Saturday, June 9, 2007

Divergent Frontiers: Mandailing Social-Cultural Identity between the Straits of Melaka and the Indian Ocean

Divergent Frontiers: Mandailing Social-Cultural Identity between the Straits of Melaka and the Indian Ocean
Paper to be presented at International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS5)
Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre
2 - 5 August 2007

The Mandailing people and homeland has been, thus far, exclusively and extensively studied and viewed in relation to and compared with the Batak to the north and the Malays to the east of its borders. The fluidity of the social-identity from being a Batak-Mandailing (Batak itself being a contentious ethnic tag) in Sumatra to becoming 'foreign Malays' in British Malaya has been studiously explored albeit the Malaysian experience has not been brought to bear on the Indonesian context.

Due to its position south of the Batak and north of the Minang, nineteenth century ethnologists have been misled and misleading in their readings of Mandailing identity. The Batak have a legend about the origin of the Raja Batak from Padang Mandailing, but conversely, there is no Mandailing story that attributes their origin to the Batak. Another derivative theory about the Mandailing comes from the Minang who consider the Mandailing a ‘people who have lost their mothers’.

Alternatively one can look at Mandailing society and identity as an interior people for west Sumatran port settlements such as Barus, Sibolga, Natal, Pariaman and Padang, ports which were more or less important at various periods in history. They were also connected via Padang Lawas downriver to the east coast of Sumatra and the Straits of Melaka.

The mountain range of Bukit Barisan shaped the trading corridors that extended to all points of the compass, corridors which allowed the Mandailing to flow back-and-forth in a flux of labour migration, cultural exchange and identity transformation. Orientation, language and identity varied according to trading opportunities during different historical time frames. This is one way of understanding why the Mandailing has ‘six languages’, reflecting societal phases, social stratification and occupational specialisations.

One ancient language is the hata parkapur, the language of the camphor-gatherers, indicating a pre-occupation with camphor collection and export through the port of Barus which flourished from 8th to 13th centuries. Barus figures prominently as the conduit for South Indian influence, Hindu and Tamil in particular, spreading into the highlands via Mandailing.

Both Hindu and Buddhist artifacts have been found in and around Panyabungan and Kota Nopan in the heartland of Mandailing itself. The existence of the Buddhist temple complex dating from the 11th to 14th centuries at Padang Lawas bordering the Mandailing region, points to a transit route associated with productive cultivated land, human settlements and religious practices.

Recorded history shows that Mandailings were present all along the west coasts of Sumatra. At the point of Dutch intervention into western Sumatra, both terms, Batak and Mandailing were used to refer to the people of the interior.

Obviously, before colonial intervention and before the opening of the east coast of Sumatra for plantations on the Melaka Straits, the Mandailing were originally orientated towards the island’s west coast facing the Indian Ocean and it appears that they have an early model of maintaining their identity as interior people and subsequently as Muslim but not Malay nor Minang. Taking the queue from Dutch policy that began to focus on east Sumatra in the later part of the 19th century, the Mandailing re-oriented their worldview to the east. By observing them from the western littoral and their relations with the highland civilization, not only can a comparative study be made but a new perspective can be gained with revealing results to illustrate the changing identities in a social, cultural, economic and historical milieu.