A Glimpse of Minangkabau Traditions: Snapshots from the Cecilia Ng Photograph Collection

Between 1980 and 1981, as part of her work on her Ph.D. thesis, Cecilia Ng Siew Hua travelled to Minangkabau in West Sumatra, Indonesia to document the textiles and ceremonial costumes of the Minangkabau people. While a Visiting Associate at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (then known as the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies), Dr Ng deposited these visual images at the ISEAS Library in 1988, consisting of some 1,000 colour slides and photographs. These now form part of the Library’s Southeast Asian Cultural Collection (SEACC).

The Minangkabau are the world’s largest matrilineal society, in which property such as land and houses are inherited through the female line [i]. The images in this collection were taken by Dr Ng during her field work when she was based in the village of Nagari Koto nan Gadang. According to her research [ii], Nagari Koto nan Gadang was the original settlement in the Limo Puluah Koto district where the residence of the highest-ranking penghulu (“headman” or “chief” of a village) in the district was located. Nagari Koto nan Gadang was regarded by Minangkabau of other villages and districts as one of the strongholds of their adat (“ethnic traditions” or “customary law”).

Minangkabau Textiles and Costumes in Pictures

Textiles and ceremonial costumes are significant elements of Minangkabau tradition. Through her photographs, Dr Ng documented the complete genre of supplementary weft cloths [iii] worn in the Nagari Koto nan Gadang village at that time. Motifs created by this weaving technique provide information about the person wearing them.

Motifs on Minangkabau cloth are designed to be effectively displayed when worn. The unmarried girl’s shoulder cloths (Images 1 and 2 below) have highly decorated centre-fields and bands of motifs on the borders and selvages [iv]. These are worn in the slendang (“scarf”) style, slung over the right shoulder with the ends fastened at the left hip. In addition to marital status, women’s costumes also make statements about their reproductive status and progeny. For example, Image 4 shows a married woman wearing the kain lambak basiriang (a type of under-skirt), indicating that she has a married daughter.

Image 1 (left): Shoulder cloth with griffin and lion motifs in the centre-field. This shoulder cloth is worn by unmarried girls. CN000888
Image 2 (above): Shoulder cloth with chicken and bird motifs. This shoulder cloth is worn by married women. CN000916
Image 3: Unmarried girl in Minangkabau costume. She is wearing the shoulder cloth in the slendang (“scarf”) style. CN000110
Image 4: A married woman in her early fifties. She is wearing the shoulder cloth in the sandang bengkak (“knotted shoulder cloth”) style by looping the cloth under the left arm and knotting the ends at the right shoulder. She also wears the kain lambak basiriang (a type of under-skirt), showing that she has a married daughter. CN000404

Besides the costumes, Minangkabau weavers and tools were also captured through Dr Ng’s lenses. There were eight weavers in the Nagari Koto nan Gadang village in 1980, and the products of their loom were mostly for villagers who needed these cloths for ceremonies. Weavers in the village used the horizontal beam-tensioned loom with a simple frame to work, as shown in Image 5. The frame and the bench where the weaver sat were usually constructed by the local carpenter.

Image 5: A young apprentice working at her loom set up under the house, Balai Cacang (a hamlet of Nagari Koto nan Gadang). CN000087

The tablet loom (Image 6) was also used to weave gold bands on the selvage to be sewn onto the plain locally woven cloth. Though weavers also supplied cloths to shopkeepers in the local and neighbouring towns, cloths which were woven for villagers were of higher quality than those woven for shopkeepers. Finer and more expensive yarn was used for the high-quality cloths.

Image 6: Weaving minsia (“gold braid”) on the tablet loom. CN000717

The textiles and costumes captured by Dr Ng’s lenses are worth a thousand words. The way in which traditional dress is worn and the form into which the headdress is shaped tell a story about Minangkabau rules for living.

Minangkabau Weddings in Pictures

Minangkabau ceremonies include weddings, birth and death rites, investitures and house-building rituals. During her field work researching costumes, Dr Ng also visually documented the ceremonial process of weddings in the area. The wedding is a visually spectacular event; a full range of ceremonial costumes are used and a large number of participants are involved. There were at least fifteen weddings in the village when she was in the field between 1980 to 1981.

The Minangkabau wedding comprises of preliminary as well as main rites and extends over two weeks. Ritualised shopping is one of the preliminary rites carried out before the main wedding rites.  In Image 7 we see women of the house of the bride dressed in ceremonial costumes, walking to the market balancing baskets on their heads. On this ritual shopping trip,  they only bought a small portion of the ingredients actually needed for the wedding feast.  The main purpose of the trip was to announce the forthcoming wedding. Photographs of the wedding process in this Collection include but are not limited to ritualised shopping, food preparation, oratory, and food exchange.

Image 7: Women of the house of the bride at the market for ritual shopping before the wedding. CN001004

Other photographs below show the preparation of refreshments and food for the wedding ceremony, which were mainly women’s tasks (Image 8), while butchering of the cow is done by men of the sponsoring lineage and the same neighbourhood (Image 9).

Image 8: Women frying fish and potato cakes for a wedding feast. CN000585
Image 9: Tying of legs of cow for a wedding feast. CN000665
Image 10: Dressing the bride. CN000621
Image 11: Bride in sunting (traditional Minangkabau wedding headdress). CN000174
Image 12: Food brought by women from the house of the groom. The tray includes lepat, kueh buluh, fruit, beras rendang on tall plates, kueh loyang, kueh sapik, kueh panggang, and kueh pisang batu mata on ordinary saucers. CN000184

Minangkabau Houses in Pictures

One may also find images of rumah gadang (a term for Minangkabau traditional houses) in the Cecilia Ng Collection. The specific characteristic of the rumah gadang is the buffalo-horn shape of the roof. This is also the same shape as Minangkabau women’s headdress. The traditional house is made of wood and the roof may be thatch or more frequently made of corrugated iron. According to Dr Ng’s research, there were three sizes of traditional houses in Nagari Koto nan Gadang. The largest was the thirty-post house while the two smaller ones were the twenty-post and the twelve-post houses. Rumah gadang were usually used as venues for any large ceremony sponsored by households living in modern houses.

With the impact of modernisation and urbanisation, few traditional houses are built these days, as the cost is far greater than that of modern houses.

Image 13: A 30-post rumah gadang with four windows, in Nagari Koto nan Gadang. CN001105
Image 14: A 20-post rumah gadang with three windows, in Nagari Koto nan Gadang. CN001108
Image 15: The balai adat (“traditional hall”), in Kapau. CN000124
Image 16: Rangkiang (“rice barn”), in Balai Jaring. CN000382

The Cecilia Ng Collection is available for viewing in the ISEAS Library. Don’t forget to look for Dr Ng’s thesis The weaving of prestige: village women’s representations of the social categories of Minangkabau society for the detailed classificatory system and taxonomy associated with these costumes!

Further Readings


[i] Anjana Narayan, Britannica, s.v. “matrilineal society,” last updated August 17, 2018, https://www.britannica.com/topic/matrilineal-society
[ii] Cecilia S. H. Ng, “The weaving of prestige: village women’s representations of the social categories of Minangkabau society” (PhD diss., Australian National University, 1987), http://hdl.handle.net/1885/111331
[iii] Cloths woven using the supplementary weft technique which creates a design by floating extra wefts over the ground weave without disturbing the structure of the weave.
[iv] The longitudinal edge of a textile closed by weft loops.

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