Sumatra is an huge Indonesian island southwest of Southeast Asia and east of Java. Situated just a few miles across the important Straits of Malacca from Singapore and Malaysia, it is covered by mountains and plateaus in the west and wide, flat, swampy lowlands and brown meandering rivers in the east. Sumatra remains a wild place with some stunning scenery and beautiful places. Even though vast tracts of lowland forest have been cleared, large areas of forests till remain in the highlands. Some of the highest concentrations of large animals in Asia are found in Sumatra's mountain parks. Offshore are islands with some of the world’s best surfing spots. [Source: Harvey Arden, National Geographic, March 1981]

Sumatra is the world’s fifth largest island, covering 473,605 square kilometers. Nearly bisected by the equator, it is 1,100 miles long and accounts for 24.7 percent of Indonesia's land area. A long chain of mountains—the Bukit Barisan—run northwest-southeast and parallel to the west coast of the island. There are around 100 volcanos on the island, with 15 or so ofthem active ones. Many are over 3000 meters. The highest mountain in Indonesia outside Papua is the 3805-meter-high Sumatran volcano Gunung Kerinci.

Sumatra island is rich in resources and has large oil and gas deposits and huge rubber and palm oil plantations. At one time it generated 70 percent of Indonesia’s export income. Three quarters of Indonesia’s oil is extracted from oil fields around the towns of Jambi, Palembang, and Pekanbaru. Lhokseumawe on the east cast of Aceh is the center of Indonesia’s natural gas industry. Timber as also an important industry as the deforestation for the island figures attest. Pepper has traditionally been an important crop. Tea, coffee, cocoa beans and tobacco are also grown.

Sumatra is Indonesia’s second most populous province. It is home to 50 million people, about 20 percent of Indonesia’s population, but is much less densely populated than Java or Bali. Although its is almost four times the size of Java it has less than a quarter of its population, The highest concentration of people are west of Medan on the northeast coast. Important ethnic groups include the Acehnese and Gayo-Alas, who live in the northern part of Sumatra; the Batak who live around Lake Toba; the Minangkabau, who live in western Sumatra; Malays, who dominate the east, across the Straits of Malacca from Malaysia. The Ogan-Besemah live in the south. [Source: Harvey Arden, National Geographic, March 1981]

In the 1950s there was some discussion about making Sumatra a separate state but not much happened on that. Although nearly all of the approximately 20 ethnolinguistic groups of Sumatra are devout practitioners of Islam, they nonetheless differ strikingly from one another, particularly in their family structures.


ACEH, See Separate Category,


The Gayo live predominately in the central highlands of Aceh Province in northwest Sumatra. Also known as the Gajo, Utang Gayo, they have traditionally been rice farmers and traders and have been Muslims since the 17th century. They number about 250,000 with about half them being Gayo speakers. They have traditionally had a strong ethic identity but have been under nominal Aceh suzerainty. Under the Dutch they developed coffee agriculture as cash crop and achieved high levels of education and were involved in the Islamic modernism and Indonesian nationalist movements, participated in the massacres of 1965 and 1966 and were local Suharto and Golkar allies.

In the old days many Gayo lived in longhouses but few of them do anymore. Most of the Gayo that remain in villages live in single family dwellings with palm leaf of corrugated iron roofs. Most farmers raise rice to eat in paddies with water buffalo and grow coffee as a cash crop. Households may consist of nuclear families or extended families, with adolescent boys living in the village prayer house. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Gayo society is divided into two kinds of groups: 1) intra-villages kin categories associated with different village offices; and 2) inter village kin categories associated with linkages to common villages somewhere else. Marriages are generally between people no more closely related than third cousins and may or may not involve an exchange of goods. The ceremony involves a ritual exchange goods and speeches. ~

The Gayo have a reputation for being fairly serious Muslims. In the 1920s, there was a movement to rid the religion of animist practices. Even so such beliefs persist in some rural areas. Most religious practices are in line with those of traditional Islam. Important life cycle events include a ritual bath, introduction to the spirit world and naming ceremony seven days after birth, circumcision for boys and girls. In the arts, there is a long tradition if songs, poetry and ritual chanting, often with individuals or teams competing against one another. ~

Saman Dance

The Saman dance is part of the cultural heritage of the Gayo people of Aceh province in Sumatra. Boys and young men perform the Saman sitting on their heels or kneeling in tight rows. Each wears a black costume embroidered with colourful Gayo motifs symbolizing nature and noble values. The leader sits in the middle of the row and leads the singing of verses, mostly in the Gayo language. These offer guidance and can be religious, romantic or humorous in tone. Dancers clap their hands, slap their chests, thighs and the ground, click their fingers, and sway and twist their bodies and heads in time with the shifting rhythm – in unison or alternating with the moves of opposing dancers. These movements symbolize the daily lives of the Gayo people and their natural environment. [Source: UNESCO]

The Saman is performed to celebrate national and religious holidays, cementing relationships between village groups who invite each other for performances. The frequency of Saman performances and its transmission are decreasing, however. Many leaders with knowledge of the Saman are now elderly and without successors. Other forms of entertainment and new games are replacing informal transmission, and many young people now emigrate to further their education. Lack of funds is also a constraint, as Saman costumes and performances involve considerable expense.

Saman dance was inscribed in 2011 on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. Involving a community of not only players and trainers but also enthusiasts, prominent religious leaders, customary leaders, teachers and government officials, Saman dance promotes friendship, fraternity and goodwill and strengthens awareness of the historical continuity of the Gayo people; Saman dance faces weakening informal and formal modes of transmission due to reduced opportunities for performance and the disappearance of the cultural spaces where transmission takes place, associated with social, economic and political changes that include penetration of mass media and the rural-urban migration of the younger generations; knowledge of the element is diminishing and commercial activities are increasing, posing a threat to the continued meaning of Saman dance to its community. Many important documentation on the Saman dance were destroyed in the 2004 tsunami. An educational program has been proposed to revitalize traditional modes of transmission of the Saman dance in the mersah dormitories for young men.

Kerintji and Kuba

The Kerintji live in the “Kerintji Basin,” two degrees south of the equator in West Sumatra. Also known as Corinchee, Corinchi. Corinchia, Kerinchi, Kinchai, Koerintiji, Korinchi, Korintji, Kurintji, they have traditionally lived in longhouses, fished from Lake Kerintji and raised irrigated rice. They are mostly Muslim and hold hereditary chiefs in high regard. Their pre-Islamic religion contained elements of ancestor worship, animism and Indic pantheism. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Kubu live in the east coast lowlands of Sumatra. Also known as the Koeboe, Orang Darat, they are a group of former hunter-gatherers that embrace a number of distinct groups.They are believed to be related to the forest people of Sri. Lanka. Few even knew of their existence until the Dutch came in contact with them. In 1935 there were 25,000 of them. It is believed that there are less of them now. An estimated 2,500 Kubu continue to practice their traditional ways. Most are settled. ~

The Kubu traditionally lived in small, nomadic groups. In their traditional society there were no class distinctions, only divisions based on age. No one acquired wealth or possessions and the forest was maintained in such a way as to ensure the maximum food supplies for all members of the group. ~

The Kudu were able to resist efforts by the government to settle them until the forest areas that they lived in were dramatically reduced by transmigration programs and palm oil plantations. The last remaining nomads have been forced to live in a 287-square-kilometer forest reserve. ~


The Ogan-Besemah are the primary ethnic group in southern Sumatra. They make up a diverse group of Muslim people with strong Sufi traditions. They usually identify themselves as Ogan (also known as Dempo) who live mostly in east and the Besamah (also known as the Pasemah) who live mostly in the west. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Most Ogan-Besemah lives in villages made up of single-story wooden houses with metal roofs. In some places villagers spend much of the year living is shelters set up neat the fields to protect them. Rice is the primary consumption crop. Coffee and runner are primary cash crops. ~

There are two primary kinds of marriage: 1) “belaki”, which involves the payment of a bride price and the residence of the couple with the groom’s family and association of the children of the marriage with the groom’s family. 2) “Ambig anag” involves no payment of a bride price and involves the couple moving in with the bride’s family and all children being linked to them. ~

Most children are dictated in state schools. Boys are expected t receive some kind of religious training and boys are expected to be circumcised. Religion is often organized by village leader and the veneration of English remains in places where they found. Many religious gathering involve Sufi chanting. Similar chanting goes on at the feast that follow funerals and other important events. It is believed that chants generate merit that will be returned to the villagers in the form of blessings. ~

Puteh: the White Tribe of Sumatra

The Puteh are a group of white-skinned people that has traditionally lived along a beautiful stretch of tropical coastline of coves and jungle in western Sumatra, about three hours south of Banda Aceh, that was devastated by the 2004 tsunami. They are believed to be descendants of shipwrecked European sailors, possibly from Portugal, who had merged into the culture of Aceh over the generations but maintained their striking Western looks. The Puteh are Muslims who speak a local Acehnese dialect Puteh. Before the 2004 tsunami there were about 500 of them. [Source: Nick Meo, The Times, June 28, 2005 ^, BBC]

Nick Meo wrote in The Times,“The Putehs — the name means white in Acehnese dialect — lived in fishing communities at the edge of the ocean. Nobody is quite sure how the Putehs originally arrived in the East Indies, but local legend has it that their descendants were shipwrecked sailors who converted to Islam and married local women. They had no European words in their dialect. The men were fishermen, poor by Indonesian standards, but the Puteh women enjoyed famously exotic looks. Their dark skins and blue eyes made them prized as brides by would-be husbands from the regional capital Banda and from as far away as Jakarta. The legends hold that the Portuguese ships, which were shipwrecked, were filled with gold as well as carrying the Putehs' forefathers. Coins would occasionally wash up from wrecks after storms. “^

There is some historical evidence ( supporting a partially Turkish origin for the Putehs. Turks and the people of Aceh are linked historically. The Sultan of Aceh, Alaaddin Riayat asked for help from the Ottoman Sultan Süleyman regarding the Portuguese invasion and the activities of missionaries in Sumatra. An envoy of 26 Turkish galleons set sail, but were attacked by the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. Only two ships returned to Istanbul. The successor of Sultan Süleyman, Selim II, issued a decree and sent 15 galleys and 2 escort ships to Aceh. The Ottoman government did not only send ammunition, weapons and soldiers to the Muslims in Aceh but also military instructors, housing and construction specialists, experts on metals-weapons and scholars. When Ottoman sailors arrived in Aceh, the Portuguese declared that they would not fight and handed over the city. Selim the II allowed those who wished to stay in Aceh. The people of Aceh loved the Ottomans so much that they added a crescent and star on their flags. There were reports of a Turkish cemetery in which Ottoman sailors were buried but nothing was left after the 2004 tsunami. [Source:]

Puteh All But Wiped Out by the 2004 Tsunami

Nick Meo wrote in The Times, “Before December 26 there were more than 50 families of Putehs. Now there is one man left. The Putehs lived in fishing communities at the edge of the ocean which suffered the worst destruction from the tsunami. Nearly all died and their villages were wiped from the face of the earth. The sole surving man from his tribe is Jallaluddin Puteh, a 42-year-old fisherman, who, together with his wife, lived because their home was at the landward side of the village and they had a head start running towards higher ground when the wave struck. [Source: Nick Meo, The Times, June 28, 2005 ^]

“Mr Puteh believes that all of his extended family who lived around the town of Lamno on the west coast of Sumatra died in the disaster — about 500 souls in six villages. His immediate family, and a handful of women who had married and moved to the capital Jakarta, are probably all that is left of one of Indonesia’s most unusual communities. "I just don’t know why God spared me and my wife although I have thought long about it," said Mr Puteh. Two of their children died in the wave, although two others, boys who were at school in the capital Banda Aceh, survived. Mr Puteh was washed about a mile by the force of the wave and dumped on a hill. His wife was washed up on another hill. Of the 1,300 inhabitants of the six villages the Putehs shared with dark-skinned Indonesians, only around a dozen people survived in total. His village is now under water. ^

“Mr Puteh admitted that the past few months have left him defeated. He said: "I have lost nearly all my friends and family. It is still hard to believe they are all dead and I am the only one left." Now he lives in a tent subsisting off food handouts. A few others in the town with some Portuguese blood survived the wave because they lived inland. The grandfather of Nur Hayat, a 25-year-old woman, was a Puteh. She said: "I lost uncountable relatives. It is so sad, they were such beautiful people. Their culture was 100 per cent Acehnese, they had the same religion, spoke in the same dialect, sang the same songs. The only difference was their looks. Men from Banda Aceh and Jakarta seeking wives would go there. The blue-eyed women were famous as the most beautiful in Indonesia." ^

“Campong Baro, one of the villages where Putehs lived, is now a muddy wasteland with the metal skeleton of a bridge lying amid the stumps of coconut palms where the tsunami washed it. The handful of surviving fishermen find it hard to motivate themselves. Salahin, a 32-year-old fisherman from the village, said: "I would like to marry again but I have no money. "It is hard to work now. Before it happened, when I came back tired there would be my wife waiting and my children to play with. But they are gone." Jamalludin Puteh said that he could not get his life back to any kind of normality, partly because most of the big fishing boats were destroyed in the disaster and there are not enough crews left to get the industry going again. "I am unemployed with nothing to do except think about what happened to us," he says. “I feel like our future was destroyed by the wave.” ^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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