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Nias Island
A Mentawai island

A small island, 130 kilometer long and 45 kilometer wide, slightly smaller than Bali, Nias lying just 125 km off Sumatra's west coast, administratively belonged to the North Sumatra, province. Like any other western island off Sumatra, Nias stands quite apart. Its rugged terrain, malarial climate and warlike population having served to isolate from the mainstream of Sumatran culture for many centuries.

As a result, Nias never experienced the dramatic influx of Indian, Islam and European cultural influences to the degree these were felt in other areas. The islands's inhabitants have instead followed their own line of development, building on an earlier Austronesian sub-strata of culture which they hold in common with other Indonesian peoples.

Today they are best known for their spectacular tribal art and architecture, a uniqye style that has fascinated generations of scholars and collectors. Not much is known about the island's prehistory which is a pity, since the inhabitants have been working in durable stone and bronze for a very long time.

Despite the absence of hard archaeological data, the island's prehistory has nonetheless been the subject of much speculation. Much of it intended to portray Nias as a kind of museum for prehistoric Indonesian civilization.

The most prominent theory put forth by Robert Heine-Geldern in the 1930s, was that the island was populated during the first millennium BC by hill tribes from Assam or Burma, that brought with thern a megalithic culture characterized by large stone monuments erected during communal feasts to enhance the status of the aristocracy.

In any event, indigenous oral histories agree on one point, that Nias culture – which originated in the Gom River area in the central part of the island. Here the gods descended and began the human race, and the Nias People today refer themselves as ono wha or 'children of the people.
The Dutch assumed control of Nias in 1825, at first continuing the slave trade, thanks to its earlier firnes, Nias became known as a popular and plentiful source of slaves. From Acehnese sources we learn that there was a European post here in 1626, probably Portuguese, which the Acehnese attacked in order to monopolize the slave trade.

Early attempts were made in the 1830s to Christianize the island, with little suc­cess. But the arrival in 1865 of German Rhenish missionaries from Barmen marked the beginning of a major change in Nias society. Within a few years the entire north­5m part of the island had been converted. Central and South Nias later succumbed not to the Bible but to a combination of epidemics and brutal policing. Beginning of 1909, religious art was destroyed or confis­cated. in large quantities in South Nias.

Nias society is strictly hierarchic. The nobility (si’uIu or salawa, 'that which is high') do not intermarry with commoners (the sato or sihono, literally 'the thousands') and have certain special privileges. Slaves (sawuyu or harakana) were fonnerly important as servants and as trade items. They were not considered to be human and therefore had to live outside the village areas.

The island's three culture areas (North, Central and South Nias) now house great differences in language, art and custom. But from a Nias point of view the distinctions are much greater than this, as each region is subdivided into numerous village groups according to their lineages. To the ono-niha, culture is thus defined on a village level and each village has it's own variations in art and custom.

To visit Nias nowadays there are some flights to the mainland, mainly to Medan, as well as chartered services from Medan to Gunung Sitoli, the capital of the district of Nias.

During the Dutch colonial period Gunung Sitoli was the centre of Dutch ad­ministration and base for early German missionaries. Now, during busy air traffic, in midyear where surfers from many countries around the world coming to the Lagundri Beach in South Nias every day there are more than one flights connecting Medan and Gunung Sitoli.

The overland distance between Gunung Sitoli and Teluk Dalam, which is around 120 km, can be reached through asphalted road by four wheeled minibuses in 4 hours. The island's most spectacular area, is the South and its most important village is Bawornataluo, with a massive flight of stairs at the main entrance. It was built in 1888 following the Dutch attacks of 1863. Below it stands the newer village of Orahili on the sk of the fonner village destroyed by the Dutch and their allies.
Bawomataluo literally means 'sun mountain' and in front of the omo sebua is circular flagstone known as the fuso newali or 'village navel.' Close examination reveals a worn circular pattern on it representing the sun.

Smaller but still impressive omo sebua can be found in the villages of Onohondro, Hilinawalo and Hilinawalo Mazingo. The first two are not far from Bawomataluo but the third is quite some distance. None should-be attempted unless you are in good physical shape.

Both Onohondro and Hifinawalo played an important role in an ancient renewal ceremony in which a figure of. a giant tiger representing the ruler was carried on a high platform and,then thrown into the Gorno River. This river, named after the one in Central Nias, is near Onohondro and links the inhabitants to their roots in Central Nias. Afterwards, the ruler carried on as usual until the -next such ceremony was held, 7 or 14 years later.

The ceremony was outlawed by the missionaries in 1912, but has been revived to celebrate Indonesia's independence day or to welcome high dignitaries. Among the strong point of Nias is its most beautiful beach of Lagundri, now very popular among surfers from more than 30 countries in the world. Stone jumping and war dance are usually performed to welcome honourable guests, including tourists.

Last revised on September 02, 2011
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