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The mountainous province of Aceh consists of the entire northern tip of Sumatra, and guards the entrance to the most important sea-route of Asia: Malacca Strait. Almost all traffic over sea between West and East passes this sea-lane, and Aceh has been the first land for Arab and Indian merchants for centuries.

Gayo highlands
Proud people around a nice lake

The Gayo Highlands consist of the mountainous central part of Aceh, an isolated area which is cut of from the surrounding coastal plains by the rough peaks of Bukit Barisan. This is the habitat of about 250,000 Gayo, a dynamic population with an own language, lively traditional art and a high level of education.

The four big Gayo area's are each concentrated around a lake of river valley and are bordered by high, forested mountain slopes. The area around Danau Tawar (Lake Tawar) in the north is the most heavily populated, especially around the most important city of Takengon. This city has a good connection with Biruen at the northern coast, a distance of 100 km. South of Takengon, separated by a mountain range, is the Isak area with a number of scattered villages Jambuaye- or Isak river.

The road south of Isak lingers over a high mountain pass towards the southern Gayo area with Blangkerejen as centre. This road has been improved, so it can be opened throughout the year. From Blangkerejen the road runs towards the south towards Babanjahe and the Karo Batak area. East of the Isak Valley is Serbejadi (concentrated around the village of Lukup), known for it's production of gambir, used in combination with betel, sirih and lemon for chewing.

Occupation and resistance

In the 17th century the highlands belonged to the principality of Aceh, ruled by Sultan Iskandar Muda. During his reign, most Gayo converted to Islam. Before this time the Gayo were not known among westerners. In 1904 Dutch troops entered the highlands to subject the local rulers. The troops found heavy resistance on their way, especially in the Blangkerejen area. Villages which kept on offering resistance were burned to the ground. Blood baths caused public protest in the Netherlands.

During a period of Dutch rule the government and private companies in the Takengon area founded companies for processing coffee, tea and damar raisins. The Gayo started growing market products, especially vegetables and coffee, as an extra on rice.

In the early 1930's the Gayo founded modern schools for normal and religious education. Gayo students got their education somewhere else, often with good results. Gayo poets wrote religious poems about the importance of Islam in their own language; the poems were written down in Arabic writing. One book eventually was sold in Cairo in 1938.

The Gayo supported the Indonesian nationalist case and fought actively during the revolution, but a big number also took part in the Darul Islam revolt against the central government in the 1950's. As well as elsewhere in Indonesia, the bloodbath in 1965 left deep emotional scars.
The Gayo are proud on their strong family ties, their attention about the community and the vitality of their poetry and stories, but also over their ability to adapt to modern life. They emphasize education, the knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia and stimulation of Islamic education and science.

There is a big rivalry between the villages and between the two former political domains Bukit and Ciq in the neighbourhood of Takengon. This is clear by their poem-contests between these two groups from different villages. This so called didong-games take an entire night. During these events the rival villages make each other look ridiculous by telling jokes and to make challenges towards each other.
Picture: Takengon Gayo
The Takengon area

The Takengon area can rely on a cool, dry climate, big forests and the beautiful Danau Tawar. The journey to these highlands was done on foot in the 19th century, which took about a week, nowadays the bus will bring you there in three hours.

The road ascends and lingers through pine forests, and runs along the village of Lampahan, where a factory made turpentine out of tree raisins for years. Since 1989, wood chopping has hit the forests, however the hills are still very densely forested. Eventually the road reaches a high rock with a view over the smooth surface of Danau Tawar, and then descends into the valley.

Takengon is on an altitude of 1200 meters at the border of Danau Tawas, a caldera which was formed during an implosion of an old volcano. The lake is the source of the River Peusangan which flows towards the north and mouths in the Malakka Strait. The city was built during the colonial time, and consists of a central trading centre with two rows of shops and a market building of two floors, a bunch of governmental buildings, some schools, a mosque from the 1970's with a silver dome and some suburbs. Many modern buildings are decorated with brightly coloured spirals and arabesques, brands for the traditional Gayo-architecture.

Besides Gayo, there are also Acehnese, Javanese, Chinese and Minangkabau in the city. The Acehnese, mostly single, come here to work in the shops. Many send back some of their money, in the hope to return once for marriage.

Some Javanese which live just outside the city, were brought to Takengon by the Dutch in the 1920's and 1930's to work at the plantations. Most lived in separate villages where their children learned Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Jawa. The Chinese separate themselves because of religion (Buddhism and Christianity) and remain economical ties with Medan and overseas areas.
Walk through Takengon

Visitors who like to be informed about the cultural events can best visit Buntul Kubu first. The building on top of this hill was once built by the Dutch. Nowadays it's in use as the district office for cultural cases. Descend again towards the city and visit Mersah Padang, Padang House of Prayer besides the river and close to a new market building. This was built in the end of the 1920's by colonists from Minangkabau, which demanded a modern approach of Islam.

Besides the Mersah Padang, a road brings you towards a river and an old pedestrian bridge. The view from the bridge over both banks is very nice. On the left side is the city of Bale, with an old reformed prayer house, and on the right hand side, downstream, the Asir-Asir community. This house of prayer was built by conservative Moslem which wanted to keep the traditional forms of religion. These three houses of prayers once served as mosques.

Cross the river towards Bale to visit the Buddhist temple and the Catholic Church. The guards will probably help you telling the stories about the Chinese people in this area. A rich Islamic ritual life illustrates the city and the Gayo appreciate it when visitors ask questions about their religion. The Friday mass is now held in the big governmental mosque. Men and women go to the city to shop before and after the mass.

Celebration of the sacrifice-festivities (idul adha), which is held during the hajj-month, and the festivities after Ramadan (idul fitri), are very important. Families and governments prepare themselves with big meals and big masses and ask each other for forgiveness of their mistakes in the last year.

Around Danau Tawar

Danau Tawar is the most recreational area for the residents of Takengon, and it's also a resource of money. The lake is bordered by steep cliffs along three sides, with peaks up to 2.400 to 2.800 meters. From the city several paths lead onto the slopes.

Just north of Takengon, at the shore of the lake, is the village of Kebayakan. The main road runs through rice fields and along the house of the last ruler of the area, Kejurun Zainuddin. The wooden house of prayer - a former mosque, with dome-shaped decoration on top of the dome - just outside Kebayakan, dates somewhat back in time. Another good road follows the southern banks from Takengon. Ask for a boat with guide at Hotel Renggali, just outside the city, to explore the lake. Ahead are small villages, sawah's and fishing platforms. The nets are used for depek, which are very common in the lake.

The environment plays an important role in the local Gayo legends; the shore where the Green Princes throw herself in the water was here, there where the edge Syiah Utama, speaker of Islam, rested during his conversion-journey, and another rock used to be a bride which turned into stone when she looked back at the village she was leaving.
Hot sources and coffee gardens

A daytrip north of the city takes you along coffee gardens towards the hot sources near Simpangbaleg. Make a first stop in Baleatu, about 20 km north of Takengon, to view the open-air market in the morning, (pasar pagi). Since the 1930's the highlands are the centre of the vegetable- and fruit production, tobacco and coffee. On the market handicraft is sold. The Gayo women use a number of baskets for storing their ingredients. Men and women make difficult kerawung-patterns on fabrics.

The next stop is Simpangbaleg, west of Baleaty along the main road towards Biruen. This is the place where a hot source is, which is opened year-round. The city also is a market centre of coffee from the environment. This northern Gayo area is an ideal place for growing Arabica coffee-beans of export quality, because of it's location. Stop at a coffee garden along the road to have a look at the trees and enjoy the quality of it in one of the many coffee warehouses.

South towards Isak

The main road from Takengon south towards Isak, takes you about ten km west through the picturesque Peusangan Valley, and lingers through rice fields, villages and coffee gardens at both sides of the steep slopes. The villages along the road give an impression of the daily life in the highlands. Many villagers spend most time of the year on their rice fields; to clear the soil for plantation (with plows with horses or buffalo's), to plant the rice, to grow it, and to harvest it again.

The Gayo once lived in community longhouses, but nowadays they almost all live in separate houses. (A traditional house in the village Kung, which can be seen from the road towards Isak, has walls decorated with Gayo motives). Every village consists of several, separate clan-groups. Most members of every clan do have a relation to each other (by men or women), and work together to prepare for festivities, mourning over the death and to celebrate weddings.
The paved road lingers along the Bur Lintang pass, and ascends towards 1800 meters before is descends again towards the wealthy, forested Isak Valley. Stop in Isak for lunch and take a refreshing dive in the fast flowing water of the river, a few km downstream before going back again.

Last revised on September 02, 2011
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