Where the men rule but women call the shots!
There can’t be a more contradictory sentence than the one above but it strikes true everytime in West Sumatra.
It was late afternoon but still bright when I stepped out of Padang Airport in West Sumatra (Sumatra Barat). A designated guide received me and we started walking toward the parking lot. By force of habit I always look back to see how things looked like. I did so this time too and I stopped!
In front was the beautiful building of the airport with its unique architecture. It looks somewhat like Thai or Buddhist architecture but not quite. I also got flash that I had seen such architecture before, but at that moment it just eluded me.
The curving roof like a ‘U’ and the two sharp ends grabbed my attention. I would later know that this was a typical design for large houses and government buildings in this area.
To understand this shape, let me tell you a story! Once there was a territorial dispute between two tribes. The two tribes decided that instead of waging a war and killing people they will let two buffalos fight and the owner of the winning bull would have the territorial right to that piece of land. One of the tribes sharpened the horns of a calf to a point (another version is, the king tied two sharp knives to its horns) and kept it hungry for several days.
On the day of the big fight, they let the calf go towards the opponent’s huge buffalo. The other tribe’s people were smirking at the folly of sending a calf to this fight. The big buffalo seeing a calf coming towards it, saw no danger at all. The calf, looking for the udder to drink milk, pierced the buffalo from under at many places and killed it.
Thus MinangKabau tribe was born. Minang – meaning victorious and Kabau meaning buffalo. The two points on the roofs look like a buffalo’s horns. Of course it is also said this design keeps the rain water away by draining it efficiently and offering lesser resistance to typhoons.
My Guide, Mr Buddhiman, fondly called Mr. Buddy, says there are about 4 to 5 million Minangkabau people in the Western Sumatra. Although the people have been devout Muslims for many centuries, they still follow a lot of pre-islamic traditions to this day, like the practice of matrilineal form of society and they are quite proud of this tradition.
Traditionally the daughter inherits the power of wealth and the males, the administrative power and provide physical security to their families. The leader would still be a male but the entire wealth and say in the household would be that of the LOH. If the women of the clan decide they could even overthrow the leader of the clan. If the son marries, he goes and lives with his wife’s family.
Men are not allowed to own properties in their names. I saw 3 or 4 rooms to one side. Mr Buddy said these were for the married daughters, who are allotted privacy of separate rooms in the Rumah Gadang (Large Minangkabau house). In the villages, it is still prevalent to see large joint families living together under one roof.
In fact, the male children went to a religious school at a very early age and often returning only as adults. There has been a push, now, towards education for girls too. A class of small school children learning their own culture in a Minangkabau museum, greeted me and wanted to know allbout India!
The houses are very colourful with carved & painted wooden motifs, high ceilings, big windows and vents to keep the inside airy and cool. In olden times, these houses were made only of wood, held together by wooden nails. The intricate wooden design and paintings tell their own story.
The wealth of a family could be discerned by the largeness of the house, number of floors & rice barns in front of the house and of course the number of daughters since brides are offered large dowries by the groom’s family.
Mr Buddy, making a sad face said, “I am really a poor man you know. I have two sons and only one daughter”.
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