Where Women Lead

Pagaruyung village, West Sumatra
August 8, 2017

On a hill called Gombok, in West Sumatra, were found some statues and several large stones with inscriptions carved on them. Dating from 1347, they can hardly be called ancient, yet these are the first written records in this area. Written in Pali script, they speak of Adityawarma, the founder of the kingdom who ruled in these parts until his death in 1375. In the usual manner of such edicts, the inscriptions praise the greatness and wisdom of the king, especially as a master of the Tantric Buddhism. On a stone dated 1356, the author, a certain Mpungku Dharmma Dwaja, calls the king, a god of snakes and priests who became the arm of the world. Another stone is written in commemoration of a temple and yet another speaks of the meaning of human life. Adityawarman was the grandson of Tribhuwanaraja, the king of the Melayu kingdom and a royal of Java’s Majahapit lineage. He conquered the east coast of Sumatra and founded a royal dynasty in Pagaruyung, near modern-day Batu Sankar in 1347.

Today the stones lie in an open-sided shed, by the side of the road, some four kilometers from the town of Batu Sankar, largely forgotten and overlooked by tourists and locals alike. There are sketchy explanations in Bahasa Indonesia and none in English. Yet it is this dynasty that gave rise to the Pagaruyung kingdom, and are the forerunners of the Minankabau lineage, much vaunted in these parts. Strangely, no records exist between 1375 and 1513 and little is known about this kingdom.

Although the Pagaruyung kingdom was disbanded in 1833, and the royal palace destroyed several times, it has been re-built each time. The most recent incarnation is from 2007, built in the traditional style with several innovations. Three storeys high, this too is boat-shaped like the Batak houses. But the saddle-shaped roof is even more pronounced, with multiple thatched roofs forming layers. Seen from the front, the roofs soar up and away like the outspread wings of birds, tilted at the tips. The ends of the roofs rise sharply into tips, mimicking buffalo horns. At right angles to the roof layers is the entrance, with its soaring roof as well.

Instead of only the eaves being decorated, here, the decoration creeps up on all three sides of the building in the form of wooden panels. But true to Islamic tenets, there are no masks or imagery. Instead, these wooden panels are beautifully carved and painted, covering all except the rear wall. Flowers, vines and geometric designs fill every inch of space in a dazzling pattern, strong greens mixing with pink and brown and yellow. The polished wood interior is largely bare but the segregated areas for men and women show adherence to Islamic laws. A rice barn once a standard feature of every house graces one part of the yard. A large life-sized buffalo statue next to it plays happy mount for a gaggle of children.

There are several traditional houses in the area, some renovated and in pristine condition, while some are slowly giving way to the elements. There are some families that still live in the old traditional houses but most now occupy modern buildings. The wealthier families maintain the traditional buildings and use them for ceremonial purposes these days, while everyday life goes on in newer building set around the courtyard. Walking down the road, a greeting led to a smile and a smile to an invitation to stop and chat. It was usually the women who invited me in, happy to share their culture and history. Unsurprising really, given this society’s matrilineal heritage.

The Minangkabau, descendants of the Pagaruyung kingdom are best known today for their matrilineal society. They are deemed the largest matriarchal society in the world today and are understandably proud of their heritage. Not so long ago, most families still lived in houses ruled by the matriarch and populated by only those related to the women. Husbands moved into their wives’ houses after marriage and were treated as honored guests. Property and wealth were inherited by the women and remained in their possession. It was the women who made all the decisions, in home and out of home, including farming and business. The spread of Islam, with its tenets that favor men, raised more than a few debates and indeed rebellions in the past. Today, the Minangkabau continue to do a tightrope balancing act between tradition and religion. Modern life with its nuclear families further erode the old system and some of the older people shake their heads as they sigh. A facet of bridging the laws of tradition and religion, has given rise to a peculiar compromise. “High inheritance” refers to wealth and property that are still handed down through the mother while “low inheritance” refers to the wealth inherited from the father, largely from his professional salary. There are other such compromises but the culture still retains enough of its tradition to remain unique in the world.

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