During the fifteenth century, the Minangkabau tribes from Sumatra established themselves in what is now the Malay state of Negeri Sembilan. While the modern-day capital is Seremban, 67km south of Kuala Lumpur, the cultural heart of the state lies 30km east in the royal town of Sri Menanti. Both towns showcase traditional Minangkabau architecture, with its distinctive, saddle-shaped roofs.
The modern state of Negeri Sembilan is based on an old confederacy of nine districts (hence its name – sembilan is Malay for “nine”). By the middle of the nineteenth century, the thriving tin trade and British control over the area were well established, with colonial authority administered from Sungai Ujong (today’s Seremban). Rival Malay and Minangkabau groups fought several wars for control over the mining and transport of tin, with Chinese secret societies (triads) manipulating the situation to gain local influence, before a treaty was eventually signed in 1895.Read More
The former royal capital of Negeri Sembilan, SRI MENANTI, is set in a lush, mountainous landscape 30km east of Seremban. The only reason to visit is to see a jewel of Minangkabau architecture, the Istana Lama. As you look for it, don’t be misled by the sign for the Istana Besar, the current royal palace, which is topped by a startling blue roof.
The Minangkabau people, whose cultural heartland is in the mountainous region of western Sumatra (Indonesia), established a community in Malaysia in the early fifteenth century. As they had no written language until the arrival of Islam, knowledge of their origins is somewhat sketchy; their own oral accounts trace their ancestry to Alexander the Great, while the Sejarah Melayu talks of a mysterious leader, Nila Pahlawan, who was pronounced king of the Palembang natives by a man who was magically transformed from the spittle of an ox.
In early times the Minangkabau were ruled in Sumatra by their own overlords or rajahs, though political centralization never really rivalled the role of the strongly autonomous nagari (Sumatran for village). Each nagari consisted of numerous matrilineal clans (suku), each of which took the name of the mother and lived in the ancestral home. The household was also in control of ancestral property, which was passed down the maternal line. The sumando (husband) stayed in his wife’s house at night but was a constituent member of his mother’s house, where most of his day was spent. Although the house and clan name belonged to the woman, and women dominated the domestic sphere, political and ceremonial power was in the hands of men; it was the mamak (mother’s brother) who took responsibility for the continued prosperity of the lineage.
When and why the Minangkabau initially emigrated to what is now Negeri Sembilan in Malaysia is uncertain. Their subsequent history is closely bound up with that of Melaka and Johor, with the Minangkabau frequently called upon to supplement the armies of ambitious Malay princes and sultans. Evidence of intermarriage with the region’s predominant tribal group, the Sakai, suggests some acceptance by the Malays of the matrilineal system. What is certain is that the Minangkabau were a political force to be reckoned with, aided by their reputation for supernatural powers. Today, the Minangkabau are very much integrated with the Malays, and their dialect is almost indistinguishable from standard Bahasa Melayu.