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.

Our People Came by Sea

Samosir Island, Danau Toba,
North Sumatra

August 5, 2017

“Our people came by sea” said the old man, nodding sagely.
“Exactly from where, nobody knows but they came in boats, and so we build our houses like boats” he added, between puffs on his cigarette, his face wreathed in a gap-toothed smile.
In a small roadside café in Ambarita, on the island of Samosir in Lake Toba, I had fallen into conversation with the old man. He seemed to delight in telling tales of bloodthirsty ancestors, especially the creative ways of exacting vengeance. He cackled as he spun out tales of cannibalism and ritual drinking of enemy blood. Every so often he would pause, peering at me with rheumy eyes, hoping to see a shiver or two. I hadn’t the heart to disappoint him.

The much-touted, three hundred year-old stone chairs where the king sat on judgement and meted out punishments is prominently displayed in this part of the village. Despite its bloody past, in the dappled shade of the tree, they seem innocuous. Of more interest to me, were the many stone figures I saw. Barely a meter high and green with moss, they were crude figures depicting guards at the gates and dutiful subjects paying homage to the king. But the ones I found down a small lane in Amabarita, seem to have been forgotten. I have no idea just how old they are, nor what tales they tell. The family in the house next door did not know either, nor seemed interested.

While the old man’s stories of ancestral heroics are no doubt embroidered, the tales of their sea-faring ancestors may very well be true. I remember being told something along the same lines, when I visited the island of Sulawesi years ago. While both styles of houses are equally dramatic, they each have distinctly unique features.

Viewed sideways, the steeply-pitched roofline drops into a saddle before rising back up, giving it the tell-tale boat shape. The short pillars it rests on and the outward leaning walls are the same that I saw in the Karo highlands. But there, the similarity ends. Here, the sharply projected triangular eaves dominate the front and back, with front gable extending further than the rear one. While the rear gable remains unadorned, the front one is the single, most eye-catching feature. It is riot of painted motifs, the intricate patterns swirling among demonic masks placed at intervals. Painstakingly carved out of wood, every inch is painted in bold red, black and white. The panel joining the edges of the deep eave over the balcony, adds a layered look with its equally elaborate designs. The lavish curlicues dance between stylized figures and motifs, making it mesmerizing. The intricacy and lavishness of decorations are in direct proportion to the wealth and status of the owner, the most detailed one being that of an old palace-turned-into-museum, in the nearby village of Tomok. In the same village is the royal graveyard with tombs that are shaped like boats. Some of the tombstones are mini versions of a traditional house. There are stone figures here too, near the tomb, set in a scene complete with musicians, subjects in attitudes of prayer and the figure of a bull, no doubt to be sacrificed.

In the old days, the houses were set in a row, facing a common courtyard. A few steps lead up to the short front door and into the house. Small windows, set on each side of the house let in a little light into the dark interior living area. The interior is an open space, without walls, largely utilitarian in nature. Another ladder inside leads up to an attic space formed by a flat wooden ceiling over the front third of the living area. The attic is mostly a storage area, stuffed with family heirlooms and sometimes shrines. In the old days, an open hearth at the front of the living room would form the kitchen, but it is no longer so. In the houses that still in use these days, the interior is used as a living room and bedroom, with couches, tables and the requisite television blaring in a corner. Additions made onto the back form the kitchen and bath, the bulk of it discretely hidden behind the main building. The houses these days are mostly modern, made of concrete but the art of woodcarving is very much in vogue. Young students learn the art and use as hammers, the filled-in horns of buffalo, just as they did in the past.

The single-lane road that connects villages, wraps around the island with the green ridgeline at its center. Although intensively farmed, it still retains a feel of a slow-paced life. Water buffaloes peer inquisitively as I walk past and a few herons stalk in the fields. The fields are a brilliant green of rice fields and in the distance, I see the boat-shaped roofs among church spires. Just about all the Batak are now Christian, and every village seems to have a scattering of churches of different sects with Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostals dominating. Smiles return my greetings as I stop to chat along the way.

Tales from Karo Highlands

Lingga, Sumatra, Indonesia
Aug 1, 2017

The small villages dotting the highlands around the town of Berastagi in northern Sumatra, have been home to the Karonese people through the ages and still are. Word is, some old traditions are still alive in some of them. A minibus ride got me easily to a village called Lingga and there, peeking over the tops of other houses are the sloping traditional roofs. Rubbish-strewn dirt lanes wind through the village and laundry hangs on crooked posts. Some children smile shyly and adults answer my greetings cheerily. Most houses have corrugated tin roofs, planked walls and stand on cement blocks. The roofs of the oldest ones are covered in moss, with a healthy crop of ferns trailing down the edges. Only three traditional houses grace this village and only one is still lived in.

Chatting with some of the residents, I met the local English teacher.
“Dari mana?” he asked and promptly fell into conversation.
“I know a lot of history” he told me, offering himself as guide.
“What about your classes? Don’t you have to teach?” I asked.
“Oh no” he waved it aside, “I have no schedule today”.
A weekday and no classes? It seemed a tad far-fetched but I thought it prudent not to probe too deeply. James, as I shall call him, shepherded me around, graciously explaining many features.

The traditional houses are massive in size, the heavy wooden posts that form the stilts, placed on stones with shallow indentations. The posts are wedged into the stone with the same natural fibers that form the roofs. This, James tells me, provides enough flexibility to prevent collapse during earthquakes. A meter or so off the ground is a bamboo platform, reachable via a short ladder and above it is the house. A unique feature of these houses are the outward-leaning side walls. The brightly painted walls depict stylized lizards, among other motifs.
“Lizards are small, they have no horns or big claws” said James. “But they manage to crawl in and out of tight places; they are quick and clever” he said. Being wily is a desired trait, hence the motif.

A short door leads into an open space that spans most of the house, the floor made of wide wooden planks. There are several open hearths, each with tiered racks hung above it. It is startling to see the same hearth with racks that I saw in the houses in the Ziro valley of Arunachal Pradesh in India. The racks are used to smoke and cure meats there and no doubt were used for the same purpose here. Then again, perhaps it is not so surprising, given the similarity in climate and geography that must dictate the way of life. Doors lead off to rooms along the sides, each room meant for a family. It used to be, that the entire extended family lived under one roof.

Above the soaring rafters is the steeply sloping roof, the outside covered with fibers from the forest. The fiber bundles are rolled, the rolls laid side by side in a couple of layers. On top of these, are placed several more layers, the entire thickness enough to keep out the heaviest downpour. At each end of the pitched roof is a peaked eave, with beautiful colored patterns woven from palm. The figurehead at each end is that of a buffalo, the head made of cement but the horns are real buffalo horns.
“We have no elephant” says James, “Buffalo is the biggest, strongest animal”.
I saw a new house under construction. And here too lay the buffalo-heads, waiting to be mounted. The horns on these are real buffalo horns as well.

A man sat outside his house, busy carving a hasapi, the Karonese two-stringed instrument. Stopping to chat, we were treated to a snippet of a song. Come to Kabanjahe on the nineteenth, he told me. We will do traditional dances and songs then.

Near the large central community hall lay a couple of cane baskets with enormous pigs grunting inside them. Not for long though, as they were slaughtered in short order. Some women sat nearby busily preparing vegetables. “For a funeral ceremony, tomorrow” said James.

Our meanderings led through the village and we stopped at a house of the storyteller. I had wanted to hear Karo tales and he was only too happy to oblige. We sat on the mat inside his house and he told us tales, pausing only to shoo out the chickens who wandered in from time to time. James translated from Karonese to English as I listened to tales of the gods who created the world. Tales of magicians and sorcerers merged into those of the god who shrugs sometimes, causing earthquakes. There are tales too, of the reason volcanoes erupt, but they take too long, said our storyteller. You have to come back to hear those tales.

Encounters with People of the Forest

Gunung Leuser National Park, Indonesia
July 29, 2017

Decades ago, the town of Bukit Lawang was no doubt a beautiful spot perched at the edge of the national park. But today, it spreads along both banks like cancer, with concrete monstrosities in painted in virulent shades with ever more being constructed each day. The cafes, restaurants and shops line the path along the river and edge onto the grounds of the Gunung Leuser National Park. The shallow, fast flowing Bahorok is where adults and children alike, splash, swim and float downstream on inner tubes. On weekends it is a veritable circus with weekending Indonesians swelling the numbers of tourists and music pumping out of bars. I wonder what the animals in the park make of it.

A trek in the jungle is the main reason to travel to this part of Sumatra and most guesthouses arrange treks for varying number of days. There is an unspoken but definite push to commit from the moment of arrival, the chilly attitude undergoing a distinct mellowing, once a deal is struck and the package paid for. Confirmed bookings for rooms disappear like smoke if there is no promise of a trek. I signed up for a trek along with four others from my guesthouse. Tommy and Maggie are from Argentina, travelling for almost a year while Tessa and Hans are from Holland, on the road for three months.

Barely an hour into the trek is a rubber plantation, the latex collected and taken to town periodically. This is home to a group of Thomas Leaf monkeys who like the nuts of these trees. Their strikingly patterned faces are everywhere. Some on the trees, some on the ground, they seem unperturbed by the masses of humans, so used to them are they. It is unsurprising, given the familiar way of the guides and the selfies deemed mandatory by many of the visitors. Some even hold out food for the monkeys for that all-important selfie.

Our guide, Joseph overheard a couple of comments we made and unknown to us, decided to take matters in hand. We walked along but soon after, a barely discernable rustle of leaves high in the tree-tops, a flash of orange in the distance and Joseph stopped to listen. Off he went down the steep slope, off trail, barely needing to hold onto the branches and limbs. We scrambled to follow, holding onto branches and vines, trying to find purchase on a mountain slope that was easily seventy degrees or more. Too many vines looked like snakes and it paid to check carefully before clutching at them. Balancing on trunks and roots, we saw it high among the treetops, swinging from one branch to the next. Orang means person in Bahasa and Utan means forest; orangutans have been so called in this part of the world because of their uncanny resemblance to humans and so they are called today. The bright orange of their fur is different from their darker, almost black cousins that I saw in Borneo.

We were to see more of these fascinating creatures over the next couple of days. Among quite a few females with their young in tow, was one massive male. Off trail they were sometimes, but many more, closer to the trails. Many are known by sight to the guides, from the days when they or their parents were regulars at the rehabilitation center while it was still in operation over a decade ago. The feeding center might be history but regular feeding is still a prominent feature here. Most of the guides offer bananas and other fruit to entice the orangutans closer. To make their clients happy, they say. Rehabilitation is a lost cause as each new generation learns of the easy access to food. We learned just how “wild” these animals were in a hilarious incident over lunch, the first day.

We had stopped at the old dilapidated feeding center to eat our packed lunch. No sooner had we entered the caged enclosure that used to be the viewing platform, than we had visitors. First came a troop of monkeys, wise to the ways of humans, knowing there was food to be filched. They slid between the railings and had to be constantly shooed away as they tried to dart in to snatch food. But we had yet more visitors in store.

Swinging from branch to branch came a young orangutan, peering in through the wire, eyeing us and coveting the fruits that were spread out on the floor. Being zoo animals inside a cage was a novel experience for us as she prowled around outside. Soon after came yet another one, this one known to the guides as “flat nose”. With her baby wrapped around her she was not to be gainsaid. Boldly she opened a window and clambered in, making a beeline for the leftover fruits. The guides had yelled to us to grab our backpacks and we had, but Joseph did not quite get to his pack soon enough. Flatnose sat, one paw reaching out for the pack while both she and her baby scarfed down the fruits with much lip smacking. A few tries at the tugging the pack proved fruitless and within a couple of minutes she was off, the backpack in her jaws, clambering up to her nest in a tree nearby. There she sat, gorging in the fruits still in the pack, having had no trouble opening the zippers. A one-sided conversation between her and the guides followed, alternately cursing her and enticing her with more fruit in exchange of the pack. But the cajoling interspersed with threats fell on deaf ears, as she proceeded to take items out of the pack. Unwanted objects were flung out hither and thither while edible ones were promptly devoured.

Joseph’s trousers floated down, getting caught on some branches, soon followed by a sheet. The battery pack was flung down the slope, taking the combined efforts of all of us for the better part of a half hour to find. The baby sat playing with the charging cable for a while until it too was flung down. An entire bunch of bananas, some fifteen in all, were consumed in under three minutes, the skins thrown down on our heads. A far cry from wild or even semi-wild, she clearly knows many of the words. Yells of “plastic, plastic” had her tossing down empty plastic bags. The toothbrush was taken out and went promptly into her mouth, wrong end in. The toothpaste was squeezed out of both ends and liberally graced all parts of the pack. An attempt to climb to retrieve the pack had her angrily pushing Joseph so he came tumbling down, thankfully landing on a pile of leaves, chastened but unhurt. He claims it is not the first time he’s encountered a pack-snatching orangutan. Wild animals? Most definitely not, not even semi-wild as the guides like to claim. Only when she was finished with her massive lunch, did she leave the nest. Armed with a branch, one of the guides fended her off while Joseph climbed up again to fetch his pack. I hadn’t laughed this hard in a long while. My sides aching, I doubted that anything else on this trip could match this unanticipated drama. I had not expected anything remotely this entertaining!

The trails are not marked but the guides seem to know their way unerringly. Not death-defying, but certainly not a stroll in the park, they go up and down, the ascents and descents steep and slippery after rain. NoenThe camps are set on the river banks, sometimes small streams, sometimes larger ones. Some are rudimentary shelters, some more established ones. But unlike the Amazon, where everyone slings hammocks between trees, here we bedded down on hardpacked mud inside the hut. The meals were a pleasant surprise. Our cook was clearly talented and we ate better than at most restaurants. The camaraderie around the campfire, tall tales told by the guides accompanied by numerous card tricks and games are a routine part of the treks and enjoyable in their own way.

Surprisingly, no animals visit the camps – at least none did, ours. For reasons I cannot fathom, the mosquito population seems to give the camps a wide berth – not that I was complaining! Some pig-tailed macaques kept up their chatter high in the trees up the cliff and a couple of monitor lizards swam by in the stream where we had been bathing just before. The laughing call of hornbills tantalized but they deigned not to appear. Neither did the snakes, much to my relief.

After returning to Bukit Lawang, I went walking one day, along a path on the cliff edge, overlooking the river. Some distance upstream, above some of the lodges, I saw a knot of bathers in the middle of the river intently looking at the opposite bank. Lo and behold, it was Flatnose, with her young. Most orangutans avoid rivers if they can, but the lure had proved too much for her. And for good reason. Just as on the trail, here too some of the people in the river laid out bananas and some food on the rocks by the river edge. Flatnose came cautiously, ate as did her baby. And then they lumbered off to the forest edge again. Perhaps a banner advertising Bukit Lawang should read: You don’t need to go into the jungle to see wildflife. In Bukit Lawang, the wildlife comes to you.



Do You Want To Go To A Funeral ?

Rantepao, Sulawesi,
July 10, 2011

Having arrived at Rantepao, I searched for an internet café and found one. To my delight there was a spa and massage place upstairs in the same building. There was also a small library of books in English. Needless to say I spent a good chunk of the day there and in the process met the owner.

Her name is Fransisca but she goes by Sisca. Young, energetic and given to peals of laughter, I only met her yesterday but feel like I’ve known her a while. We hung out a bit, went for a walk and she gave me the inside scoop on the best places to eat.

Today, when we met she asked “Do you want to go to a funeral?”
“What?!” would have been my initial response except I had been reading about the elaborate funerals that the Tana Toraja practice. I would love to but wasn’t sure of the social protocols involved.
“But I am not family. Won’t that matter?” I asked.
“Oh no,” she answered “at funerals like this people come from even far away villages and towns. But we can go to my aunt’s house and you can meet their family. This is a funeral of their family.”

No more need be said. Just as Sisca had said, I was courteously invited and arrangements made for her cousin to pick me up as well as Sisca and a couple of others the next day.

July 11, 2011
A village called Bokin

Sisca’s cousin came as arranged and we set off, squished into a 4WD. The village lay some 20 kms from Rantepao. As we passed the hanging graves of Kate Kesu and continued south to Bokin, the narrow concrete road soon gave out and a muddy, potholed road began. Above the babble of conversation, Sisca or one of her cousins pointed out things of interest as we lurched along.
The family hosting the funeral are clearly well off – the number of elongated “horns” of the roof was more than six.

IMG_2130Each of these rice barns/houses are set separately around the compound and all are identical in design. Stilts raised aboveground support a wooden platform. Atop the platform another staircase leads up to the top floor. The house itself is simple – one large space some ten meters by six meters. There are wooden platforms at either end which are sleeping areas, traditionally one for me and one for women. There are no beds or mattresses but a number of rolled up woven palm mats rest in one corner. Come bedtime, these are rolled out. The space in between is for dining and often the wall of the dining space is the kitchen.

IMG_2133Simple, functional and stark, it is at odds with the exterior which is richly decorated. The wood is carved in eye-catching geometric designs. Almost all are abstract designs with the exception of chickens or roosters on the triangular panels that lead up to the ends of the roof. The colors are rich as well – dark browns, rich reds and black. Traditionally the family tells me, all these were painted using ground minerals but nowadays they use paint bought in a shop.
IMG_2209It is the roofs of these houses that are the most intriguing. At either end the roof swings up into the air like the prows of a boat. Legend has it that the ancestors of the Toraja came from the south. Pushed out by the Bugis tribe, they traveled along river Sa’ad in boats and the roofs are reminiscent of those voyages. Traditional tongkonan, as these houses are called, had roofs of split bamboo. One can still see them overgrown with grass and weeds – inevitable in a damp climate. These days though the roofs are made of corrugated tin if they are made in the old forms at all. Most houses are made with normal flat roofs which are a lot less expensive to build. The rice barns though are still made in the traditional form.

IMG_2139The scale of a funeral rises with the affluence of the family. This family is clearly very well-off. Under the rice barns, temporary platforms have been erected. The platforms are of bamboo and have ladders leading up to them, each about eight square meters. Each is lined with woven palm mats and each is numbered, designated for guests in strict social hierarchy. A funeral in these parts is to usher the dead into the second life but also a means to show-off the family’s status in society. I, being a temporary part of “high class”, was seated in an area up front, across from the resting place of the dead.

One may need an invitation to a wedding but none are required to attend a funeral. And many are the guests who have come from far-flung towns and villages, complete with their bundle of clothes and bedding, fully intending to eat, sleep and spend three or four days here at the expense of the host. They also bring gifts of sugar and cigarettes. When I asked about the strange combination, I was told that sugar is needed for the thousands of cups of tea that was brewed and served to guests and the cigarettes are offered to guests as well.

Several of the immediate family of the deceased came by to shake our hands and paused to chat. We were plied with tea and biscuits all through the day and treated to a meal as well. Around me at other platforms were other groups of guests. I noticed several times that when the platters of food would arrive, the women would have a bit and then proceed to empty out the food into their own containers and bags that they brought. Apparently you not only go to a funeral to eat, but take every crumb that is offered home with you! More than anything else this is a social occasion. It is a time for gossip, of seeing and being seen. Details are scrutinized and noted, no doubt to be re-hashed later.

IMG_2188The coffin covered in bright red and decorated with gold foil curlicues, looks more like a space pod than anything else. Today is the first day of the funeral, when the deceased is taken out of the house, placed in smaller replica of a tongkonan and moved to a special place. This journey which symbolizes the journey to the second life is made with great fanfare. The procession is led with a number of buffaloes and some oversized pigs, some of them being generous donations of visiting family. These will be butchered and the meat given to the many visitors.
The coffin-carrying tongkonan is then lashed to a bamboo frame and hoisted atop shoulders of a group of men. A long procession of people follows under a bright red banner and behind them come the professional singers, hired for this occasion. The singers, all men, dressed in black sarongs and white shirts number some thirty odd. They sing and dance. Sisca tells me that the more affluent the family, the more the number of hired singers.IMG_2150

The procession moves forward amid a general air of festivities. In addition to the monotonic singing of the hired choir, there is a sound like drumming. But it is not drums. It is the sound of bamboo poles held by half a dozen women as they strike the bottom and the sides of a large, hollowed out wood bin.

IMG_2202A traditional way to husk rice, this action symbolizes a traditional way of life and is considered an appropriate way to send the deceased on his or her journey.
On the second day, visitors may ask to view the coffin and bring with them gifts for the hosts.

IMG_2180The gifts may be buffaloes or pigs or other animals – all of them led down the aisle between the platforms so they can be viewed by all, accompanied by announcements made over the loudspeaker so none are left ignorant of the giver and the gifts. It is all very organized with an eye to showing off one’s wealth and cementing one’s place in society. Then comes the butchering and distribution of the meat.IMG_2145
On the last day the coffin is carried to the burial place and the replica tongkonan placed above it. It is these burial sites that one sees on some of the hillsides. A tau-tau, an image of the deceased is often placed at the site but so many are often stolen, they tell me, that now they are kept at home. It used to be that the graves were also provided with food, money and other provisions but so many have been plundered that these too are now kept at home.