The Traditional Decision-Making Process of Berkaul in Tanjung Emas, West Sumatra: Its Nature and Significance

Article excerpt


Indonesia is unique in the variety of its cultures, languages, and people. While this diversity is perhaps most apparent between different ethnic groups, considerable differences are also observable within a given ethnic group at the local level. The customs that are traditional in a particular community in Indonesia are intertwined with the particular adat (local law and customs) practiced in that area and shape the institutions of regional society.

Adat maintains a position of particular importance in West Sumatra among the Minangkabau people, who pride themselves on their traditions and social structures. While the origins of many aspects of adat lie in the distant past, it is still possible to observe ancient practices in some parts of the region. A number of these customs relate to agriculture and especially to the cultivation of rice, the primary crop in the area. As is the case in other parts of Indonesia and the Malay world, rice enjoys a special significance, and the demands of its cultivation define the yearly agricultural cycle today as they have since before recorded history.

The traditional practice of berkaul associated with the rice planting cycle described here was observed in 2009 in Tanjung Emas, located in the Tanah Datar region of West Sumatra. Tanah Datar is one of the three original luhak, or regions, occupied by the Minangkabau people in the Sumatran highlands near Mount Merapi. This Minangkabau heartland is traditionally referred to as the darek, the centre of Minangkabau culture from which the people spread to form new communities in the rantau. The rantau is everywhere beyond the darek. In ancient times, it referred mostly to the coastal area along the Indian Ocean where the modern provincial capital of West Sumatra, the city of Padang, is located and other areas that are now part of the province. Gradually, the rantau expanded to include regions in neighbouring provinces (Jambi, Bengkulu, etc.) where large numbers of Minangkabau reside as well as more distant areas, including Negeri Sembilan in Malaysia.

Today the traditional spatial division of the Minangkabau world into the darek and rantau is still significant and is closely related to the traditional practice of merantau, leaving home to seek one's fortune. Originally, many of these perantau (those who left) were expected to return to the village where their experiences in other places were viewed as beneficial to the community and supporting their participation in its social life. In practice, however, many perantau settled permanently in other places, accounting for the large communities of Minangkabau in regions adjacent to West Sumatra, Jakarta, and beyond. Nonetheless, these Minangkabau, as well as those in the original rantau areas now in West Sumatra, still tend to view the practices and traditions of the darek as representing the most authentic manifestations of their culture. Not surprisingly, the adat of these darek regions tends to show greater continuity over time and less adaptation to outside influences than that of the rantau. It is for this reason that traditional practices in villages like Tanjung Emas are worthy of observation and provide insight into the original culture of this region and its people.

Berkaul as a Tradition in the Agricultural Cycle

Berkaul, the act of making a vow to be carried out if a particular venture is successful, has been a part of the agricultural cycle in Tanjung Emas, Tanah Datar, for generations. This event takes place at the start of the rice planting period when the rainy season is beginning. Berkaul, which is also known as turun ke sawah (going to the rice fields), marks the point at which the planting cycle can begin anew. Most of the rice fields in this area rely on availability of ambient water, which must be expertly managed to ensure a successful crop, and planting starts with the onset of the rainy season. Berkaul involves everyone who owns rice fields in the same contiguous area and provides an opportunity for discussion of any aspect of the agricultural process. …