Compared to neighboring islands off Sumatra the culture on Nias Island has developed distinctly unique traditions and customs. Some of these traditions were related to pre-Christian ancestor worship and have largely disappeared. Other practices like headhunting have also been abolished as Nias have joined the modern world. But many unique traditions are still alive, such as stone-jumping and traditional wedding ceremonies.
Stone jumping (hombo Batu) is a cultural practice unique to Nias. It is well known by Indonesians because a Nias stone jumper was depicted on the old 1000 rupiah note. Originally the stone jumping ceremony was part of an initiation rite for young men to be accepted as adults and warriors. The height of the stone pyramids is between 1.8 meters to 2.2 meters. The jump is done barefoot and a lot of practice is required before a jump is attempted. The skill of jumping over high objects was developed as fighting technique. In a surprise attack, warriors could jump over the defensive wall of enemy villages. Many villages in the south still have stone structures for this ceremony.
Ancestors worship was at the core of Nias beliefs and idols played important roles in each family’s life. When older people died the family would make a sculpture made of wood , called Adu Zatua. The statue was unveiled on the fourth day after death. Nias people believed that the spirits of the deceased person were present in the statue (ancestor worship). All events that occurred within the family were communicated with prayer to the ancestor statues. Sacrifices to the Adu Zatua were made during important events such as births, weddings and deaths. The statues were places in the main room of the house and in some big traditional houses there were hundreds of statues filling the entire room.
Many ancestor statues were destroyed during the “great penitence” religious movement that swept Nias in 1916. As symbols of the old religion they were seen as blasphemous idols. Many were also sold to collectors and can now be found in museums and private collections all over the world.
In the first written account about Nias from 851, the Persian explorer Sulayman noted the tradition of headhunting on Nias. If a young man wanted to get married, he must first take a head. According to the beliefs of Nias people there were different reasons for collecting human heads;
- If a nobleman died human heads must be collected to accompany and service him in the afterlife.
- When building a traditional clan house the skull of a man was buried next to the foundation on the right side, and the skull of a female on the left side.
- When erecting large megalith stones in front of a house, a human heads were often buried underneath it.
- The ratification of traditional law during fondrakö ceremonies must involve a human head, usually taken from a slave.
In 1908 the Dutch government ordered that Nias people should bury the bodies of deceased people in the ground. Previously the Nias custom was to place the corpse on a high platform or other elevated positions. After two or three weeks the head of the corpse was taken off, cleaned and placed in skull coffin near the house. The corpses of common people were sometimes left hanging in a tree latched to a simple bamboo chair.
Today family members are (especially in the north) often buried in front of the house. The graves are very elaborate and wealthy people may even build a small house over the grave.
Feasts and Ceremonies
In the past there was many feast and ceremonies celebrating various aspects of family and religious life. Some of these feasts disappeared when the majority of Nias people became Christians, others are still celebrated in various forms:
Ceremony of traditional law (Fondrakö)
Traditional law is formulated and ratified in a ceremony called fondrakö. Ceremonies of traditional law are periodically renewed. Traditional law are approved and finalized by proclaiming a curse on anyone breaking the law. People who break the law are punished and the harshness of the punishment depended of what law had been broken. For each offence there was a special penalty, ranging from execution to paying a fine. Fines could be paid in rice, pork or gold. Execution were carried out by shooting, drowning or by the sword. The death penalty could be changed to life in servitude as a slave if a large fine was paid, or if the convict was pardoned by a high ranking nobleman.
Traditional Weddings (Böwö wangowalu)
The words for customs and traditions in Nias language is Hada and Böwö. For Nias people daily life was always governed by Böwö. One of the most important customs that had to be followed was the rites and ceremonies surrounding a traditional marriage (Böwö Wangowalu).
Nias people married people of different clans to avoid inbreeding. The groom must pay the bride price to relatives of the bride, especially to the mother. Later it is also expected that the groom hold a big party for all the relatives and villagers. The party was a requirement if the groom wanted to arrange the important feast of merit (owasa) in the future. If the groom did not arrange a party in the village, he was regarded as child and he would have no say in village affairs. The main expense of the wedding party was and still is the cost of the many pigs needed to feed the guests. The size and importance of a wedding is often measured in how many pigs were slaughtered. To this day the cost of the wedding party is a major burden on young couples getting married.
Feast of Merit (Owasa & Fa'ulu)
There were many reasons to hold a traditional feast of merit (Owasa). Almost any event in the village could be marked by holding an Owasa fest: marriage, building a new house, erecting a megalith, acquiring gold jewelry, getting old or before someone was facing death. All villagers were invited to the Owasa. Anyone in the village who could afford the cost of buying the pigs required for a feast of merit could arrange one. People who arranged an Owasa were highly respected in the village and the more feasts of merit a person arranged the higher his rank rose in the community. This was one way for ambitious men to become chief of a village.
Tiger Ceremony (Harimao)
In the Maenamölö region of South Nias there used to be a ceremony where a statue of a tiger was carried through the village in a procession. Because there were no tigers on Nias, the statue (Adu Harimao) looked more like a large dog with a cat head. This sacred rite was held once every seven or fourteen years. The tiger statue was then broken into pieces and thrown in a river. The ceremony was called 'Famatö Harimao'. Local people believed that all sins they committed during the previous years would wash away together with the statue. Since most Niasans became Christians the Famatö Harimao ceremony is no longer celebrated. In an effort to preserve and revitalize the local culture, this ceremony is sometimes conducted in South Nias at certain events. Today the ceremony is known as 'Famadaya Harimao' (procession of the tiger statue).
Traditionally Nias people did not keep animals such as buffaloes or cows. Even today the most important domestic animal is the pig. Pigs and the eating and sharing of pork meat is highly ceremonial on Nias. Any event or traditional feast must involve pigs, such as the different stages of construction of a house, Fondrakö ceremonies, settling matters related to customary law, personal events in the family, a child's birth or naming, someone’s death, before going hunting, if someone is sick, even before going headhunting. There are no important events or feasts without pork as nothing that can be completed or ratified without the slaughter of pigs. The sharing, serving and eating of pork follows a strict cultural protocol observed to this day. The people cutting the pork are always respected members of the community, and their work is closely watched by many people. To receive the jaw of a pig at a wedding party is a great honor. Nias people sometimes called themselves "the Pigs of the Gods" indicating the humans were at the complete mercy of the Gods, just like the Pigs on earth are at the mercy of Humans.
Nias colours, symbols and patterns
The colours of Nias are red, yellow and black. The meanings of the colours are:
- Yellow (gold): represents wealth, glory and success.
- Red (blood): represents the bravery of Nias warriors as well as clan and family.
- Black (earth): represent the homeland and fertile soil of Nias, as well as the fortitude of the common people
Traditional clothes always use combinations of these three colours. Women from the south wear predominantly yellow, while northern women lean towards red. Traditional dresses also incorporate particular design patterns and symbols. The most common pattern is the row of triangles, called ‘Ni’ohulayo’. The triangle shapes resemble spear tips and this pattern symbolizes the heroic spirit of Nias people. This pattern is not only used in traditional clothes, but is nowadays often associated with cultural events or anything representing Nias. There are a number of iconic symbols and patterns in Nias culture that can be seen on traditional clothes, stone works and wood carvings in traditional houses.
Traditional Nias Clothes
Nias traditional clothing is called Baru Oholu's for men and Baru Ladari or Baru Isitö for women. The traditional clothing is usually red or yellow combined with black and gold. Long time ago people on Nias did not have access to textiles like cotton. They made clothes from the bark of certain trees or by weaving grass.
The men's clothes consisted of a waistcoat which was black and sometimes adorned with yellow or red ornaments. Women's clothes only consisted of a sheet of fabric which was wrapped around the waist. They were topless but adorned with coils of brass bracelets and large earrings.
Bark from the oholu tree made loincloths (saombö) and jackets (baru oholu) for men. The jacket can also be made from bast fibers called isitö. It was believed that anyone wearing clothes woven with isitö fibers became very powerful. Jackets and vest of a lesser quality was made from grass fibers called ladari. The fibers from the bark isitö were also used to weave skirts (u'i) and fabric for women. Rarely used soft cotton (afasi niha) could be spun and woven to cover certain parts of the fabric.
Cotton clothing made in Nias (Afasi niha) was very rare and could only be obtained by noblemen. Eventually textiles from the outside world reached Nias and many people started to use new materials. The women were no longer topless and the clothes were made of cotton and calico fabrics or even silk for the noblewomen. More colours started to be used; mainly red and yellow with black and gold overlay design details.
Traditionally both men and women wore lots of jewelry and adornments, especially the noblemen. The first written historical account of Nias mentions that local people wore lots of gold jewelry.
The most important adornment for men was a large neck-ring made out of coconut or turtle shells, called ‘Kalabubu’. This could only be worn by warriors who had proved themselves in battle. Noblemen and chiefs wore large ornamental head dresses. Men only wore earrings in the right ear. In the north men wore enormous earrings, almost as big as the head. Bracelets made of wood or shells were worn on the right hand only, as the left hand was needed to hold the shield. A very unique adornment on Nias was the metal mustache worn by warriors.
Women were jewelry of gold, brass, copper, shells and beads. Earrings and bracelets were very large compared to what is worn today, particularly the Saru Dalinga earrings. Smaller versions of the same designs are worn today, particularly at weddings. Female adornment had distinct regional differences, and it is possible to tell on historical photos where a photo was taken by looking at the women’s jewelry.
Betelnut chewing; Manafo and Bola nafo
Like in many places in Asia betel nut chewing is common on Nias. This tradition is referred to as "manafo". Five ingredients are used; betel leaf (tawuo), lime (betua), gambier leaves (gambe), tobacco (bago), and betelnut (fino). This concoction of five ingredients is called "afo". Because this tradition is very much alive, "manafo" is regarded as a symbol of Nias culture and often becomes part of traditional events on Nias, such as welcoming ceremonies for important visitors.
During these ceremonies guest are offered betel nuts from a beautifully woven bag known as Bola nafo. Bola means bag or container, and afo is the concoction of the five ingredients. Bola nafo bags are made by weaving grass, which have been dried and colored. Usually they are decorated with Nias symbols and motifs, each with its own special meaning. The motifs used on Bola nafo bags reflect the social statue of the owner. Ni'otarawa motifs are used by nobles while Ni'ohulayo motifs are used by commoners. The same techniques that are used to weave Bola nofa bags and traditional clothes are also used to make other things such as seating mats.
Palm frond weaving (Ni'okindrö)
On festive occasions and ceremonies on Nias the venue for the event is often decorated with palm fronds. By weaving the palm fronds together beautiful shapes and patterns are created. This is called Ni’okindrö (palm frond weaving). The style of Ni’okindrö varies between different regions. The shapes created by palm leaves have many different meanings. Today when important guest’s visit Nias they are often presented with a necklace made using this technique. This is knows as Nifatali Bulumio. Only a few people are able to make this kind of necklace. In 2016 Indonesian president Jokowi visited Nias and was presented with a Nifatali Bulumio made by staff from the Nias Heritage Museum.
There are several important symbols in Nias culture that are often seen on traditional dresses and in stone or wood carvings.
NI'OGOLILIMO - This symbol is the logo of Nias Heritage Foundation. This is a common symbol in Nias culture. It symbolizes the inside of a fruit. There are different segments, but the outer skin holds it all together, just like the people of Nias.
NI'ONDRÖFI - A star that looks like a flower. It symbolizes wealth and good character.
NI’OSUKHU - Comb symbolizing noblewomen being well groomed. The comb symbol is often combined with other symbols.
HAGU LASO - Wooden sculpture combining several symbols from Nias culture. This intricate and detailed sculpture is placed on the wall inside the main room of a chiefs house (Omo Sebua).
NI'OHALUYO - The triangular shape represents spear tips and this pattern symbolizes the heroic spirit of the people of Nias.
NI'OKINDRÖ - Diamond-shaped pattern that symbolizes gold and riches.
Betelnut bags & weavings