Statues of Minangkabau citizens in front of the Adityawarman Museum, Padang
Invited to a wedding in Solok, West Sumatra last month, I took the opportunity to explore the incredible scenery and the wealth of traditional architecture — both ancient timber mosques and rumah gadang traditional houses — in the highland country near Bukittinggi.
I started on my first afternoon in Padang, the regional capital, with a visit to the Adityawarman Museum, itself a giant rumah gadang, to see their extensive collection of textiles and gilt headdresses. Included in the collection are photographs from the early 20th century of ceremonial groups and old architecture. The collection of artefacts from West Sumatra’s brief Hindu era is interesting too: it includes the excellent replica of the famous 14th century ‘Bhairawa’ statue of the great ruler Adityawarman, cousin of Jayanegara, King of Majapahit (1309-1320), sadly without any explanatory plaque or museum-card. This ruler went on to found Hindu kingdoms in Bukittinggi and Melayu, and to take control of the gold trade.
Adityawarman Museum, Padang.
In front of the museum, a Minang songbird was recording a video in the pretty garden — this was a special treat, and a reminder of the place pretty women have in Minang’s matriarchal culture (men just press the record button, it seems).
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I stayed the first night at the perfectly adequate Mercure Padang near the Indian Ocean and rose early the next morning to visit old town nearby.
Early morning, in old town, all the characters are out: drinking coffee in the ancient warung and chewing the cud in the Chinese temple court. Sadly, much of the colonial architecture was tragically destroyed in the 2009 earthquake — in both the Chinese and Indian Arab herb-vendor districts. A 19th century mosque in the Hyderabadi style survives as the heart of the Arab perfume and fanatics district.
“Don’t take my photo, I’ll end up in hell,” one handsome young Lawrence of Arabia style coffee-vendor told me.
The late 19th century Hydrabadi mosque in old town, Padang
Sweet-spice vendor of Pakistani descent in front of the Hydrabadi mosque
Lawrence of Arabia-look scent-vendor, Padang
In the 19th century, the Chinese community built a klenteng (sadly rather over-restored after the earthquake). The people there are much friendlier.
Serious colonial architectural voyeurs and cultural historians could spend hours inspecting old town, but I wanted to get to the morning market to get a bit of Minang colour.
Some colonial era gems in Padang old town
I got more than I bargained for. Minang ladies deck themselves out in every colour under the sun. Mix that with the vibrant colours of the mountain vegetables and the menfolk in kampong cowboy outfits — all seaside, in a vast labyrinth of tiny stalls — and you have the picture. There are some amazing traditional wedding baskets to souvenir.
After the hectic market visit, I asked my guide to take me to Teluk Bayur south of Padang to see the superb coastal scenery. From nearby Bungus port, boats leave for the fascinating Mentawai islands, 150 kilometres off the coast, now a popular surfing destination.
From Teluk Bayur we headed to Solok — a 90-minute drive through tea plantations and bamboo forests — stopping briefly half-way to inspect the early 15th century timber mosque, Mesjid Tuo Kayu Jao at Jorong Kayu Jao, Nagari Batang Barus, Gunung Talang.
One finds timber mosques in the ancient Austronesian (read pre-Hindu) style from Aceh to Palembang — the hills above Padang are home to a few excellent examples. Nearly all are on natural springs or river meanders, and provide delightful communal bathrooms for the villagers.
The early 15th century Mesjid Tuo timber mosque at Kayu Jao at Jorong Kayu Jao halfway from Padang to Solok, just off the main road
This one is one of the oldest (1404) and the most striking — black ijuk fibre roof, simply carved dark brown timber walls, exquisitely sited in a shallow valley on a fierce mountain stream.
I had a bath in the mosque’s bath-house and we headed on.
Solok was a surprise: hundreds of pretty rumah gadang houses can be seen from the road (they signify that the inhabitants are original Solok folk).
Lake Singkarak, north of Solok, West Sumatera, 7 June 2015.
I stayed at the Caredek losmen which was clean: air-conditioned, but lacking a restaurant. Breakfast was indifferent and served in a small room off the car park.
My room, the losmen’s largest, was noisy, but I was so happy to be close to hundreds of rumah gadang, and a handful of hot springs and mountain lakes.
Akad nikah wedding ceremony of Etwin Juanda and Vighea Oktrisna, Solok, 5 June 2015
Official wedding photo
Power-aunties tuck into the rendang curry, groom’s feast, 8 June 2015
Wedding feast, 8 June 2015 at the groom’s house
Putri Minang beauty at the groom’s feast
The wedding was stretched over four days, so I had ample time to explore the countryside and fill up on rendang padang, the local beef curry that is the centrepiece of every Minang gathering.
The first feast was at Vighea Oktrisna, the bride’s house. After Friday prayers the akad nikah ceremony lasted five minutes, but the lunch that followed lasted an hour.
Your columnist at the groom’s father’s house, fighting rendang fatigue
After lunch we kidnapped the groom and sped off to the hot springs at Talang, which were deserted, and we got to broil our sore bits in private. Sadly, the springs have had a municipal makeover, like nearly all hot springs in Indonesia, but one can still admire the mountain scenery from the concrete corral.
Day two I spent searching for the prettiest rumah gadang in Solok (next month in this column I‘m doing a piece on Sumatran architecture, so I’ll publish some of the winners).
It’s a pretty laid-back lifestyle for the women in the Minang hinterland, I discovered, spent between long weekends cooking rendang and whipping up fancy outfits for wedding ceremonies. The menfolk are sent out to the rice fields that form a narrow band between Solok the market-town and the hills that define the valley.
Kampung cowboys convey their canines to the bush pig hunt, outside Solok, Sunday 7 June 2015
Unlike the feisty Bataks further north, the Minang men don’t drink, but they do have an exotic hobby: bush pig hunting, for which they raise packs of doting canines. On Wednesdays and Sundays the dogs can be seen along the shores of the lakes district being ferried to and fro on motorbikes (see photo above).
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Masjid Asasi, Sigando Village
Masjid Lubuk Bauk, Batu Sangkar
On my second last day in lovely Minangkabau, I attended the Lake Maninjau Festival at Lake Maninjau, which is a two-hour drive from Solok. On the way we visited two old timber mosques — the 15th century Masjid Asasi Nagari Gunung in Sigando district in Padang Panjang and the early 19th century Masjid Lubuk Bauk in Lubuk Bawah — and stopped for lunch halfway at the famous Satay Mak Syukur at Padang Panjang, a satay hall which serves beef satay with lontong in a vaguely middle eastern sauce.
The drive to the end of Lake Maninjau was stunning, but the festival was a bit of a dud: some Quran reading, canoe racing, and fishing contests.
My last day was spent at my friend’s house, watching procession after procession of Minangkabau aunties arriving in their colourful dress, baskets on head, accompanied by four-piece percussion bands..
There was rather a lot of sitting around watching the battalions of power aunties bring out plates of food.
I retired that night with fond memories of beautiful people and a stomach bloated with rendang!