talang ) near their garden sites a considerable distance from the village. In the 1980s, most houses were single-family wooden structures with iron roofs, divided into a front reception area, a back kitchen, and one or more sleeping rooms.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Agriculture is the principal economic activity for most people in the area and is based on the three crops of rice, rubber, and coffee. Rice is grown primarily for producer consumption and rarely yields over two tons per acre (low by current Indonesian standards) . Much of the rice land is either in swampland or in highland areas, where it competes with coffee for farmers' time and capital, and can be marketed only with difficulty. Farmers work wet-rice (usually irrigated) plots by hoeing or plowing with oxen or water buffalo. Planting is done by small groups working for wages or by a rotating work group. Harvesting is done by work groups, the farming family, or, increasingly, by a small number of day-wage laborers. Rubber became an important cash crop early in this century, but poor quality and a declining international market led to price declines in the 1970s and 1980s. Rubber tapping in the late 1980s was a low-status and stopgap occupation. Coffee seedlings, long planted as part of a swidden-rice cycle, became the object of full-time activity by some farmers after price rises in the 1970s.

Industrial Arts. People construct fishnets, traps, and weirs, and women in the eastern part of the area may weave ceremonial cloths and embroider them with gold thread. Certain villages specialize in crafts such as woodworking and goldworking.

Trade. Farmers sell coffee and rubber in village markets to local agents. Trade flows through Palembang. Sundries are purchased in shops located in larger villages and towns, owned by local people or by Chinese.

Division of Labor. Most agricultural tasks are performed by people from within a village or, in the case of harvest groups, from a neighboring village. Work groups for planting or harvesting may be mixed-sex or all-male. Plowing and preparing fields for planting are done by men, as are the pruning and harvesting of coffee trees. Trade is a specialized occupation.

Land Tenure. Land is controlled by individuals but is considered to be within the territory of a particular village. It may be sold to other villagers; land sale outside the village is permitted but not frequent. Sharecropping, renting, and mortgaging land are common. Land that has not previously been cropped may be cleared and planted by a village member; he or she then assumes ownership.


Kin Groups and Descent. There is considerable variation across the area in descent categories and groups. In much of the area a village may be divided into two or more descent-based categories (jurai or rogok ) within which ties are reckoned through men or women. In the central Ogan area both kinds of tie are found in the jurai; in the west one finds systems strongly favoring patrifiliation (e.g., Besemah) and systems strongly favoring matrifiliation (e.g., Semende).

Kinship Terminology. In general one finds modified Iroquois-type terms, with variation a function of the local marriage options and rules; namely, where there is a differentiation among cousins with respect to marriageability, a cross/parallel distinction is found for that generation; otherwise not.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage rules are the main feature distinguishing among societies within the Ogan-Besemah area. Two types of marriage exist in all these societies. In the type generally called belaki, payment of bride-wealth before marriage establishes the couple's residence in the groom's household, and all children from that marriage remain affiliated with that household. In the type generally called ambig anag, the groom moves into the bride's household, making no major payments, and children are classified as part of the bride's descent line. These alternatives are weighted differently across the area. In Besemah society the norm is the virilocal marriage; in nearby Semende the norm is the uxorilocal variant. In these last two cases this rule applies most strongly to the eldest child, who then inherits the bulk of the property. Most societies in the area permit first-cousin marriage, and in some a preference for the matrilateral cross cousin is stated. Divorce is subject to permission of the office of religious affairs.

Domestic Unit. Households vary in composition from one person to three generations. A married son or daughter rarely resides with the parents for longer than one or two years after marriage.

Inheritance. Inheritance is largely a function of the marriage form found in the particular society. Inheritance is usually to one or two children who remained in the village. Common throughout the area is the institution of the tunggu tubang, in which one or sometimes two children, with their spouses, receive house space and land from the parents and continue the descent line. In most societies only these children inherit the family estate. Two consequences follow: land is relatively unfragmented, and noninheriting children seek their livelihood elsewhere. Devolution of property onto just one child is the most common pattern in Besemah and Semende societies, and these are the peoples who have been most active in clearing new agricultural land in the region and in migrating to Palembang and to other Sumatran provinces.

Socialization. Both parents are care givers. Children who remain in the household after marriage share in care giving and support of younger siblings. Circumcision is a major stage in the life cycle for boys, as is learning the Quran for boys and girls. Primary education, largely in state schools, is nearly universal. Physical punishment is rare; feelings of shame and embarrassment are major incentives for obedience.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. From the precolonial and through the colonial periods, and until recently, the marga, a supravillage territorial unit, was the primary sociopolitical unit in most of the Ogan-Besemah area. The marga had residual rights over land, and the marga head, the pasirah, held high status. More recently the village has assumed many of these rights (including land rights), and the pasirah office has gradually faded away. Within each descent-based unit in a village (the jurai or rogok), men who can trace their descent from an apical ancestor through firstborns (in some villages, through firstborn males) have high status.

Political Organization. In precolonial and early colonial times an independent ruler (pangeran ) ruled in some parts of the area. Today the village head (tuo dusun ) is the primary leader in the village, and often is of high status owing to his descent line. He has gradually assumed much of the former role of the pasirah, and by the 1980s reported directly to the government-appointed subdistrict head (camat ) and not, as before, to the pasirah. In the Indonesia of the 1970s and 1980s the state party, Golkar, also had considerable local power.

Social Control and Conflict. The village head calls meetings of male villagers to resolve most local conflicts, but the Indonesian representatives of the army and police may also intervene. Open physical confrontations are rare here, as elsewhere in Sumatra. Little conflict with other groups is apparent.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Virtually all Ogan-Besemah people are Muslims. Islam spread into the eastern part of the area in the sixteenth century, but the Besemah districts in the west were converted only in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Megalithic shrines on the Besemah plateau continue to be objects of vows and dedications. Much of the later work of conversion was carried out by the Nagshbandiyya Sufi order. In the 1950s leaders of this order formed a political party in the province; this party continues today as a nonpolitical religious association.

Religious Practitioners. Although in theory any adult male may serve as worship leader (imam ), in practice several men of learning or high status function as unofficial leaders of worship. They may also be the village-level heads of the Sufi order. These heads lead chanting sessions in which a chain of authority (silsilah ) is recited that links the head to the founder of the order, and in turn to the archangel Gabriel. Participants recite names of God and other Arabic phrases as a means to gnosis and as a way of expiating sins. Several major religious schools (pesantren ), located in the eastern part of the area, are centers of religious learning from which many villagers return to take up local positions of religious leadership.

Ceremonies. Most men (not women) attend Friday congregational worship at least some of the time. The event also serves as the occasion for the village head to disseminate information. Ritual meals (sedekah ) are held to celebrate a birth, ward off danger, give thanks for a crop, or bless the deceased. Chants generate merit that God then converts to blessings on villagers' activities or relatives. Muslim calendrical feast days are also celebrated.

Arts. Art is largely verbal and ranges from the telling of myths, to the exchanging of short couplets, to the singing of songs with stringed accompaniment.

Medicine. Older practices involving leaves and spells continue in use alongside the clinics, traveling doctors, and readily available powerful antibiotics and vitamins.

Death and Afterlife. Funerals are followed by ritual meals, at which men chant Arabic phrases that generate blessings for the dead. Following general Muslim ideas, people believe in resurrection and a final day of judgement.


Bowen, John R. (1981). The Ethnography of a South Sumatran Village. Cambridge: Harvard Institute for International Development.

Collins, William (1979). "Besemah Concepts: A Study of the Culture of a People of South Sumatra." Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.

Lekkerkerker, C. (1916). Land en Volk van Sumatra. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Marsden, William (1783). The History of Sumatra. London: Privately printed. Reprint. 1986. Singapore and New York: Oxford University Press.