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Population of Sumatra
Patched sheet of cultures and religions

Sumatra counts over 40 million people, one fifth of the total Indonesian population and it', after Java, the most densely populated island in the Indonesian archipelago. Four big ethnic groups, the Malay, the Minangkabau, the Acehnese and the Batak, are the big majority of the local population. Furthermore there are more than a dozen smaller ethnic groups, with their own language, history and culture.

The last centuries, the inflow from abroad is substantial. The flow of Javanese, which started in the early 20th century by the Dutch government, still hasn't stopped, however the government also had it's majestic transmigration programme. The Chinese, which came to the island in the 19th century as plantation labourers and tin-miners, now control the trading posts of all important Sumatran cities. Furthermore a handful of people from the rest of Indonesia and from abroad work as civil servants or in the blooming oil-industry.

Islamic strongholds

Sumatra is on of the biggest Islamic strongholds in the Indonesian archipelago. The Islam reached South-eastern Asia for the first time along the northern coast of Sumatra, in a city that is named Samudra or Pasai. From here, the religion spread over both coastal areas of the island and to the neighbouring islands of Malakka, mostly through an Islamic trading network, built by Malay traders in the 15th century. For centuries, the word 'Malay', meant the same as 'Muslim' for many Indonesians.

The Malay have a long, interesting history that dates back to the Buddhist, Malay principality of Srivijaya in the 7th century until the 11th century, which ruled over the straits from it's bases. After that, the symbol of the Malay raja (king) expressed the highest cultural targets of perfection, wisdom and Islamic religion. However fishermen and farmers could not equal the raja's, they used it's ideals though.
Nowadays, the Malay are the biggest ethnic group on Sumatra, with about 11 million people. They inhabit the biggest part of the southern and eastern coasts and the lowlands, as well as the smaller islands along the coast. Eight million people in the neighbouring Malaysia see themselves as Malay also, but in fact most of them are descendants of Minangkabau and Javanese migrants, and from the Cham in Vietnam and Cambodia. Many Bakat also call themselves Malay, so this name contains a big variety of lingual and cultural expressions.

The Minangkabau of the central western highlands is almost the biggest population on the island, and is most related to Malay over what concerns language and culture. The group counts about 5 million people which are known as loyal Muslims, while they also have an unusual system of obedience, which dates back long before the Islam arrived to the Minangkabau. This system implicates that the traditional Minangkabau longhouses, the fertile rice soils, and the positions of leadership in the clan are passed on to the next generation by the women. However men often have important leading places, they heir them through their mothers.

A third important Islamic group are the Acehnese, the inhabit the strategical northern coast of Sumatra. Nowadays they are with two million people, and they also speak a language which is closely related with the Malay. They enjoy most fame because of their fierce resistance against the Dutch, during the thirty years of jihad (holy war) from 1873 until 1903.

Long before, in the 17th century, Aceh was the most powerful Islamic kingdom in the area. Here, the word of Islam is still law, and every Friday masses of religious people still flock to the Big Mosque of Banda Aceh. As well as among the Minangkabau, and however Islam says men are more important, the live in the villages is all about women. If a man marries, he usually moves to the village of his wife, where her family gives them a house.

In the highlands of central Aceh the Gayo live. Their language is just as remarkable as that of the Acehnese, because of the many words from the Mon-Khmer, a language-group that originates from the mainland Southeastern Asia. In contrary to the Acehnese, the Gayo the wife usually moves to the village of her new husband. The Gayo surrounding the Lake Tawar catch fish; coffee and tea are other important products from this area.

The Gayo fight with words. In earlier times, diding, poetic twosomes, were held between pairs of speakers which represent the families of the groom as well as the bride. Later, didong helped to dissolve arguments between villages, and even more recent this verbal art was made into a form of match between teams of singers, supported by a choir.

Christian converts

While the coastal regions normally support Islam, the biggest parts of the island are nowadays Christian; in fact there are more Christians on this island, than any other Indonesian island. German Lutheran missions which already worked with the Toba Batak, had success very early already. Nowadays the Toba Batak-Church is the biggest Christian body in Indonesia.

The Dutch Reformed missionaries from the neighbouring Karo Batak-area found resistance for decades. The result of this is that the Christian Karo only got a majority in the 1950's. The Simalungun Batak, once a part of the Toba Church, have separated into a own ethnic sect.

All of these Batak churches do the masses and hymns in their own local languages. Like everywhere in Indonesia, these ethnic churches find strong competition from catholic and Pentecostal churches, which speak Indonesian and have ethnically mixed unities.
From the Angkola Batak, which live south of the Toba, about ten per cent is Christian. A majority is Islamic, as well as the Mandailing Batak in Southern Tapanuli. Other Christian centre are the islands of Mentawai and Nias along the western coast, and some original inhabitants of the island of Enggano.

Patchwork of populations

However most people on Sumatra are farmers, small groups, like the Kubu in the province of Jambi and the Sakai from Riau Islands, live of fishery and the hunting along the swampy areas of the southern rivers. Another group, the Orang Laut (lit. Sea People), are often named a little more negative, like sea pirates, and they live on boats between the hundreds of small islands on the archipelago of Riau.

Danau Kerinci, in the highlands of western Jambi, is inhabited by the Kerinci. The lake is surrounded by sawah (rice paddies); the rice is accompanied with fish from the lake, and fresh tea from the mountain slopes. As well as among the Minangkabau, the Kerinci have a culture in which the female plays an important role.

Their longhouses are unique in the Indonesian archipelago, because a central hallway which connects the apartments of the families is missing. However the male connects himself with the family of his wife, he will stay a member of the family in which he was born, and he partially lives in his own longhouse where he helps to manage the goods of his children and sisters.

The province of Bengkulu is inhabited by the Rejang, which call themselves "We, the People of Jang". It is said that their mythical ancestor of Jang was member of the royal family of the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit. He should have founded himself on Sumatra in the 14th century, and his four sons should be the founders of four different clans in which the community of Rejang grew. Nowadays it consists of about 200,000 members. The Rejang-area nowadays stretches over a varied terrain: along the coast with low hills to peaks in the highlands with tropical rainforest.

It were the Rejang which converted to Islam as one of the last few, which causes the long survival of the pre-Islamic cults around the souls of the ancestors. Every clan in Rejang demands the rule over their territory. The oldest village of every domain has a sacred tomb which is connected with the founder of the clan. Villages and families do also have their own ancestral graves, so a pilgrimage to the main tombs is a rare occasion.

Southwest of Palembang, near Lahat, are the Pasemah highlands with remains of megalithic monuments from the year 100. These stone monuments, the biggest of their kind in Indonesia, contain symbols of humans and animals and more. However the Pasemah people turned to Islam in the early 20th century, it still fills the ancestral promised at this and other tombs around Gunung Dempo. The Pasemah are similar with the Rejang for what organisation and their theories about their foundation, but they were enemies for much of the colonial time.

In Lampung, the far southern part of Sumatra, many different ethnic groups live, each with their own cultural background, among them many Javanese. They migrated in big numbers, as well as in free will, but also because of transmigration programs of the government. One of the biggest local populations of this area are the Abung, which say they came from the mountains in the west, where they supported a megalithic culture which is comparable with that of the Nias. Headhunting and human sacrificed brought them in conflicts with their neighbours, and especially the Malay, which were forced to their nowadays living area in 1450.

The Abung-community consists o dozens of clans. The villages sometimes have upto 3000 inhabitants and 120 clan houses. Every clan supports a separate house, which is inhabited only by a few elderly people, because working parents and their children spend most time in small seasonal villages outside the village, where they maintain their ladang,family garden. They go back to the village for special occasions. Initiations are meant for men to show them their wealth. Formerly head-hunting was needed for the highest rank.

However the Dutch tried to end the head-hunting and the human sacrifices, the Abung continues their practices far into the 19th century, illegally. Just like the surrounding populations the Abung are nowadays Muslims. In the modern versions of their stories named papadon, the dances are the replacement for the head-hunting, and a buffalo replaces the human sacrifice.

Last revised on September 02, 2011
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