The Nias live on the island of Nias and other islands near it off the west coast of Sumatra. Also known as the Niasan (English), Niasser (Dutch and German), Ono Niha, Orang Nias (Indonesian), they have traditionally farmed sweet potatoes, cassava and rice and fished with outrigger canoes. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Anthropologist Mario Alain Viaro wrote: “ Situated on the borders of the Javanese Empire, the last bastion of Asia before the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, Nias Island has produced a civilisation noted for its complex social structures and architecture, wooden and stone statuary, and remarkable weaponry. [Source: Viaro, Mario Alain, “Ceremonial Sabres of Nias Headhunters in Indonesia” , Arts et cultures. 2001, vol. 3, p. 150-171]

About 85 percent of Nias are Protestants, 10 percent are Catholics and 5 percent are Muslims. Elements of traditional religion have endured in the form of concepts about sin and merit and the use of healers to deal with matters related to spirit possession. Their feasts of merit are intended in part to win the blessings of local fertility gods. Only men who have hosted enough feasts get full burial honors. ~

The Nias have traditionally practiced slash-and-burn agriculture and as result many of the islands where they live are now deforested. Cash crops include coffee, rubber, cloves, and patchouli oil. Pigs and gold are traditional indicators of wealth and are traditionally given as bride wealth and feasts of merit. ~

Nias History

The Nias islanders have cultural links with the Bataks on Sumatra, the Naga in India, Dayaks in Kalimantan and aboriginal groups in Taiwan. In the old days they practiced headhunting and fought wars between clans to secure heads for funerals and wedding doweries. Nias island was not brought under the control of the Dutch until the 1950s. Before that time many Nias were captured by the Aceh or traded with gold and became slaves. Christianity made great inroads among the Nias beginning in 1915 through apocalyptic conversions movements known as the Great Repentance that characterized traditional Nias beliefs as works of the devil. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Recorded accounts of Nias Island date back to the period of trade by Baghdad merchants with India and China, by way of Southeast Asia. Suleyman (851) first wrote about the island and described it “to contain an abundance of gold. The inhabitants live off the fruit of the coconut tree, from which they make palm wine, and cover their bodies with coconut oil. When someone wants to get married, he must bring the head of an enemy. If he has killed two enemies, he may take two wives. If he has killed fifty enemies, he may take fifty wives.” Other early accounts of Nias Island include: “The Book of Indian Wonders “(“Kitab adaib al-Hind”), dated by Van der Lith to the year 950; the writings of the famous geographer Edrisi (1154); a description of cannibals inhabiting the island by Kazwini (1203–1283); accounts by Rasid Ad-Din (1310); and descriptions of a large island city by Ibn Al-Wardi (1340). [Source: Viaro, Mario Alain, “Ceremonial Sabres of Nias Headhunters in Indonesia” , Arts et cultures. 2001, vol. 3, p. 150-171]

Traditional Nias Warrior Society

Anthropologist Mario Alain Viaro wrote: “Although agriculture had stood its ground and, in the past, was an occupation carried out by either free men or a servile labour force, the Niha have traditionally been warriors. The society gave greater importance to the culture of war 1) and to manufacturing weapons (spears, swords, shields, armour) than to agriculture and making farm tools; and to constructing defensive structures rather than sowing crops. The Niha protected their villages by locating them on steep slopes or by surrounding them either with multiple rows of stinging bushes or by a moat, lined with earthen ramparts and blocks of stone. Village gates were customarily closed at night and, to this day, a night sentry keeps watch over the town to warn against fires or unwanted incursions. This bellicose environment permeates throughout Niha social and political structures. [Source: Viaro, Mario Alain, “Ceremonial Sabres of Nias Headhunters in Indonesia” , Arts et cultures. 2001, vol. 3, p. 150-171 =]

“Education was warlike and violent. In the south of the island, youths trained very early on to jump over a two-metre-high stone pyramid, or to clear a ditch filled with sharpened bamboo. Passage into adulthood, and therefore incorporation into society, traditionally required young warriors to take heads. In exchange for this act, a Niha chief bestowed on the successful headhunter the title of “iramatua “(warrior) and gave him the “calabubu “necklace during a time of festival. Only after this investiture would the young warrior take part in the “orahu “gathering of village men and in the “owasa “ceremonial cycle of pig-trading. Included in the “owasa “is jewellery-making, where gold ornaments provide men access to positions of rank in accordance with clan rules. “ =

Nias Social Organisation

Nias society is centered around patrilineal clans, with members of these clans often living in clusters of houses and sharing agriculture activities and economic responsibilities and recognizing the same guardian spirits. Marriage usually involves the payment of bride wealth not only to the bride’s family but also to her ancestors, sometimes up to 30 generations back. Nias in the south have two hereditary classes made of nobles and commoners. In the old days there were slaves that were traded. They were mostly bonded laborers, captives or ransomed criminals. In the north and central areas the classes exist but not as rigidly and there was some mobility between the classes. Villages have typically been led by chiefs and noble village elders who have demonstrated their positions by hosting feasts of merit. Commoners can raise their status by hosting similar feasts. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993)]

Mario Alain Viaro wrote: “Throughout the island, the most important social unit is the clan (“mado”), whose name derives from an eponymous ancestor. The most prestigious clans are those that claim direct descent from the original ancestors; other clans branch out from these. Prestige is measured by seniority. Clans and families are divided into social categories that include: “nobles” (an approximate title, as it differentiates those of higher rank); “people” (“sato “or “ono mbanua”, literally meaning “village children”); and, until the beginning of the twentieth century, “slaves”. The organisation of these social categories differs in the north, the centre, and the south, and is closely connected to the political structure and the festive practices that give rhythm to the life of the Niha. It is at these festivities that they erect stone monuments. [Source: Viaro, Mario Alain, “Ceremonial Sabres of Nias Headhunters in Indonesia” , Arts et cultures. 2001, vol. 3, p. 150-171 =]

“Society in the south divides itself into “nobles” (“si’ulu”) and “people” (“sato”). Passage from one category to another is impossible. Social distinction is primarily made on the basis of genealogy: the “si’ulu “sometimes trace their ancestry back dozens of generations. Wealth, knowledge of customary law (“adat”), and, formerly, valour as a warrior all play parts in reinforcing one’s birthright. Although the title of “si’ulu “is hereditary, it requires confirmation by means of prescribed festivities. Supreme power belongs to the man from among the “si’ulu “who organised the greatest number of feasts, in full pomp and splendour, laid down by customary law. In theory, the title of village chief (“balö si’ulu “or “salawa”) was contested by each generation; however, in practice, the chief’s eldest son retained a descendant. He bore the title of “balugu”, bestowed for having attained the highest levels of prescribed feasts.

Contrary to the social organisation in the south, there was no prominent “noble” class among the people of the central region. Any villager might gain access to the highest social positions from the moment he showed himself capable of promotion, as in the accomplishment of sufficient feasts and the consequent construction of monuments (the latter providing explanation for the abundance of megaliths in the central region villages). In fact, the central region was also where warriors most assiduously hunted for heads and slaves—customarily raiding villages in the south or other central villages with whom they had conflict. The north and the centre have different social and territorial systems of organisation, characterised by the primacy of the clan as a reference to identity. In the north, this reference correlated to physical and political territory, or the “öri”. Literally “circle (of villages)”, the “öri “is composed of villages belonging to the same clan. A “tuhen’öri”, the clan patriarch, traditionally ruled this circle of villages, although a chief alone governed each village without guidance or competition from any council. Since 1930, the “öri “has ceased to exist in its original form. The central region applied a system of social and political organisation based on clan and lineage. The village was traditionally placed under the leadership of a chief who was either the village founder or his descendant.

Nias Villages and Homes

Villages in southern Nias have traditionally been bigger than the ones in the north. Typically centered around a large house belonging to the chief , with very wide, straight cobblestone streets, they have traditionally been built on high ground for defensive purposes and then surrounded by stone walls and reached by steep steps. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Mario Alain Viaro wrote: The Niha protected their villages by locating them on steep slopes or by surrounding them either with multiple rows of stinging bushes or by a moat, lined with earthen ramparts and blocks of stone. Village gates were customarily closed at night and, to this day, a night sentry keeps watch over the town to warn against fires or unwanted incursions.1 This bellicose environment permeates throughout Niha social and political structures. [Source: Viaro, Mario Alain, “Ceremonial Sabres of Nias Headhunters in Indonesia” , Arts et cultures. 2001, vol. 3, p. 150-171]

Houses in the south are lovely rectangular structures raised on high pillars with roofs of sago thatch up to 20 meters high. Some have steep sloping roofs and trapdoors that let in ventilation and light. A shortage of wood and high construction costs have meant that these houses have been replaced by simple houses made from wooden planks or concrete. Stone monuments that used to be raised in every village are no longer erected. In the north houses are generally freestanding structure built on stilts, Houses in the south are built side by side around central courtyards. The frames are slotted and bound together without using any nails. ~

Nias Feasts of Merit

Mario Alain Viaro wrote: “Festive practices continue to be essential elements in the social structure and aesthetics of the Niha. Many authors at the turn of the twentieth century mention a particular type of festivity, the “feasts of merit”, under which title the Niha categorise all feasts that involve the ostentatious outlay of pigs and the erection of a megalith, practices still witnessed today. Festive cycles in the south include up to eleven feasts for the “si’ulu”. The “sato”, or non-nobles, gained access only to the first levels. Among these feasts, two demanded heads. The first celebrated the construction of a chief’s house (“folau omo”), which allowed those thereafter to be called “omo lasara”. The second was the funeral ceremony of a chief or, sometimes, a “si’ulu “or a noble person, whose tomb was decorated by a “lasara, “or an effigy. Informants mention no other festivities that required heads, although some may have incorporated head-taking in the past, as the series of festivities varied from village to village. The festive cycles in the north were directly related to the process of founding the “öri”, and do not appear to have required severed heads. [Source: Viaro, Mario Alain, “Ceremonial Sabres of Nias Headhunters in Indonesia” , Arts et cultures. 2001, vol. 3, p. 150-171 =]

“As a result of earlier and more intense missionary activity and colonisation in the north, headhunting in this region was the first to disappear in Nias. Festive practices in the island’s centre can include up to ten feasts. Each man has the possibility of accomplishing not only one “owasa “but all the others, including feasts of the highest levels. A stone monument is erected at each celebration and can reach up to six monuments at one time. Such occasions required that golden ornaments be made (fig. 8) and two heads, one male and one female, be buried at the foot of the largest stone to honour the celebrant and, as required by tradition, “to prevent the “behu “from falling”. Heads were also necessarily part of the inauguration of the “harefa”, a stone terrace where justice was dispensed. Two heads were imperative for a chief’s funeral ceremony. It is only in the centre of the island where one finds such an abundance of stones and, thus, severed heads for as many honoured individuals. “ =

Nias Headhunting and Slave Raiding

Mario Alain Viaro wrote: “Before Dutch colonisation, the hunt for slaves was a fundamental part of the warrior and chieftain society in Nias. Although slave traffic before the seventeenth century was limited to Sumatra and Aceh, the arrival of European merchants in the region created a much greater demand for them. This growth in the market, which now extended to Batavia and the Bourbon Island, must have brought about a multiplication in the number of raids and, consequently, an increase in trading revenue for the island’s chiefs. One can suppose that owning slaves, once a privilege for a few powerful chiefs, became a prerogative of numerous noblemen and created greater competition in the trade. This hypothesis is supported by an increased number of monuments erected during the nineteenth century, both in the south and centre of Nias.3 Parallel to the growth in slave traffic was the increase in the scale of headhunting, to the further detriment of the poor and delight of the privileged, and—in this author’s opinion—an early stage of globalisation. Figures obtained by foreign visitors at that time enable us to form an idea of the extent of these changes. [Source: Viaro, Mario Alain, “Ceremonial Sabres of Nias Headhunters in Indonesia” , Arts et cultures. 2001, vol. 3, p. 150-171 =]

“One of the (endorsed) reasons for waging war against other villages or clans was to procure slaves and to plunder their treasures for gold ornaments. The relation between war and slavery is patently obvious, whether it be from the viewpoint, “we attack to obtain slaves”, or the other way around, “you took slaves from us, therefore we wage war against you as revenge and to take them back to us”. Elio Modigliani, Italian entomologist and author of the first scientific ethnography on Nias (1890), constantly refers to the permanent state of war in Nias. Commodities—their ownership and use in feasts came beyond the reach of the average person—there developed a genuine and profitable market for them. Head-taking was a practice that directly led to the show of power because, like owning slaves, the ownership of heads meant that one had the financial means to acquire them. Heads of enemies killed in battle, as well as those brought in by young warriors, were displayed on the front wall of the assembly house (“bale”). Heads taken that were ordered by a chief were hidden in trees or buried, to await use in later festivities. This contradicts the old idea that heads were used for sacrifice, whose climax was the moment of decapitation. =

“Occasions for which heads were required varied between different regions of Nias Island, but, generally speaking, included the following: 1) When a dying chief requested an honourable funeral (a certain number of skulls would later hang in his house, often those of slaves). 2) When a stone bench (“darodaro”) was laid before the chief’s house. 3) When a chief constructed his house (heads were buried beneath the main supporting pillars). 4) In the last “mobinu “feast, when a big chief, who wished to obtain “ a great name”, invited all his allied villages (a head was buried under the ladder to the house and, after two months, dug up and cleaned to hang from the roof). 5) When a “bale “was constructed, a site where the statues of the village “gods” would be kept. 6) When a new village was founded (“fondrakö”). 7) When healing was requested in cases of grave illness. Additionally at these feasts, as at others where beheading was not required, the chief would demonstrate his power by appearing before the people and his allies in full splendour, wearing the gold ornaments of his rank and bearing his ceremonial sabre. =

Nias Culture and Weapons

Statues have traditionally been an important element of the spiritual life in the Nias islands. The Nias used to produce fine wooden statues, stones columns and limestone seats with animal heads that were associated with their traditional spirits, but now they no longer produce or keep these statues because of beliefs that they are associated with Satan. Some are made for tourists. Many of the finest pieces can be found in museum around the world. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Nias have traditionally performed war-dances and their thrilling version of the high jump in which men leap over a two-meter-high stone wall. In the old days the walls were topped by pointed sticks. That is no longer the case. The jumping was used for training. The wars dances were to get psyched up for battle. Now they are performed mostly for tourists. ~

Mario Alain Viaro wrote: “Mastery in the fabrication of arms (knives, sabres, and swords) is recognised throughout Indonesia. Fine examples of this proficiency are found in the sabres of Nias. Although there is no iron ore in Nias, the Niha acquired the metal through commercial exchange with traders who docked at the island’s bays. Like gold, copper, and tin, iron was considered a precious metal. As Nias Island has been intermittently cited since the ninth century in Arab and Chinese accounts and, later, in the seventeenth century by Europeans, it can be argued that the production of iron weaponry began at least a thousand years ago. There is reason to believe that the type of warrior society characteristic of the Niha has remained, more or less, unchanged since these remote times. [Source: Viaro, Mario Alain, “Ceremonial Sabres of Nias Headhunters in Indonesia” , Arts et cultures. 2001, vol. 3, p. 150-171=]

“The machete or knife (“balatu”) is the Niha weapon “par excellence”. It is not only a technical marvel and a powerful weapon, being very light and well balanced, but also a “sculptural chef-d’oeuvre “with respect to its handle. Called “balatu ide “in the south and “si oli warasi “in the north, it is used for both domestic chores and work in the fields or forests. Every man always carries one with him. The blade has only one cutting edge, with the point curving towards the top or the bottom, depending on the model, and the blade becoming thicker and wider at its extremity. The sheath is made of two wooden parts hollowed out to make room for the blade. These two parts are joined together using braided rattan or copper bands.” =

Nias Headhunter Swords

Anthropologist Mario Alain Viaro wrote: “The headhunters’ ceremonial sabre (“telogu, balatu sebua”) has a longer and, in rare cases, wider blade than the domestic knives. The sheath is closed lengthways by strips of copper and entirely covered with copper bands. The sabre’s handle is decorated with the open mouth of a “dragon” or the “lasara”, a hybrid animal attributed a protective role. The animal also appears on the façades of houses in the north and south of the island and on tombs in the south. It is sometimes symbolically depicted by two jaws and a central stem of metal suggesting the tongue of a snake or “varan”. In its more complex representation, the “lasara “can have protruding upper and lower lateral canines on either side of the mouth (a reference to the boar or warthog), teeth at the back of the throat, scrolled eyes, small tusks situated on top of the head (probably suggesting the antlers of the stag), a neck with engraved scales (a reference to the crocodile, snake, or “varan”), and fern leaves for decoration. It can also be represented in the headhunters’ “calabubu “necklace. Western authors have interpreted the “lasara”’s head in many differing ways. For Horner, it is the fantastic “lawôlô “bird (1849: 346); Schröder claims it to be a “niôbawa lawôlô”, an animal whose function is to increase the strength of the sabre’s owner (1917); Modigliani sees a boar’s head (1890: 246). [Source: Viaro, Mario Alain, “Ceremonial Sabres of Nias Headhunters in Indonesia” , Arts et cultures. 2001, vol. 3, p. 150-171 =]

“Among the most beautiful pieces is a sabre that bears a small person or monkey sitting on the head and clinging to “lasara”’s tusks. The image represents “bechu zöcha”, a spirit who hunts and feeds on men’s shadows, just as men feed on pigs (Modigliani 1890: 249). By biting the boar’s head, he takes on the role of a man. This image can be regarded as a talisman working against the misfortunes that the “bechu zöcha “spirit would ordinarily bring (Brenner-Felsach 1998: 174). Because of the spirit’s thirst for blood and its prominence on the headhunter’s sabre, the image was believed to have increased the warrior’s strength. The sheath of sabres belonging to chiefs and nobles in the south of Nias supported a rattan ball (“raga iföboaya”) on to which are attached amulets of different kinds: the teeth of warthogs or pigs, fossilised fish teeth, so-called tiger’s teeth, strips of fabric (usually red, the colour of nobility), small figures (“adu nori”), and other symbolic items to which the Niha attributed power. They believed that amulets provided them strength and protection against enemies. =

“Kleiweg de Zwaan (1930), who visited the island at the beginning of the twentieth century, tells us that “at feasts and at war, the men wear a short sabre to whose sheath we often find a small basket attached, onto which are sewn a bevy of small objects such as stones of particular shapes, shells, pig’s teeth, tiger’s claws imported from Sumatra, and, quite often, small wooden figures. It is these amulets that make the warrior believe himself to be invincible. The weapon’s hilt is often artfully worked and is shaped to form the head of a fantastic animal.” An ancestor statue from the south of Nias, currently at the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden (fig. 16),17 shows a highly expressive chief, with his ornaments and headdress, holding a blunderbuss and bearing such a sabre at his side. =

“Modigliani wrote: In the south of the island, the sabre evokes moments of glory in the mind of the warrior-headhunter and is girdled with precious idols that have protected him and will continue to protect him in the future. . . . The idols are always attached to a ball of braided rattan which is bound to the sheath with pieces of vegetable cord. . . . The amulets are sometimes inserted inside the ball, and are always wrapped with pieces of cotton and firmly tied. They are very jealous of their decorated knives and their mystical properties, and never spontaneously go without them. Where they do go without their knives, they are careful to first remove the ball so as not to divest themselves of idols. I occasionally expressed the desire to have one myself, but I was presented with a fake ball decorated with only pig’s teeth. They consider it a grave misfortune to be deprived of their protective idols and talismans, for they believe to be thus exposed to the vengeance of the parents of those whose heads they have cut off and fear that the evil spirits invoked by their victims may bring about their death. As there was no way for me to acquire such a knife, I decided to obtain one at any cost and asked one of my men to steal one and to carefully hide it. One must see the rage of the injured party, and the threats he uttered, to understand the importance placed upon the idols.” =

“To increase the strength and invincibility of the warrior, these figurines were likely made prior to wars or headhunting raids (Sulaiman 1991). Rituals were performed and offerings made to solicit blessing, strength, and protection, in similar fashion as ritual offerings for ancestor statues kept in the house. Remains of offerings in the form of dried leaves, cotton soaked with coconut oil, and pig’s hair may still be seen inside the sabre’s rattan ball. Modigliani sought to gain deeper insight into the manufacture and symbolic purpose of these figurines, but he was unable to solicit any response from informants. =

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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