The Tradition and the Architecture Development of Minangkabau Ethnic and Its’ Diversity

The Tradition and the Architecture Development of Minangkabau Ethnic and Its’ Diversity
(A Cultural and Historical Review)


By Drs. Nashbahry Couto, MSn
Ir. Yaddi Sumitra, MTP
Translated by: Syayid Sandi Sukandi
Tradition is a social agreement of civilians in a certain time and place. Therefore, tradition is renewable and changeable if there is a new agreement in a certain society. The same thing also happens to the architectural tradition of a society that is culturally considered as civilized, that is Minangkabau.

Key word: Tradition, Diversity and Ethnical Architecture.

I. TraditionThe modernization of Minangkabau culture is a continual process tradition. This concept is stated by Esten (1999). It means that Minangkabau ethnical society has a tradition in changing its’ culture. The cultural changing is getting along with the social history of the ethnic itself. What do we mean by culture is the tangible cultural heritage and intangible cultural heritage. The traditional knowledge is categorized into the second one.

Minangkabau cultural phenomenon is understandable if only we study the history and culture of Minangkabau. Started from primordial society to the existence of tribes and communities those are termed as ‘taratak’, ‘koto’, and ‘nagari’.

The frequently asked question about this culture is what does the Minangkabau traditional science mean? And the most frequent one is a question about what should be inherited from the traditional science to the young generation?

As we have known recently, the Minangkabau ethnical society has not developed their writings. The knowledge about tangible cultural heritage is mostly distributed as cultural aspects (megalithic buildings, Hindu – Buddha buildings, sculptures, dresses, etc). These artifacts need interpretation and reading process as historical and intangible heritage evidences.

It means that the intangible cultural heritage or the traditional science needs to be restudied from the available artifacts because of the lack ness of the writing culture. In order to study the traditional knowledge, we must therefore to understand and know the way the cultural creator society thinks.

In the cultural science, there are four stages of how the society thinks. They are firstly, mythical stage. Secondly, it is the ontological stage. Thirdly, it is ontological-substantialist stage. Fourthly, it is the functional cultural stage (Peursen, 1975). According to Peursen, human has not created any distance to the nature in the mythical stage and the existence of ‘animisms’ (soul based for all things) and ‘dynamisms’ (power based for all things) is the reflection of the mythical stage.

In the ontological stage, human starts to make a distance to the nature and try to identify all seen stimulus of things through ‘language’. Each of the stimuli is given a name and a meaning.

The rising of traditional science happens in the ontological-substantialist culture stage, where knowledge about environment is systematized to knowledge that we call Minangkabau traditional knowledge. This knowledge is exactly unlimited because there are good things like knowledge of traditional medical treatment, food recipes, and knowledge about buildings and others.

Unfortunately, as what has been explained before, this sort of knowledge is only spread to people orally. For instance, the history of this community is largely recognized through ‘tambo’ that dominantly mixes the myth and reality. (In Minangkabau elite community, there is only little activity of writings but it is not taught to the society that means the writing culture in Minangkabau elite community is exclusive).

Nevertheless, the richness of the intangible cultural heritage can be explored through the tangible cultural heritage.

The reading process of this science is ought to be in the same line with the way of ontological-substantialist thinking and is related to the cultural stages or the available artifacts. By noticing this way of thinking and the development of this traditional science, like traditional building, it can be then classified and categorized.

Therefore, it is pitiful if the architecture experts consider that the Minangkabau cosmology does not exist. For instance, the concept of ‘alam takambang jadi guru’ (nature is the teacher) is one of the concepts that is occurred from the ethnical community when they eagerly live their life in the ontological-substantialist atmosphere, that is in Hindu-Buddha life activities. This activity occurs in the same way too, when they try to interpret the ‘Hasta Brata’ (eight power of God, or eight characteristics of leader, that it is then creating all four concepts in Minangkabau cosmology, that they are water, fire, wind and soil).

At the end, the Minangkabau people themselves declare ‘tak tahu jo nan ampek, inyo bukan urang Minang’ (those people who does not know the four, they are not Minangkabau people). In daily communication, there is ‘kato nan ampek’ (the four ways of speaking). In judging someone, there is ‘orang nan ampek jinih’ (the four kinds of leader) and the others. This is one of the philosophical thought of Minangkabau people or way of thinking of Minangkabau people that exists in the ontological-substantialist era. One of the implementations of ‘nan ampek’ (the four) is in building. The ‘gonjong’ (ceiling) of buildings should be made on four, although the amount of rooms is various.

In conclusion, this is why we have to study the traditional knowledge and science not from the Western thoughts but from cultural-humanism, including to the architectural study. We can study about it by applying the Western thoughts occasionally, but this traditional knowledge and its’ conclusion, however, will be far from the real meaning.

There are so many researchers, even in the doctorate level, are mistaken in interpreting Minangkabau traditional building, because the way they see it is not through the way of thinking of the community and ignore the historical and cultural aspects.

Another question that arises is what the cultural sources that influence the traditional knowledge are and a question of why the Minangkabau traditional knowledge that is influenced by Hindu and Buddha concept such the concept of ‘nature is the teacher’ is highly strong and has got less influences from other cultures.

The above questions can be answered through geographical view that means this Minangkabau culture is isolated. The Minangkabau community is difficult to be influenced by the outsider factors. At last, the Dutch colonial open a new kind of transportation that highly influences the easiness of outside factors to get into the community.

However, all these change are started since the Hindu, Islam, and colonial era, from one period to another that not only influence the socio-cultural activity but also the process of building the physical environment, especially the handled environment.
The more specific is influencing the visual culture. In the colonial era, for instance, many of the elite colonial buildings (‘angku lareh’, ‘regen’, ‘doctor’ and the other like) are built and these kinds of buildings are also considered as historical house of Minang. In fact, those buildings are only the duplicate of the original buildings.

If it is not mistaken, therefore, the result of researches done by Couto (1998) for instance, gets the view and the meaning lied in the visual culture of Minangkabau traditional building from various aspects and influences. As we have known recently, this visual culture is one of the new studies that are developed in many countries in the world as one of the new branch from cultural studies, arts and crafts.

Then, it can be concluded that Minangkabau culture is not only from one source of culture, but it is an accumulation of cultural development like the culture of primordial, Hindu – Buddha, Islam, colonial and modern society.

The rising of specific cultural period does not mean that there is no inherited culture from the previous cultural atmosphere. Theoretically, this mixed culture is called as acculturation (the mixing of long-time factor with the new one). All of the sources of cultural references can possibly be acculturated, that at the end, it is called as Minangkabau community buildings tradition.

The question is how the process of forming the tradition runs. This question has long ago been being a discourse in sociological studies, especially in the most specific part of the sociological studies that are known as Art Sociology and Design Sociology.

According to Hauser (1982), there are minimally four process of how a tradition formed. Firstly, it is the creation stage (stimulating and occurring of creation). Secondly, it is the reception stage (accepting), convention stage (agreement and convention stage – tradition). In the convention stage, the society makes unwritten roles that must be followed by a community[1].

In the creation stage, namely in the creation process of a building or craft, the artifacts are created by a member of the society. This creator might be someone who is endowed with magic powers, a leader of a tribe, or a crafter who is not familiar in the society. Just call the creation as anonymous (the creator is unknown).

In the reception stage, according to Haucer, a creation can be accepted by society if the creation is socialized, and at least is known by the member of the community.

In this socialization stage, the creation can be accepted or fully rejected by the society.

The theory of this acceptance is known as reception theory that means the existing reception of a community by applying certain ways. In anthropology, one of them is termed through custom term that is ‘potlatch’ (showing off custom). The other way is by forming market share, the buy and sell products and the last way is bartering.

The potlatch custom is known and recognized when there is a specific ceremony. The member of society show all things off that she or he thinks what they have is their richness compared to the other member of the society (in terms of dress, accessories, building ornaments, specific things, and can be in the large scale is showing off the building and its’ ornaments).

The gradual existence of a tradition occurs as if there is convention after reception. It can be stated that a society accepts a creation but it does not come to be a tradition. The tradition is only lasting if there is social convention. Therefore, it can be also stated that theoretically a community, in this case is Minangkabau, is not free from outside influences. It will filter one will be theirs that can be a tradition and local culture.

From above explanation, it is clear that if we want to read Minangkabau tradition, then it should be asked to every generation about which one is the tradition (kind), when (time), and where (location). We cannot acclaim that the previous tradition has its’ important values as part of respected values by a generation in a national tribe.
Due to the note about tradition, it becomes the crucial element in explaining the way of thinking and the great sides of a society or in describing the development stages of culture in every generation.

II. History and Culture

If we want to read Minangkabau tradition, therefore, we need to reflect on the history of Minangkabau culture. In the following picture, it is showed that the process of how the history and culture of Minangkabau exist.

Based on the history, the Minangkabau culture is formed by various outside factors that influence Minangkabau especially in the southern coastal area of Minangkabau. This area is the easiest one to change as in line with the era of transformation, compared to ‘darek’ (land mass) area of Minangkabau. It is reflected from the various style of new buildings found in the coastal area then in the land mass area. Buildings that have unique form of Minangkabau and that have ‘gonjong’ (pointed ceiling) are mostly found in the land mass area of Minangkabau.

Meanwhile, we can find many new forms and styles of buildings in the coastal area that are influenced by the outside factors. However, it does not mean that Minangkabau culture does not exists in the coastal area. What makes the difference is only in the form of buildings while the material used and the function of buildings are the same with those in the land mass area. The diversity can be seen from the next picture.

The traditional buildings that are still available until now are known approximately around 100 – 200 years old and there are also much younger. Consequently, many of these buildings are the residues of colonial era and categorized as new buildings after the coming of Islam and the coming of colonial entered into Minangkabau.

It can be understood that the wooden made buildings have been broken (the age of wood is probably around 50 years old) except a certain wood like wood that is used for pillars. The outer part of the buildings that look like wall is made from ‘saurian’ wood and the ceilings are made from ‘ijuk’ (palm fiber from the sugar palm). They are usually easy to be broken if they are compared to the pillars.

The typological classification of Minangkabau traditional buildings can be categorized into three. They are:

1. Based on the development or its’ history, it can be categorized into which one is the original buildings from the community and which one is the duplicate in the next communities.

2. Based on the rules of custom, it can be classified into which one is the buildings of society that are in the same line with local or Minangkabau custom, which one is the elite buildings for high level people and which one is the only buildings for people
3. Based on the rule of oldest skilled labor, those are 3 rooms/20 pillars, 5 rooms/40 pillars, 9 rooms/50 pillars.

4. Based on location, for example traditional buildings in land mass / coastal area.

III. Traditional buildings of Minangkabau in the coastal area

From above explanation, it is clear that the traditional buildings of Minangkabau community that are located in Padang city will be different from the other coastal area and land mass area as well.

It can also be stated that Padang city is an area that is mostly influenced by the comers coming to the city and it has multi-ethnic and international manner (there is China, India, Java, and Madura ethnic).

In the previous times, there are terms like Madura village, Java village, Kampoeng Nias, Kampoeng Keliling and the others. The remainder traditional buildings that are still available until now are the results of colonial influence. For instance, we know the ‘gunting keling’building (India influence), ‘gunting betawi’ building (colonial influence) and also Kajang Padati house (land mass Minangkabau influence).

Additionally, there are also buildings that have Malayan style, In the other side; buildings that are from the land mass have their development as they are seen in the picture 3.

As the example, it is the traditional building that is called ‘Balah bubuang’. It is actually the local traditional building that is different from the dark buildings. These buildings basically have 8 pillars and maximally 12 pillars, with 3 long and tapering sides so that the sides, which are separated by ‘bubungan’ (ridgepoles). (The ridgepoles are not in any pillars). This building is the transformational building from land mass that has 3 rooms/20 pillars, as in the mix with traditional building of coastal area.

Meanwhile, the naming of the building is precisely derived from local tradition. It is available to the buildings in either land mass or coastal area. Nevertheless, there is also a tradition to name the building based on the name of the tribe leader at that time.


It can be concluded that if there is a need to study the traditional building, it should be studied through the view of the community that creates the artifacts. Despite it can be studied through other ethnics’ view, the result will be far from the correct one.

The process of naming the buildings is based on the local tradition. In spite of that, the most important one is the reality that buildings are classified into the amount of pillars and the construction of the ceiling.

In general, the historical data about traditional buildings have not been collected yet systematically. It is needed to do a fully concentrated research that study about the civilians’ traditional buildings that exist in the land mass or coastal area (multi-ethnic) and about the outsider influences as well as the available cultural elements.

In addition, the collected and available data are good enough in general, but the focus of the data is still under detail. Because of that, the concentrated research is needed, compared to the limited focus research that only studies the form and techniques of the buildings.

[1] Among those traditions, there is a custom ceremony that is done by building a house, such like a ceremony to take woods in the forest, a pray reading, and some needed presents. These activities have lone been diminished long time ago in Minangkabau.


1. Drs. Nashbahry Couto, MSn is a non-static lecturer in the Planalogy and Architectural engineering department, faculty of engineering in Bung Hatta university since 1981, a lecturer in STT – SB since 1979, and a lecturer in applied arts, faculty of arts, Padang state university.
2. Ir. Yady Sumitra, MTP is a lecturer in Architecture department of engineering faculty in Bung Hatta university, 1988.####
Translated by: Syayid Sandi Sukandi
(HP. 081977506030, e-mail:

Author: Syayid

Syayid Sandi Sukandi is a person who is just like you. He loves to meet new people. He likes to learn new things and opens his horizon to understand how this world works. He is happy to help you when he can. His personal blog is Sparkling Silent Silhouette ( He can be contacted at e-mails: or He has a YouTube channel @Mr.Syayid's Corner. He is active on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. You may follow and subscribe to his creativity and works there. Enjoy different perspective and insightful ideas!

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