Sat, 27 Aug 1994

Minangkabau clan gets supreme chief in lavish ceremony

Text by Dini S. Djalal photos by Arief Hidayat

Butterflies and bumblebees adorn the green,

and on a horse the muezzin will return;

What is broken and lost will be replaced before long,

and the inherited wealth upheld by the young.

-- traditional Minang phrase

SOLOK, W. Sumatra (JP): Pomp and pageantry briefly invaded Nagari Paninggahan, West Sumatra, and now the area is back to being a quiet and scenic lakeside village in the rice-bowl country of Solok Regency.

Last week, however, on Aug. 18 and 19, thousands of locals and foreign guests flocked to the two Rumah Gadang (traditional house) of the Byna family to witness the coronation of its patron, Muchtar Byna, as the supreme chief of the Koto Clan of the Minangkabau, West Sumatra's matrilineal ethnic group.

The last datuk who held the title of Datuk Bagindo of the Koto clan, one of six clans in the region, died in 1861. Byna, now 72 years old, is one of the deceased's many kemanakans (generations of nephews and nieces). The responsibilities attached to this position are considered so great that no one, in the 162 years since, was willing to claim the title.


Byna was first nominated to be Datuk Bagindo twelve years ago, and was not elected until 1985. It is due to the democratic nature of the Minangkabau that these decisions were so slowly considered. All village matters are discussed and conducted by musyawarah ("common deliberations"). There is no voting system, as every decision must be reached by consensus. No one, not even the Datuk Bagindo himself, has decision-making or veto powers.

The coronation ceremonies have been delayed for the last nine years for a number of reasons. One reason is that Byna was too busy with his work with the United Development Party (PPP), and with his business in the plywood and property industries, to fully commit to the obligations of a Datuk. Another reason is that all the various details and rituals of adat ("traditional customs") must be painstakingly adhered to.

For example, the Rumah Pusako was not completed and officially blessed until Feb. 10, 1992. Elaborately carved and colorfully painted, it is not meant to be lived in. The house is reserved for clan meetings and adat ceremonies. In order to live there, one would have to follow the obligations of adat, and live in a constant state of ritual.


The actual day of the event was a spectacle of color, ornamentation, dance and music. The day began with a group of men pounding on massive drums in one corner of the yard, and with a group of women drumming on gongs, chimes, and smaller drums in another.

The guests then arrived. The women, decked out in colorful baju kurungs (traditional tunics), carried trays of food on their heads, covered in beautiful cloths ornamented with gold thread and small mirrors. More than 500 trays were presented to the house, in order to feed all the guests.

Inside the trays are their offerings of thanks -- an assortment of rice, meat, bananas, and water. All is prepared according to tradition. For example, no other bananas aside from the pisang mamban can be eaten at this ceremony, because custom dictates it so.

Twenty Datuks (clan chiefs), and twenty more penghulus and mantis ("wise men"), arrived at the Rumah Gadang Pusako (heritage house) dressed in the traditional garb of teluk belanga, which consists of black tunic and trousers embroidered with gold thread. As they took their seats on the floor in the main hall of the Rumah Pusako, the arrangement of which is planned according to rank and function, a traditional dance troupe and orchestra entertained the locals on the adjacent stage outside. Only Datuks, which is strictly a male title, and their invited wives may be inside the Rumah Pusako.

About an hour after the Datuks arrived, the awaited couple began their entrance into the village, leading a procession of dancers, clan members, and other guests.

Villagers huddled around them, and it began to look like pandemonium was about to set in. I asked a couple of small boys if they knew what all the commotion was about. "No", they said, but they also explained that they had never seen so many people and TV cameras in their village before. Then they ran away to be closer to the crowd.

Prior to entering the gates of the house compound, a pencak silat dance was staged between the Koto and the Guci clan, the newly-adopted clan of the Datuk's wife. A mock struggle, involving a big knife, ensued, but soon gave way to the arrival of the "royal" couple, dressed in the finest songket (traditional Minang gold-thread ikat).

The coronation then formally began. The various datuks introduced themselves to each other, and individually embarked on a series of speeches and debates. All was spoken in bahasa pantun, or traditional paraphrases.

It was difficult to follow even for a native Minang speaker. The heat was overwhelming, and the room felt claustrophobic. After a few speeches, I made my way to the warung across the street.

All the speeches were relayed to the villagers on speakers, so there was opportunity to explore other activities within the village.

For example, the market was still held on this day. Many people came in their finest clothes, but others sauntered about as casually as they would any other day.


It is important to note that, among the Minangkabau, adat differs from nagari to nagari, or from village to village. The term adat law, or hukum adat, was actually a Dutch invention (adatrecht). In day-to-day life, Minangkabau "law", as understood in Western terms, cannot be classified, as there is no traditional category for "law", and "tradition" is too varied to be ordered.

This detail is in keeping with what was explained by the villagers I spoke to. At the house of Datuk Tampalawan, where the ceremonial adoption of Byna's wife into the Guci clan took place, various women all remarked similarly upon the "tradition" that is being upheld.

Anthropological texts have informed me that the Minangkabau are divided into two main supra-clans, the Bodi-Caniago, a more aristocratic group, and the Koto-Piliang, which are strictly democratic. So I began to ask various questions about adat regulations, particularly about why the Guci clan was selected, and why we were at this particular house.

But to clan members who are not Datuks or penghulus, adat details are not important to know. The Guci clan, they explained, were chosen quite randomly by the Datuks, as was the site of the ceremony. What they all stress as imperative is the democratic nature of Minang culture.

"All the clans are the same. We are only at my house because it was decided by consensus," said the daughter of Datuk Tampalawan, who wished to remain anonymous because "we are all the same", she explained.


Yet despite the many egalitarian aspects of Minangkabau society, prestige and privilege is still bestowed upon a chosen few, and financial wealth can go a long way.

The role of Datuk Bagindo is indeed an important one, as it will have to oversee and solve all the problems presented by the various clans of the district. It is a responsibility which requires commitment and attention to the village. Muchtar Byna was chosen not only because of his privileged heredity, but also due to his prominent position in the national realm.

Prior to becoming Datuk Bagindo, Byna had visited his village once or twice a year. It is now hoped that he will visit more often, said Dicky, his stepson.

Yet Datuk Sunaro, whose common name is Heriyanto and who lives in the same village, explains that a Datuk, and particularly a Datuk Bagindo, always has an assistant or representative who takes care of the position's daily responsibilities. After all, the clan has spent the last century without a Datuk Bagindo, and has managed with only the authority of local Datuks.

However, what is most important, said Heriyanto, is the spiritual influence the Datuk Bagindo has over his people.

"Lots of people run away when they are asked to be a Datuk", Heriyanto explains. "The responsibility is very great, as it is not for this world, but for the afterworld".

A devoted Datuk would assert that responsibility over the village even becomes more important than the responsibility of his immediate family. To repeat one of the many traditional Minangkabau paraphrases, "The child on your lap you throw away, and the monkey from the forest you take in to breast-feed".