The Jakarta Post, October 05, 2008
Afthonul Afif, Contributor, Yogyakarta
Melacak Batu Menguak Mitos: Petualangan Antarbudaya di Nias (Tracing Stones, Disclosing Myths: Intercultural Adventure in Nias)
Nias, which is administratively located in North Sumatra, is a cloistered small island where one of Indonesia’s oldest civilizations has developed and continues to this day.
The theory of cultural dissemination states Nias’s ancestors came from Yunan, in the south of China, about 3.500 years ago.
Such an assessment can be proven by examining the local inhabitant’s material culture — such as sword hilts and coffins — and their traditional architecture, which is dominated by dragon-head motifs.
Nias Island represents the glory of the megalithic age from Indonesia’s perspective. Traditions which shaped their material culture, as part of its cultural civilization, were extensive and most likely cannot be found in other places.
Areas in Nias Island are dominated by large stones portraying their cultural civilization which take the form of menhirs, dolmens, stone coffins, monuments, statues from the megalithic age and house ladders.
For the Nias, stone likewise represents one’s identity and the order of social discourse. Rituals and traditions involving stones have been passed down from generation to generation.
In certain ceremonies stones immortalize momentous events such as giving birth, marriage, social status inaugurations (owasa), elevation to divine status and even funerals. Therefore, stone is symbolizes the religious, social, eternal, devotional and conceptual values within the Nias people.
Even though it is written by an archaeologist, it does not mean this book solely analyzes stone as an archaeological heritage. This book offers various themes such as the origin of Nias society, mangani binu (decapitation), customary ceremonies, a daughter’s engagement and the assimilation of animism with new religions — all in an integrated narrative framework.
The writer’s perspective as to how these cultural subjects developed in Nias is another thought-provoking topic.
As an experienced researcher, the writer combines several academic disciplines such as history, anthropology, sociology and mythology. Such a narrative framework enables this book to offer archaeological discussions in an engaging manner by revealing cultural facts behind the stone.
Rite and Identity
A significant outcome of the writer’s creatively experimental writing is the way he reveals the relationship between customary rites and the process of identity building amongst the Nias people.
The Nias believe that from birth, a man is obliged to pursue the highest social status by celebrating a number of customary rites. Consequently, the Nias people enthusiastically conduct customary rites as there are abundant opportunities to struggle for higher social status and identity.
Celebrating customary rites starts after marriage. Parents who has have given birth to a son are required to celebrate mamatvrov toi nono, a rite for naming a child, when pigs must be slaughtered. When a son matures to the next level, his parents must slaughter at least one to four pigs to be divided among the community members to encourage the child to develop the value of caring for others (pg. 89).
Not stopping here, once more parents are obligated to present at least six to 12 pigs when a son matures to an adult. Following this celebration, parents are required to organize an even greater party by slaughtering 24 pigs, intended to venerate their child.
The Nias’ patriarchal system assures that all customary celebrations exist merely to meet the needs of men.
The pinnacle of celebrations is owasa, which demands a man handle the entire affair on his own. Owasa is the gala of celebrations when hundred of pigs are slaughtered, gold bullion is divided and thousands of guests royally dine for three days and three nights.
Even if the owasa will cause financial suffering, the young man will not postpone it. One who has already celebrated owasa will be highly respected by his community and whatever he says will automatically become customary law.
“Everything I’ve done has been in the name of tradition. But, custom is deeply rooted within our blood hence there is no reason not to hold it,” one respondent said to the writer. He lost his wealth, which he had compiled for many years, in the name of tradition. Likewise, he is still burdened with his debt years after celebrating owasa.
In trying to understand the Nias people’s identities and self-esteem, mangani binu may properly represent the barbaric side of them.
This tradition demands that someone wanting to be highly respected must decapitate another person. Before the arrival of Christianity, the more decapitated heads a man had compiled, the higher his status in society. It was likewise used by a man to propose marriage to a girl he loved. The suitor was required to offer the girl’s enemies to the her family. The more heads he could offer to his future in-laws, the greater was his dignity in the eyes of the girl’s parents.
Nowadays mangani binu has been totally eradicated from the Nias tradition. However, they admit that mangani binu still haunts them. Children are not allowed to associate in the afternoon with their parents. It is common for Nias youth to bring local traditional weapons with them at night which suggests that mangani binu still exerts a significant influence amongst the Nias people (page 72).
Unfortunately, this book does not explain why such a barbaric tradition is necessary for dignity and social status.
For the time being, do not answer the above question with moralistic and religious assessments. Johannes Hammerle, in his book The Origin of Nias People (2001), argues that Nias Island’s topography demands its settlers survive in a wild nature.
Nias is just a small island with only a few natural resources. Consequently, social competition is inevitable. Competition is part of their daily behavioral patterns, leading to a desire for prestige in society.
The Arrival of a New Religion
After the arrival of Christianity to Nias Island toward the end of the 19th century, customary traditions gradually began to fade. Christianity banned managani binu and other traditions such as erecting menhirs and statues glorifying their ancestor. Likewise, owasa was included on the missionaries’ lists of rituals that should be banned.
In brief, a major cultural transformation occurred on Nias Island with the arrival of Christianity. With a slogan “Christ against culture,” missionaries summoned the Nias people to fangefa sebua (absolutism) and fangesa sebua (atonement) in 1916. Shortly after those movement began, a number of menhirs, statues and other sacred ancient heritages were thrown into the river.
Likewise, customary traditions suffered from cultural transformation after the coming of Christianity to Nias. Behu (stone pillar) in the owasa customary tradition started being banned piecemeal. Christianity stated that if anyone erected behu, he would be punished by tying the behu around his neck.
The endeavors to change the essence of Nias’ customary traditions were said to be the keys for the success of Christian missionaries on Nias. They changed famaoso dalo — tradition of hanging up died skulls — to fanano buno — planting flowers.
Likewise, the stone-jumping tradition is said to have been substituted for mangani binu. The number of skulls a person acquired was not representative of one’s dignity and social status anymore, but instead greatly depended on how many stones could be jumped.
However, Christianity did not reach into all the cultural spheres of the Nias people. Some continued resisting Christianity because if tenets were against traditional Nias customs. Fa’awosa — the local term for such resistance — took the form of religious sects combining several religions and beliefs together, such as Islam, Christianity and animism.
By 2006, at least 58 religious sects had developed on Nias Island. From this it can be concluded that the Nias people do not want their ancient traditions to disappear from existence because of the arrival of new religions.
This book is the writer’s ethnographic reporting to present the cultural identify of the Nias people through brilliant analysis and flowing narration.
This book, likewise, reveals to the public how Nias’s cultural wealth gradually began to fade after the 2004 tsunami. The writer’s Sunda-Javanese background was not a barrier to studying Nias culture in detail.
He has written the Nias story in an easily understood language style, with only a few academic digressions. In conclusion, this book will certainly lure you to observe the detailed cultural and historical aspects which developed on Nias Island.
The writer is a researcher in the Yogyakarta-based Center for Research and Development of Malay Culture.