SYNOPSIS:  Driving around rain or shine to find traditional Minang architecture with Billy, my local guide.  The story of a palace and a glimpse of a big crater lake.  About living standards, rain, the countryside and a magic stone.

Soon the few original wooden Minang houses that are left will merely be good enough for firewood.  Their fate  does not lag far behind the fate of the Dayak Longhouses that I tried to visit in Kalimantan.  Traditional Minang architecture is characterized by two, four, or six upswung gables on either side of a central door, which also often is topped by a gable swinging for- and upwards. Occasionally, such a house is accompanied by rice barns similar to the Tana Toraja rice barns .  Ancient Minang mythology knows about a bullfight in which the future Minangkabau (translated as “the buffalo wins”) tricked their opponents by outfitting a buffalo calf with sharp blades, and having it compete against a huge female bull whose guts were shredded by the calf looking for milk…  Following this rather uneven battle, these gables are believed to resemble buffalo horns.

You see quite a few single abandoned and collapsed examples of these ancient homes as you drive through the countryside around Bukattingi.  Only in Belimbing are a notable number of them left, but except for about two of them, most are in various states of decay if they have not already crumbled completely.  The older examples, up to 300 years old, are made without nails by joining wood in the mortise and tenon fashion.

Two upswings would make a very modest home.  Four gables (two in each direction) seems to be the standard middle-class variation, whereas six gables (three in each direction) are reserved for palace architecture and village meeting halls or Rumah Adat

Traditionally, the grass of certain palm trees was used for the roofs; today the unfortunate rusty, corrugated metal roof is most common.  Traditionally, the entire house would be clad in carved and brightly painted wooden panels.  Today, the walls are more likely rather plain — the backside of the house always a step down in its decor.  What is neat to see is that government buildings, hospitals, schools, other public buildings, and even mosques reference these gables in honor of the local tradition. 

The inside of these houses has a row of semi-private bedrooms at the back that takes up about 1/3 of the space whereas 2/3 are open areas devoted to communal life.  An open kitchen-hearth is set up as part of that communal space.  The upstairs, if there is one, gets progressively smaller as it retreats into the gables.  Potentially, there could be a single third floor room inside the gable projecting forward.

A fancy computer screen at Pagaruyung Palace in Batusangkar promised local and palace history, explanations of Minang culture and other useful things in English and Bahasa, but no matter how much I tried, it could not be retrieved.  Billy, even though he produced a license that claimed that he was trained as a local guide, was of no use when it came to reliable information of any sort.  He was a good driver and certainly knew the area, but had not the first idea of any historical facts.  His English was not sufficient to translate more complex concepts either.  But I got this much:  As late as 2007, the former royal palace of the Minang was struck by lightning.  A lightning rod was not grounded properly and the thatched roofed palace burst into flames, burning down in front of the villagers in no time.  But government money allowed them to rebuild within a year from the disaster.  Today, the palace ranks among one of the most popular tourist attractions that we visited today.

Nearby there were a royal cemetery and a spot with various ancient stone slabs inscribed with decrees in Sanskrit and other ancient languages.  Once again, Billy was of no help in understanding what they meant and I have to admit that unless I will need any of this someday, most likely I won’t take the time to find out either.   

It was an uneventful but enjoyable day driving around the countryside, which is full of lush rice fields, vegetable gardens, fish ponds, banana plantations, and forests. 

Once again it proves to be true:  Where there is water, there are opportunities that lead to prosperity, even wealth.   Coming from areas such as Timur and Sumba, the general degree of living standard is notably higher here than there. Houses in this area are built more sturdy and decorated more elaborately than elsewhere, even garishly and kitschy at times, showing off that degree of prosperity. 

Billy insisted on making a detour to a notorious “Magic Stone” known as  Batu Angkek Angkek.  Once before in Iran, I had encountered such a “magic stone”.  It appears to be too heavy to be lifted by even a strongman.  But then, a heartfelt and sincere prayer to your god (may that be the Christian or the Muslim god, perhaps even the Jewish god) will solicit his help and magically, the person trying to lift the stone again is able to do so.  I did not try.  Perhaps, I should have to test my theory.  I believe that it is not the prayer, but a different technique that allows people to lift that stone the second time.  The first impulse is to the lift the stone vertically.  The second attempt almost without fail — I observed four different people — makes people slide the stone up their legs rather than  attempting to truly lift it.  And voila!  It ends up in your lap, “proof” of the power of god.

Well, the people in whose house that stone is kept certainly have figured out how to make a living as the final step of this ritual involves to make a donation to seal a wish you might have conveyed to your god.  What a scam.  But people seem to go for this stuff and they sincerely tried and “succeeded”. 

Our way back took us via Lake Singkarak, one of two crater lakes in the area.  A lake of this size in a setting as beautiful as this mountain area would in the West certainly draw people who would line its shores with vacation homes and dot its surface with sailboats and other vessels.  Here, there is nothing but the lonely fishing boat or the rare boat for rent just in case some crazy tourists feel like gondeling around on the lake. 

It was raining on and off all day.  I don’t know how many times Billy and I had to stop and either put on or take off our rain coats.  Here, as everywhere else I have been over the last two months, the dry season is not as dry as it should be, affecting age-old patterns of agriculture.  Perhaps it is the result of climate change, or perhaps only the effect of El Ninjo as some people hope.

A slow-paced day came to an end.  For some food I trekked into town to the famous De Kock Cafe.  It not only carries the typical local spicy food, it is also used to catering to the whims of the once so plentiful Western tourists.  They have pizza and baked potatoes on the menu, to mention just a few things.  You have no idea how good a bland baked potato with some egg and spinach can taste! 

Bon Appetit!

3 comments so far

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  1. What beautiful architecture – all totally new to me. I did wonder about the light fixture in the king’s palace.

  2. What kind of power lights the lights, gas, electric or what? These houses are lovely, especially the King’s palace.

    I look forward each day for another wonderful adventure with you.


    • Hi Beth, thanks for reading along! Most of the country has electricity, even some of the more remote villages – but not all. In some traditional villages small solar panels are popping up here and there to feed one lonely light bulb at night. But that makes already quite a difference. In Sumatra, everyone is “on the grid” unless you get deeper into the jungle.