May 27, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

A veneer of tradition

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Women play the major role in the Minangkabau kinship system. At least that is how the Minangkabau see and present themselves, and how they are seen by other Indonesians. Tradition, known as adat, is constantly reformulated and has developed over time. Much thought has been given to the way Minangkabau matrilineal practice relates both with Islam and with the modern state.

The basic political unit of Minangkabau adat is the village, the nagari. There is a long history of state intervention in nagari administration. Today's village government is the result of changes made under both colonial rule and the Indonesian national government. The nagari was deprived of much of its autonomy, and its internal power relations were also affected. The clan heads (ninik mamak) lost much of their authority to various arms of the state.


The 1979 Village Law replaced Indonesia's diverse forms of village government with a uniform code. The stated objectives were to increase public participation in development and make village government more effective. However, by standardising the village structure and separating village administration from adat, the central government actually increased its control over village settlements.

In West Sumatra the Village Law was implemented in 1983. The nagari were divided into smaller administrative units called desa, each governed by a head (kepala desa). The particular nagari I studied, which must remain anonymous, now consists of three desa.

At the same time the West Sumatran provincial government announced the establishment of a Nagari Adat Council, which would have the right to decide on adat matters.

While the 1979 law separated administration from adat, the government has instituted a forum on nagari development that involves the 'prominent' people of the nagari. These include the clan heads, the religious leaders (alim ulama), intellectuals (cadiak pandai) and senior women (known as bundo kanduang, a term of respect literally meaning one's own mother). They are thought to be able to encourage the people's participation in development.

The forum, known as the Deliberation on Nagari Development, was to be organised once a year by the Nagari Adat Council and the desa heads. In reality the Deliberation I witnessed in 1992, the first of its kind in this nagari, was entirely organised by the government. The nagari had suffered badly during the regional revolt of 1957 (PRRI). It remains isolated, and feels a dependence on government to supply the services it still lacks.


Although the Deliberation was to unite the nagari population, most of the planning and work was done by the inhabitants of only one of the nagari's three desa. The first of the planning meetings was attended only by men. A few women received invitations as senior women but none attended, on the basis that 'it will be boring'.

A second meeting to discuss invitations, decoration and catering and to set up committees in charge of each was attended by a large number of women and five men. Each of the men held positions with the Adat Council or the village councils. At this meeting four senior women were chosen, one from each matrilineal clan.

Official invitations were issued to important guests, including the regent (bupati), the sub-district head (camat) and other members of district government offices. Nagari members on the Adat Council and the desa councils, and other village interest groups and prominent villagers also received invitations.


The proceedings were held in the village school. Partitions between three classrooms were removed to open up a large area. Its top end was decorated according to adat, using the same ceremonial canopy and wall hangings as used for weddings. The central piece was the dais of a type not used in village weddings. This was hired from the district capital at great cost, Rp 90,000 (AU$ 60). Several villagers said: 'It is necessary because it is adat. Other nagari had one for their Deliberation and Pak Camat has said that there should be one'.

As adat clothes were to be worn by the clan heads and senior women, these were borrowed from the bupati's office. District officials not only dictated what constituted adat, but supplied the traditional symbols required to make the occasion befitting of adat. The adat clothes were worn out of their social context. However the villagers were interested in seeing the decorated schoolroom, the dais and their clan heads and senior women in adat dress, enjoying the occasion as spectacle.

The government directive stated that the Deliberation was to be carried out according to the guidelines attached to the directive, but it was also to fit in with local adat. In reality, the Deliberation was to fit in with a generalised form of adat as dictated by representatives of the state.

The Deliberation was to be financed by the nagari population. This imposed a great financial burden on the very poor nagari. The final cost was Rp 495,000 (AU$ 330). Of this, Rp 200,000 was spent on consumption and Rp 140,000 on decorations. After the event some villagers expressed the view that the money spent on the Deliberation was `lost' - they did not receive anything in return for the great expenditure.


The evening before the Deliberation several of the men gathered at the home of one kepala desa to discuss the events of the next day and to ask visiting officials from the district office how the Deliberation were conducted in the other nagari. They sought confirmation as to how the event was to be carried out as they had no model to work from.

Like most village ceremonial occasions, the Deliberation was held on a Friday. By 8:45 am people gathered outside the houses of their clan heads. Then clan members walked in procession around the village to the accompaniment of traditional percussion music (talempuang). Each clan was led by its clan heads, dressed in his borrowed adat clothes. Behind him came the senior women, then the women, then the men of the clan. One woman carried a tray with betel.

As the proceeding was new there was some confusion as to whether men or women should follow directly behind the clan leader. When I asked about this a woman answered: `I don't know, this has never been done before, all the clan members walking with their clan heads'. Close to the school the procession halted and a group of men performed martial arts before the clan heads.

At the school the villagers awaited the arrival of the important guests, who were then seated on comfortable chairs. The men sat at the front of the room, women at the back. The meeting was opened with a welcome by the head of Adat Council, and with prayer.


Then followed a long speech by a representative of the bupati, the head of the Social Political Section. He spoke at length about development, giving examples of other villages' development efforts. He made frequent references to the government political party Golkar, and to the nagari's reputation for its 100% Golkar vote in the previous three elections. (At that point there was much cheering and clapping.) Although not explicitly stated, the clear inference was that a Golkar vote meant more assistance to the villages.

The meeting was adjourned so that the men could attend the Friday prayers at the mosque. After this the invited guests were served a meal. The important guests ate in an adjoining classroom, where rice and several types of sidedishes were served on brass trays.

The other invited guests were served packages of rice in the main school room. The serving of these was neither organised nor orderly. Not all invited guests received their package, as some non-invited guests also took/ received them. This was a source of embarrassment to the Deliberation organisers and was much talked about in the following days. Some also believed there was not enough food for the special guests. It was rumoured that the guests themselves had commented that this Deliberation was not as good that of other nagari. One woman speculated that the bupati himself had not attended because no cow had been slaughtered.


After lunch the villagers made their speeches. By then the clan heads and senior women were no longer wearing their adat dress, and there were fewer women present. Several of the important guests, including the bupati's representative and the camat, had left. They came for the official welcome, gave a speech and ate but left before the villagers themselves gave their speeches and discussed nagari development.

The villagers' speeches were made by designated participants. The head of the Adat Council made the opening address but did not speak on adat. Each of the three desa heads specified their village's needs in terms of development, improved access (a new road), new school buildings, better health facilities, and improvement of the irrigation system. The designated intellectual spoke, as did religious leaders, clan heads, one of the senior women, a representative of youth, and someone who had seen the outside world (perantau). Most speakers made some reference to Golkar. The speeches were followed by discussion. Later a group chosen by the discussion forum (including all the local speakers but dominated by the three village heads) compiled a final report.

Those actively involved in the organisation of the Deliberation had to make strategic decisions and deal with conflicting interests. They had to fulfill the formal aims of the Deliberation and the government requirements while voicing their own ideas and needs in regard to development. The final report fitted the government's requirements and expectations yet still made requests. It was decided that for the final report the spelling of the nagari name would be the Minangkabau version rather than the Indonesian.


The Deliberation was a public spectacle said to be carried out according to the local adat. But old symbols were appropriated by the central authority for the specific purpose of legitimising government-imposed activity. The nagari adat was used to give a veneer of adat. Adat was reduced to show. What was deemed to constitute nagari adat was in part determined by government officials located outside the nagari.

There seemed to be no appreciation of the contradiction between the rhetoric of 'planning from below' in accordance with local adat, and the concern among village participants that they do it the `right way', as stipulated by the government officials for fear that otherwise the villages would not receive the development assistance requested in the report.

The Deliberation gained legitimacy through recourse to adat and traditional symbols, such as a procession through the village, the use of adat cloths, adat dress, and a ceremonial meal, and used these in the service of the state.

Arianne van der Meer is a postgraduate student in anthropology at the University of Newcastle in Australia.

Inside Indonesia 49: Jan-Mar 1997

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