by Abdur-Razzaq Lubis


If we take globalization as the incorporation of the globe into a one world system through the systematic modernization of indigenous cultures and technologies, then the many periods of foreign influence that the Peninsula and the archipelago has experienced may be considered the beginnings of the globalization process in this part of the world. Globalization is not new at all -the coming of the Portuguese, Dutch and British to this part of the world heralded the present age of globalization. Yet, the process of globalization does not automatically lead to worldwide homogeneity, as in response to globalization there is the strengthening or even the construction of local and regional identities. Disenchantment with nationalism and the search for a strategy of self -determination, has led to the accentuation of provincial and local identity and even to the re-invention of the ‘imagined community’.

The Mandailing people, an ethnic group from the south-west corner of the province of North Sumatra today, went through a process of cultural hybridization and creolization centuries ago by incorporating into its gene pool the diverse people of the archipelago; and adopting as well as adapting cultures from across the continents. The Nasution clan is made up of Chinese and other foreign elements, while the Lubis clan is said to have Bugis and ‘Sulu’ infusion. In Mandailing architecture, the saro cino or Chinese-style curved roof is reserved for families with affiliations to the nobility, the namora-mora. The legacy of Indian influences, either direct or via other peoples, include a lot of words including key political terms such as huta (village, generally fortified), raja (chief) and marga (partilineal exogamous clan). This hybridization is the basis of Mandailing cultural identity today.


Although the Mandailing people have their own written script, urup tulak-tulak used in prepared tree-bark books called pustaha, there are hardly any historical records about the Mandailing prior to the 19th century. The first mention of the name Mandailing appeared in Nagarakretagama, a chronicle of Majapahit expansionism into Sumatra in the 14th century. ‘In view (of the fact) that there are no two Mandailing in Indonesia, what is meant is none other than Mandailing located in South Tapanuli’.

There are several hypotheses about the origin of the Mandailing people, mainly based on the proximity/similarity of sounds. One theory that is closely associated with the idea of governance is that the name Mandailing originated from Mandala Holing. The term h(k)oling is found in the following adage: ‘Muda tartiop haopatna, nipaspas naraco H(K)oling, niungkap buntil ni adat, nisuat dokdok ni hasalaan, ni dabu utang dohot baris …’. This means that the principles of justice has to be maintained before the scales of justice – the h(k)oling – are employed to determine the nature of the crime (transgression) against the adat and passing the appropriate judgment. This in essence is the notion of traditional justice in Mandailing society.

Current in Mandailing society is the usage ‘Surat Tumbaga H(K)oling na so ra sasa’ which means that the ‘Copper H(K)oling cannot be erased’. What is meant is that the adat cannot be wiped out; in other words is everlasting.

The above two examples emphasizes that justice has a central role in in Mandailing culture. This is upheld by its judicial assembly, called Na Mora Na Toras, the traditional institution of Mandailing governance.


The institution of Namora Natoras has two meanings. In the first instance it refers to the traditional leaders themselves, all males, who are nobles (namora) and elders (natoras), and secondly the institution, the parliament, governing council and judicial assembly, itself made up of these leaders.

The namora-mora represents the nobility or land-owing clan (marga tanah) of a fortified village (huta) or district (banua). The namora-mora consisted of the descendants of the village founder, who they formed an important part of the population of any village. Members of other clans also lived in the village and some are linked by marriage to the land-owning/founder clan.
A huta is a village republic, a self-governing unit with a parliament headed by the traditional chief (raja). In 1845 in Mandailing, each huta population consisted of between 350-400 people. The huta was clearly identified by the land-owning clan (marga tanah), a defined territory and a given number of citizen-residents. The huta chief or Raja comes from the land-owning clan.

In the case of Mandailing Julu (Upper Mandailing), the Lubis clan is the land owning clan and in Mandailing Godang (Lower Mandailing), the Nasution clan is the land owning clan. The other clans are led by kapala ripe. The natoras represent the non-nobility clan, whose participation in the judicial assembly is essential for the proper functioning of governance and the adat.

The functioning of the namora natoras is governed by adat, a body of customs and customary law known Dalian Na Tolu alternatively known as markoum sisolkot. Therefore, the nobles and elders can only act according to the prescriptions and within the constraints of the adat.

Above the level of the huta or banua, the governing council or a parliament is headed by a raja panusunan bulung or raja pamusuk who presides over a confederation of huta. They exercised control of land, the administration of justice, the regulations of markets (onan) and so on.

At the centre of each huta, stand the the ruler’s dwelling which is called the bagas godang and a council hall called the sopo godang. The bagas godang and sopo godang are not only important functionally but symbolize the status, nobility and greatness of a huta.

The governing councils of the namora-natoras are held in the sopo godang. The sopo godang have no walls signifying that the government should be conducted in an open manner so that people can hear and witness the proceedings. In today’s language, Mandailing governance is transparent. The gordang sambilan, the nine ceremonial drums placed in the sopo godang, is played during ceremonial occassions.

The sopo godang and the bagas godang stand on either side of a square called alaman bolak silangse utang literally, ‘the courtyard to relieve your debt’. Any person can seek justice and refuge in this courtyard. In each sopo godang there are pairs of totems that depict the mythological creature sangkalon, a symbol of justice. The totems are called sangkalon sipangan anak sipangan boru, which literally mean that ‘justice devours one’s own son, justice devours one’s own daughter’. Justice is impartial, or ‘justice is blind’. A small figure on the creature’s head means that the innocent must be raised.

The sopo godang and bagas godang, are still to be found in Mandailing and in Perak, Malaysia reminders of the seat of the namora-mora. Made of timber, or timber and ijuk, many of the Mandailing ceremonial building are decaying. Of late, there have been a number of studies on the symbolism of these buildings as well as measured drawings done on them for the purpose of preservation. Efforts to restore bagas godang and sopo godang will contribute to the revitalisation of the institution of namora-natoras.



The coming of Islam to Mandailing brought with it many values of the universal religion and global culture. The Mandailings were first in contact with Muslim traders from the East and West coast of Sumatra. More significantly however, Mandailing society was historically transformed by a radical brand of Islam – Wahabbite Islam brought by Padris in their white garb.

In 1820, the Padris invaded the Mandailing homeland. The socio-economic, political, ecological, environmental and spiritual disruption caused by the war no doubt triggered movements of people within and around Mandailing. Indeed the most important exodus of Mandailing migration from the Mandailing homeland in Sumatra to the west coast of the Peninsula was during and after the Padri War (1816-1833).
The Mandailings served as commanders and troops on both sides of the war. Two famous Padris of Mandailing origin were Tuanku Rao and Tuanku Tambusai, whose nickname was Si Harimau Padri (The Padri Tiger). The anti-Padri and pro-adat faction was led by Patuan Naga dan Raja Gadombang.

For about a decade Mandailing was under Padri domination. Governance was exercised by a Padri appointed kali (originally Qadi, Arabic for ‘judge’), many of whom were originally Minangkabau before the Mandailing kali took over. Through these kalis (= ulama) some of whom were the namora-mora (plural for rajas) themselves, Islamic value were incorporated into the institution of Namora Natoras.

While Padri domination had ‘greatly modified the power structure…, there was no tendency for states to consolidate. In many territories power seemed to be almost equally divided between several branches of the ruling lineage’. Many of the namora-mora weathered the storm and when peace was restored, the established clans tried to reassert their rights. Some of the rajas were reinstated.

The Padri episode was one in a series of historical incursions by Minangkabau into the Mandailing homeland, and it was during this time that many Mandailings came to Islam at the point of the sword. As it turn out the interpretation and application of Islam in Mandailing is very different from that of the Minangkabau. The Minangs are matrilineal and adopt a position of custom based on Islamic law (adat basandi syarak), the Mandailings are partilineal and adopt a position of adat on par with Islamic law. This is reflected in the maxim ombar do adat ugamo (adat berdampingan agama), that is the adat in proximity with Islamic law.

The latter understanding is closer to the Madinan tradition (amal of Madina) than to the Shaf’ie madhhab (school of thought) dominant today in the Peninsula and the Indonesia archipelago. In the Madinan tradition, local custom (urf) is regarded as part of public benefit or public good to be encouraged so long as it does not go against Islamic law. The challenge of traditional Mandailing leadership is to retain this historically unique way of maintaining and reconciling their traditional customs with their new found religion in the face of globalized modernist Wahhabite (Arab)-Islam and regional Malay Islam.


The Mandailings have been going to Klang (pai Kolang) in the west coast of the Peninsula ‘berabad-abad lamanya’ (for centuries). ‘Ompu Kolang’ – forefathers from Klang, Selangor are still within memory of the Mandailings in Sumatra. The mass migration of Mandailings to Klang and other parts of the Peninsula preceeded any substantial migration of Mandailings to the east coast of Sumatra in particular Tanah Deli (around Medan today) which only occurred towards the end of the 19th century.

In keeping with the tradition in Sumatra, the Namora Natoras have been know to ‘merantau whole clans at the same time under united command’, leading a band of followers to a new site. Unlike Chinese arrivals who consisted mainly of single male migrants, many Mandailing migrants brought with them their relations (kahanggi), including womenfolk and children. They migrated not as a single clan but accompanied by the corresponding ‘wife-giving’ and ‘wife-taking’ clans. For example, the Nasution clan would migrate jointly with the Lubis and the Rangkuti clans.

Through chain migration, the Mandailing became a recognizable social group in the Peninsula by 1860s, engaging in mining, trading, mercenary activities, and economic and political mediation. The arrival of large groups of Mandailing caused shock waves and changed the political and socio-economic landscape of the Peninsula, the effects of which can be felt to this day.

In 19th century Peninsula, the Mandailings were embroiled in the Rawa War of 1848; the Pahang War (1857-63); the Selangor War better known to the Mandailings as ‘Porang Kolang’ (1867-73) and the Perak War (1875-6). Inadvertently, the Mandailings in the Peninsula were feared and held with suspicion, gaining a notorious reputation as trouble makers, rebels and insurgents, a stigma inherited by the Mandailings to this day. The distribution of the Mandailing community in the west coast states of the Peninsula can be traced back to their dispersion as a result of these wars.

The Mandailings who found themselves fighting against the proxies of the British in the Pahang and Selangor Wars, made a strategic decision to change sides and became allies of the British in Perak They served as storm troopers and bounty hunters of the British in the ‘Perak War’.

Having undergone 30 years of war in the Peninsula, the Mandailing chose the wining side in Perak. They accepted British sovereignty and were rewarded with mines, lands and positions as tax-collectors. In contrast to their previous unsettled existence, they now founded settlements (buka negeri) and became rubber and coffee cultivators. From then on, the Mandailings were incorporated into the British civil service as administrators, policemen, foresters, etc. They assimilated into Malayan society, accepting colonial polices of political-economic functions of the various ethnic migrant groups.

What is most striking about the Mandailing migration in the 19th century is the fact that they were largely led by the Namora Natoras, who fled their troubled homeland. Most notable amongst them were Raja Asal, Raja Bilah, Sutan Puasa, Raja Brayun, Barnang, Raja Othman, Raja Ira, Samaripun, Imam Perang Raja Berungun, Imam Peri Seri Handalan, Panglima Raja, Panglima Muda Segara, Imam Perang Sebaghdad, Panglima Muda, Imam Perang Malim, and countless others. Many of the Mandailings in Malaysia today are descended from these earlier migrants; the author being one of them. In the Peninsula, the family of Raja Asal provided leadership to the Mandailing people for more than a century, from 1840 to 1945. Raja Asal was succeeded by his nephew and adopted son, Raja Bilah. In turn, Raja Bilah was succeeded by his son, Raja Ya’qub.

Adapting to new conditions, the Namora Natoras and their clans continued but innovated upon the institution of Mandailing governance as a form of self-governance in the new land, making collective decisions through traditional modes of consultation. The Mandailing migrants continued to practice their own political systems in 19th century Peninsula, in contrast to the Malay political systems as described by Gullick in Indigenous Political System of Western Malaya. Evidence of this practice can be gleaned from historical sources such as Hikayat Pahang, Pesaka Selangor, Tarikh Raja Asal dan Keluarganya, Riwayat Hidup Tuan Abu Bakar and an account of the Klang War by Abdullah Hukum (a Kerinchi), amongst others.

The Mandailings perpetuated their genealogical (tarombo) knowledge based on the clan system. Their social structure and customary law (Dalian Na Tolu) tied the new settlements symbolically, politically and by kinship to the old. This created the mother-child village complexes. Due to this strong connection, many ‘Malaysian’ Mandailings retain the memory of their ancestral villages in Sumatra, and are known to make cultural pilgrimage to Sumatra from the 19th century to today. These visit were only interrupted by WWII, the Independence Revolution, the Communist Insurgency, the Social Revolution and Konfrantasi.


Before the Dutch made feudal chiefs of the namora-natoras, it was difficult to tell them and their sons from the rest of the population except on ceremonial occassions. ‘The chiefs were marked by the deference they commanded, the size of the bride price that they demanded for their daughters and the costly magnificence of their weddings and funerals. They had a face-to-face relationship with their subjects, most of whom were relatives, proteges, slaves or freed men, people bound to them by strongly-felt mutual (though far from equivalent) obligations’.

Things begin to change when the Padris started to push into Mandailing from Minangkabau. In retaliation against the Padris, Raja Gadombang, the raja of Huta Godang in Upper Mandailing went to Rao and asked the Dutch to put Mandailing under Dutch rule in 1832 (‘memintak masoek kebawa perentah Gouvernement, di dalam tahoen 1832’.). The following year, the Dutch made Raja Gadombang the Regent of Mandailing. Raja Gadombang died in 1835, and subsequently the ‘Jang dipertoen kota Siantar, who has shown his loyalty to the Dutch, was appointed as Regent’.
The Dutch introduced the office of Jang Dipertuan upon their occupation of Mandailing, but it is not clear whether it existed before Padri times. The title itself is of Minang origin. It appears that the office of ‘Yang di Pertuan of Lower Mandailing’ was discontinued thereafter. Furthermore, ‘there never seems to have been a chief with jurisdiction over a whole ‘tribe’; not (sic) whole ‘tribes’ go to war with one another, though they did attempt to unite against non-Batak invaders’. Nevertheless, one of the Nasution chiefs, namely Patuan Naga, did seem to have had a certain pre-eminence.

Disenfranchised by Dutch colonial rule, Sutan Mangkutur, the brother of Raja Gadombang, rose against the Dutch in 1839 – 1840. The rebellion was put down and the leaders exiled to Jawa. Another rebellion broke out in Mandailing against the Dutch in 1842, but was nipped in the bud. From 1865 to 1874, there were two uprisings in Mandailing against the Dutch led by Raja di Baringin and a group of ‘malim’ in Mandailing, respectively. The malims were sentence to death or exiled.

Of all these incidents, only the rebellion by Sutan Mangkutur is well documented. A principal cause of dissatisfaction was against the Dutch Controller (Gouv. Rechspraak) attempting to take over the administration of justice from the namora-mora (Inheemscherecht spraak). The appropriation of the status and powers of the namora-mora amounted to ruling over the namora-mora and real colonization. Sutan Mangkutur’s resistance to this usurpation eventually led to an armed insurrection.

The Dutch took away from the namora-natoras their major judicial powers (1875), departed in a few cases from the hereditary principle (after 1890), abolished their legal immunities (forum privilegiatum, about 1900), and introduced direct taxation (1908) which lowered their prestige and made them subject to financial and administrative penalties if arrears developed.

The high-handedness of colonial Dutch officials in exacting taxes on the Mandailing people and their treatment of the namora-mora is documented in H. Muhammad Said, Soetan Koemala Boelan (Flora), Raja, pemimpin rakyat, Penentang kezaliman Belanda masa 1912-1932. Some of the namora-mora were imprisoned without trial or sacked for no apparent reason. In 1915, Raja Gunung Mandailing, the kepala kuria (parish head) of Huta Siantar in Mandailing Gordang, was arbitrarily dismissed by the Dutch on allegation of being ongeschiktheid (incompetent). Disgraced, he sold all his properties and migrated to Perak with his family.

In order to check on Dutch abuses, the namora-natoras who were now reduced to provincial parish head (kepala kuria) formed the Kuria Association (Koeriabond). Two of their leading spokesmen were Sutan Kumala Bulan (Lubis), kepala kuria of Tamiang, and Baginda Kalidjungdjung (Daulay), kepala kuria of Pintupadang. Both were frowned on in administrative circles as “politicians”, and were not typical of their class.

‘Sutan Kumala Bulan seems to have wanted to restore the democratic (perhaps one should say collegian, or consultative) elements in the kuria organization and to make the kepala kuria a real spokesman for his people even if this required that he speak out against the administration’. Sutan Kumala Bulan had lived in other parts of the Dutch Indies and wrote critically about the way the Dutch handled affairs in Mandailing in the native press under the pen-name ‘Flora’.

In contrast ‘British intervention’ into the so-called ‘Malay’ states of Perak and Selangor in 19th century, saw the appointment of namora-natoras as British-appointed penghulu especially in the state of Perak. Raja Asal, the warloard of the Mandailings was rewarded with the Papan mines, described as ‘the most productive in the State’ for his services to the British in cracking down the rebellion by Perak Malays in Perak War. His nephew and adopted son was later appointed penghulu. During and after the war, all the native rajas (Perak Malay chiefs), who were inimical to British rule had been forcibly removed or pensioned off. Those who remained were co-opted, together with Mandailing in-comers like Raja Bilah and Imam Perang Jabarumun.

The penghulu, who is in charge of a mukim (parish) is the equivalent of a kepala kuria in Mandailing. “Of the penghulu’s multifarious duties, the most important were the maintenance of order, the administration of justice, and the collection of revenue (land rent on smallholdings, passes for timber cutting and gutta collection, fishing stake licences, and the kerah tax).” The leading namora-natoras in Perak not only enforced British laws and regulations but helped the British suppressed several insurrections and disturbances of peace.

The introduction of kerah tax, or corvee labour by the Perak government was most unpopular and led to general unrest in Lambor Lower Perak in 1883, which the namora-natoras help put down. In November 1887, Raja Bilah helped the police to quell a fight between two Chinese secret societies in the mining town of Papan.

In Pahang, changes introduced by the British met with opposition from the native chiefs. The help of the Mandailings was again enlisted to crushed the Pemberontakan Tok Bahaman named after the chief who led the rebellion in 1891.

The leading namora-natoras in Perak fared well under the British and they took pains to prove their loyalty. Raja Haji Muhammad Ya’qub, the last of the great leader of the Mandalings in Perak, wrote: ‘Maka iapun menjalankan apa-apa perintah kerajaan yang disuruhkan oleh Tuan Majistret Kinta dengan sehabis-habis ta’atnya dan seberapa daya upayanya…’. Raja Haji Muhammad Ya’qub, was awarded the ‘Justice of Peace’ in 1920 and the ‘Malayan Certificate of Honour’ in 1931 for his ‘jasa’ and kebaktian’ to the Federated Malay States in conjuction with the birthday of King George the Fifth. The investiture was reported by the English press of the day.



In the early 19th century, Stamford Raffles proposed a policy that the ‘Islamic’ lands of Aceh and Minangkabau should be kept apart by making the Batak lands a Christian block. Raffles was also the architect of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 that irrevocably and arbitrarily divided the cultural unity of Sumatra and the peninsula. The contemporary boundary between Indonesia and Malaysia is a legacy of that treaty.

The Dutch authorities also maintained a ‘wedge policy’ – the strategy of keeping the two Islamic bulwarks of Aceh and Minangkabau separated by a belt of non-Muslims in the Bataklanden. Indeed the Dutch encouraged the Christian mission into the north, once it was clear that Mandailing were highly resistance to Christian evangelism inspite of achieving the conversion of some Mandailings in Pakantan.

In the pre-colonial period, the origins of the term ‘Batak’ as a form of self-ascription is elusive. In 19th century European accounts, mainly based on interviews with coastal Malays, ‘Batak’ had the connotation of interior people, pork-eaters, and uncivilized cannibals. The Malay (Muslim) and Batak identities were once mutually exclusive, at least on the east coast of Sumatra. However, the Batak/Malay distinction was not racial but cultural. If a Batak converted to Islam, he ceased to be Batak and became Malay. Islam was perhaps the most definitive Malay marker.

‘Mandailing, strongly Muslim and strongly influenced by Minangkabau culture, has sent many migrants to the East Coast plantation belt of Sumatra’s Deli coastline. In the early decades of this century Mandailing migrants found themselves stereotyped as “Batak,” which in the migrant areas meant either heathen, or Christian. In heavily Muslim East Sumatra, the association with pork consumption was a distinct disadvantage. Most Mandailing were in fact Muslim by this time. Large numbers of them simply dropped their diagnostically Batak clan names in the 1900-1930s period and blended in with Malay Muslim society in East Sumatra. They “became Malay,” or “masuk Melayu” (entered Malay), as the local phrase has it’.

This was not the case for the west coast Mandailing, many of whom converted to Islam during the nineteenth century. Mandailing Muslims did not like being called Batak. For them, Islamic conversion entailed movement away from the Batak label, but did not mean adopting the Malay ethnic identity, as it did on the East Coast. The Mandailing people, originally oriented more to Sumatra’s West Coast than East Coast, may have had an early model for maintaining their name in the Rejang, who Marsden described as Muslim but not Malay.


Efforts to define Mandailing identity came to the fore in a landmark court case in urban Medan. A dispute between the Batak and the Mandailing in Sungai Mati, Medan, in 1922, over rights to be buried in a religious endowment land (tanah wakaf), irrespective of ethnicity accentuates this. The curator of the burial ground had refused permission to Batak including Mandailings claiming to be Batak, to be buried there, on the ground that the deed specified that the cemetery was for Mandailings only. This was a dispute not between Christians and Muslims, but between people of North and South Tapanuli origin.

The following year, a commission ‘madjelis Sjara’iah (Commissie van Advies)’ was formed with the agreement of the Dutch Governor, to settled the dispute according to Islamic law. The matter was even raised in the ‘Diwan Raiat (Volksraad)’. When the Govenor-General decided in favour of the Batak, the Mandailing community appealed to the highest court in the land, the Rad van Justitie, which reversed the Gavenor-General’s decision.

The fight was led by the namora-natoras such as Mangaradja Ihoetan, and a Mandailing alim Sjech Moehammad Jacoeb, Abdoellah Loebis and others. The affair was documented in a work aptly entitled, Asal-Oesoelnja Bangsa Mandailing, with a subtitle, Berhoeboeng dengan perkara tanah Wakaf bangsa Mandailing, di Soengei Mati – Medan, published in 1926 as a celebration of the Mandailing’s victory over the Batak.

Mangaradja Ihoetan, who compiled the book, emphasized three times in his preface that the purpose of the Sungai Mati case was to remind future generations, especially those outside the homeland, not to give up or sell out their identity. ‘Riwajat tanah wakaf ini dikarangkan dan dihimpoenkan, goenanja teroetama ialah sebagai peringatan kepada sekalian bangsa Mandailing jang mentjintai kebangsaannja, terlebih-lebih bagi mereka itoe jang berdiam diperantauan’.

‘…riwajat ini djadi peringatan kepada bangsa Mandailing,…hanjalah kadar djadi peringatan dibelakang hari kepada toeroen-toeroenan bangsa Mandailing itoe, soepaja mereka tahoe bagaimana djerih pajah bapa-bapa serta nenek mojangnja mempertahankan atas berdirinja kebangsaan Mandailing itoe. Dengan djalan begitoe diharap tiadalah kiranja mereka itoe akan sia-siakan lagi kebangsaannja dengan moedah maoe mehapoeskannja dengan djalan memasoekkan diri pada bangsa lain jang tidak melebihkan martabatnja’.

The struggle for identity in the age of colonialism did not challenge colonial hegemony, but was an attempt for self-determination within the colonial order itself. It was however tied to urban land entitlements, in this case, that of the right of burial in the Sungai Mati cemetery.

In conjuction with the Sungai Mati issue, Mandailing emissaries were sent into Tapanuli and Malaya to canvas Mandailing viewpoint outside the homeland. When the 1930 census approached, the ‘Comite Kebangsaan Mandailing’ (Mandailing National Committee) in Panyabungan, petitioned, with some success, not to be listed as Mandailing-Batak in the census. The ‘Mandailingers’ were still listed under ‘Bataks’ in the census, though the term ‘Mandailing-Batak’ was not used.

As one anthropologist put it. ‘…in the 1920’s the Mandailing, who are mostly Moslems, were so alienated from the rough, crude Christian Toba that they no longer referred to themselves as Batak Mandailing, but rather as just Mandailing. They took official steps to have themselves listed on the census rolls as Mandailing, without the term Batak’.

Compare this with British Malaya. The Mandailing were labelled ‘foreign Malays’ and then simply as ‘Malays’ in the name of ‘administrative convenience’. In the Federated Malay States census of 1911, ‘Mendeling’ was ‘Malay Population by Race’; like wise in the British Malaya census of 1921. By 1931, ‘Mendeling’ was altogether removed from the census. Although the definition of race remained uncertain, the term itself stuck in the administrative and academic language to this day. But unlike in Sumatra, the namora-natoras in British Malaya did not object to the re-categorization of the Mandailings who were classified under ‘Malay Population by Race’, reducing their ethnicity to a sub-group of the Malays.

Anthropologists have by far ignored their subjects’ historicity. ‘The use of ‘Batak’ as a common label for these groups (Toba, Angkola, Mandailing and Simalungun) as well as Karo and Dairi has had a chequered career. Linguists and ethnologists have always found the term necessary because of the strong common elements in all these societies. At some periods, however, thse who were converted to Islam, especially Mandailings, have sought to repudiate any association with the non-Muslim Tobas by rejecting the Batak label altogether. This tendency has been strongest among Mandailing migrants to the East Coast of Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia’.

‘Although all are Batak (Toba, Karo, Simelungun, Pakpak, Angkola and Mandailing), each subgroup has its own dialect or language, thinks itself as a separate ethnic unit, and has its own customs and traditions’. The Indonesianists and anthropologists have created a new science with the classification ‘Batak’, and are therefore part of the problem. ‘As Indonesianists and anthropologists, we too find the category Batak and its subcategories useful, even necessary: they define a niche, label our expertise, and are thus embedded in the social forms of our profession. …We give substance to these categories, and so in many ways, as Bruner phrased it, we create the Batak’. The good news is that evidence is accumulating to challenge some long-held and cherished assumptions concerning the nature of ethnic identity and boundaries.


In South Tapanuli, the institution of Namora Natoras began to be further undermined with the nationalist movement in Mandailing beginning from the 1920s. The nationalists found the adat and the now feudalized Namora Natoras increasingly irrelevant in the struggle for self-determination. The anti-Dutch movement was spearheaded by leaders such as Buyung Siregar, Mahindin Nasution and Abu Kasim Dalimunte, who were interned or exiled by the Dutch. The namora-natoras were not altogether indifferent to the new movement, Sutan Kumala Bulan for example, allowed the use of the bagas godang and sopo godang in Tamiang to conduct ‘kursus-kursus politik’ and ‘kaderisasi politik’ for Mandailing nationalists, including the three figures mentioned above. He even provided protection to Adam Malik from the Dutch.

During the Japanese Occupation, the Mandailing institution of traditional governance met its demise in both Dutch East Indies and British Malaya. In Mandailing, the Japanese military abolished the namora-natoras in 1942. The role and functions of the namora-natoras was never reinstated by the post-merdeka Indonesian republican government who perceived traditional institution of governance as a feudalistic and a colonial legacy. In Perak, the institution of Namora Natoras died with the death of Raja Haji Muhammad Ya’qub (the successor of Raja Bilah and Raja Asal) during the Japanese Occupation.

The waning of the namora-natoras and the emergence of the ideology of nationalism, paved the way for a new generation of Mandailing leaders whose preoccupation was no longer their own people but the liberation of Indonesians and Malayans from colonial rule. Ironically, the Mandailing members of the nationalist movement found inspiration in the poetry of Willem Iskander, a pro-Dutch member of the namora-natoras, and were said to have ‘unearthed the ideas of national independence/liberation’ from his work. So strongly connected was the nationalist movement amongst the Mandailings with the works of Willem Iskander that, in the archives of the Politieke Inlichtingen Dienst, the colonial secret police, the movement was labelled Groep Si Roemboek-Roemboek.
Kamaluddin Nasution, one of the Mandailing leaders of the nationalist movement escaped the Dutch net and fled to Chemor, Perak in the Peninsula in 1932, where he changed his name to Abdul Rahman Abdul Rahim and became a political analyst in the Malay nationalist daily, Utusan Melayu. Another Mandailing political refugee was the journalist Ahmad Nor b. Abdul Shukor, who edited ‘Suara Islam Sa-Malaya’, a publication that was very much against the British proposal of a Malayan Union, aimed at replacing indirect rule with a unitary state and a single citizenship – a multi-racial ‘Malayan’ national identity.

Aminuddin Baki, a Malayan-born Mandailing who became the foremost educationist in the Malayan nationalist movement also hailed from Chemor. He was directly responsible for getting Bahasa Melayu recognized as the national language and as the medium of instruction in schools in the post-Merdeka Malaya.

In the age of nationalism, the minority Mandailing took up a larger political cause. In Malaya, it was Malay nationalism and in Indonesia, Indonesian nationalism. Traditional institutions of governance no longer seemed relevant and were anyway undermined by political mobility determined by ideological prowess rather than traditional status and adat. Nationalism was taken to its logical conclusion in the new nation-states. The concern of the post-Merdeka national leadership was to put into place a complete state hegemony, one which had no genuine sympathy for provincial ethnic and cultural identity.

In the Peninsula, the Mandailings not only identified with Malayan (and subsequently Malaysian) nationalism but were also compelled to identify with another ethnic group, namely the ‘Malays’, to the extent of compromising and suppressing their own identity and culture. The process of acculturation and assimilation was assisted by a measure of colonial social engineering followed by post-Merdeka state conditioning.

In order to protect their traditional way of life of the Malays, which was oriented around the rice cycle, as well as to ensure steady food production for a growing population, the British administration enclosed the rice-producing lands in Malay reservations. The first regulation concerning Malay reserve land was promulgated in the Federated Malay States in 1913. Non-Malays could not obtain grants or buy land in the reservation. A “Malay” was defined as a “person belonging to any Malayan race who habitually speaks the Malay language or any Malayan language and professes the Moslem religion”‘. By this time, many Mandailings, as well as other Sumatrans and Javanese, comes under this definition, and therefore entitlement to Malay Reserve lands. This legal definition of what constitute a Malay was enshrined in the Federal Constitution upon independence.

Once the Mandailing in Malaya found themselves redefined as Malays by the colonial authorities, it was only a matter of time before their political-economic functions were prescribed accordingly. Finding themselves in a common predicament, they closed ranks with other ‘Malays’, during the course of the nationalist movement, the Japanese Occupation, the Communist insurrection during the ‘Emergency’ period and the post-Merdeka scenario of communal politics. Subject to the same state conditioning and educational policy in the name of nation-building, the identification of latter-day Malaysian Mandailings with Malays is almost complete in the Peninsula.

With the loss of identity, the ‘Malaysian’ Mandailings neglected their language and culture and also lost connection with their Indonesian counterparts. The creation of Indonesia ensued by social upheavel and the Indonesian Konfrantasi against the formation of Malaysia further distanced the Mandailings from their homeland.

The Mandailings in Malaya played a key role in the 1969 racial riots between the Malays and the Chinese, which was to change the course of Malaysian political economy. Some writers blamed Dato’ Harun Idris, the Menteri Besar of Selangor at the time, for being directly responsible for the riots. Datuk Harun Idris as well as some other leaders of the Malay faction during the riots were in fact not Malay but people of Mandailing descent. After the riot, the national ideology of Rukun Negara was proclaimed and the New Economic Policy (NEP) was formulated as the economic foundation of Rukun Negara to address the economic imbalances between the major ethnic groups.


‘For 60 years (from 1922 to 1985) the Mandailing nation has been buried, two generations have passed, until our children no longer know that we are Mandailing’. Mangaraja Lelo Lubis, one of the first to document the Mandailing adat during the post-Merdeka period, was saddened by the fact that ‘many sons and daughters of Mandailing claim to be Batak-Mandailing, Batak Islam and Southern Batak’, He called the Mandailings to ‘raise the Mandailing nation from the depths, and to establish it again by forming an association of Mandailing people’. Attempts were then made to set up Yayasan Parluhutan Mandailing in 1984. Two years, later the Himpunan Keluarga Besar Mandailing (HIKMA) and Yayasan Pengkajian Budaya Mandailing (Yapebuma) were established in the same year in Medan.

In terms of forming Mandailing-based organizations, the Malaysian Mandailings beat their Indonesian counterparts when they set up the Ikatan Kebajikan Mandailing Malaysia (IMAN) in 1979. IMAN admits persons who claims to be Mandailing and who can name as Mandailing one or both parents. However, as many Angkolans in Malaysia see themselves as Mandailing, the IMAN membership includes many Angkolans as well as Mandailings. IMAN succeeded in registering 1,500 members by 1982. It was estimated at the time that there were 30,000 Angkolan and Mandailings in Malaysia.

The IMAN constitution states that the organization’s objectives are to conduct research, studies, preservation, as well as the advancement and promotion of the Mandailing ethnic language, culture and arts ‘with the purpose of enriching the culture and arts of the Malays from many descents’. Implicit in this declaration is IMAN’s acceptance of the label ‘Malay-Mandailing’.

In 1992, IMAN declared Papan, the seat of Raja Bilah and Changkat Piatu, where Raja Asal is buried 10 km from Papan, as historical landmarks for the Mandailing. In the same year, IMAN proposed an ambitious plan to reconstruct Raja Asal’s village in Changkat Piatu (Solitary Hillock) in Perak, on about 120ha of land at a cost of RM15 million. Other reports put the site at 400ha. The proposal sparked of a debate about ethnicity and accusations againsts IMAN for dividing Malay unity. Since then the proposed complex has been called ‘Pusat Budaya Melayu Mandailing’.

The most vocal proponent of the development project at Changkat Piatau is Fadzlan Yahya, a former Perak State Assemblyman and former socialist Youth Chief from DAP . Fazlan had himself ‘installed’ as ‘Duli Yang Maha Mulia Sang Paduka Baginda Mangaraja Mandailing’ and his wife as ‘Seri Paduka Baginda Ratu Mandailing’ in Mandailing, improvising terms that mix up high-sounding Malay royal titles with Mandailing nobility titles. According to press write-ups, which often report his ceremonies, he claims to be the supreme ruler of the Mandailing people. This in spite of the fact that he had failed to obtain unanimous support for his rajaship from the chiefs in Maga, Mandailing, the ancestral village of Raja Asal, from whom Fazlan claim descent, as required in Mandailing adat, Fazlan’s position has hardly been questioned by adat-ignorant Malaysian Mandailings. His lordship has been hotly disputed, but not seriously contested by IMAN.

In 2000, the Malaysian National Archives and IMAN organized the Majlis Pengkisahan Sejarah Masyarakat Mandailing di Malaysia. In conjunction with this, the two organizations released a book entitled, Mengenal Kaum Angkola-Mandailing by Basyral Hamidy Harahap. The book was based on Orientasi Nilai-Nilai Budaya Batak, Suatu Pendekatan Terhadap Perilaku Batak Toba dan Angkola Mandailing by Basyral Hamidy Harahap & Hotman M. Siahaan. The new book was shortened and adapted into Bahasa Melayu from the original Bahasa Indonesia version by an Arabic scholar, Dr. H.M. Bukhari Lubis, associate professor at the National University of Malaysia (UKM). The release of this book created a controversy, when the two organizations were accused of being of being ‘Buta sejarah Mandailing’ and scorned for allowing the Mandailings to be called Batak.

Recently, a group of Malaysian-born and migrant Mandailings formed a group called LAMA (Lembaga Adat Mandailing). A competitor to IMAN, this group has expressed its dissatisfaction with the IMAN leadership and were quick to criticize IMAN for its embrace of the Batak label. Despite its broad-based support and good intentions, IMAN has yet to offer the Mandailing community a clear directions and focus of leadership.

Throughout the history of IMAN, the inconsistencies between the Mandailing, Melayu and Batak labels have never been resolved. Therefore, IMAN has used the terms Mandailing, or Mandailing-Angkola, Mandailing-Batak and Mandailing-Melayu at various times, without questioning the ontological differences between the different terms. This confusion is further enhanced by different national policies. In the Peninsula, Malaysian academics have decided that Mandailings are categorically part of the ‘rumpun Melayu’ and the larger ‘Malay world’, whereas in Indonesia, the offical policy is to recognize more than 300 ethnic groups, (of which the Malay is but one), reflecting the principle of ‘unity in diversity’. Tthese worldviews are a legacy of the classicifications devised by colonial administrator-scholars.



In 1992, the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat or people’s representative assembly of North Sumatra incorporated Mandailing and Natal into a new district (kabupaten) called Madina (short for Mandailing-Natal). In 1995, the Home Ministry announced that its priority in the province of North Sumatra was the formation of this kabupaten on the basis of population, economic potential, geographical area and maintenance of peace in the context of regional autonomy.

In response to this, a Lembaga Adat Budaya for the district of Madina was formed in Panyabungan in the year 2000. The council is made up of customary leaders (tokoh adat), with the avowed objectives of fostering and supporting the organisation and social unity. They also aimed to preserve traditional culture, to create a just and prosperous society, to promote community participation and development through the traditional culture of Mandailing-Natal, as well as to give constructive ideas to the Bupati (district officer).

The council is the successor of three previous adat bodies, namely the Koordinator Kekeluargaan Dalihan Natolu (1959), Karya Adat (1966) and Lembaga Adat Budaya Mandailing Natal (sic) (1987). Despite its powers and functions being circumspect in the governance of Mandailing society, the namora-natoras continue to exercise observance of the adat to this day. However the adat has been reduced to ceremonial aspects of weddings, funeral and other rites of passage. The historical evolution of Mandailing society has structurally diminished the power base of the traditional leadership. One of the consequences is that ancestral land (tanah pusaka) is now easily sold.


Secession is the language of nationalists, whereas globalization can bring about a convergence of values with an emphasis more on interrelationships and less on autonomy. Today, the Mandailings have come to yet another turning point in their history. In response to globalization, indigenous and ethnic groups throughout the world are asserting their cultural identity. Mandailings in search of their ‘roots’ are re-tracing the once well-trodden path back to their homeland. With the current revival of Mandailing cultural identity in West Malaysia, the cultural ties that were interrupted by the trauma of independence and nation-building are being re-established.

The revival of the Mandailing ceremonial drums, the Gordang Sambilan, has been symbolically important for the revival of Mandailing identity on both sides of the Straits. With the dis-empowerment of the namora-natoras the Gordang Sambilan was silent for a long time, until it was revived in Mandailing by the present day namora-natoras including the author’s uncle, Raja Syahbudin. Once considered a sacred drum that cannot be performed without the permission of the namora-natoras and in compliance with the adat, the Gordang Sambilan began to be promoted as performing arts. The Gordang Sambilan festival is now held annually, in the form of a inter-village competition in celebration of the end of the fasting month. In Malaysia, IMAN has been successful in promoting the Gordang Sambilan, and getting it recognized as the official musical ensemble in the state of Selangor, Malaysia. It is performed at the Selangor Arts Festival under the Malaynized name ‘Gendang Sembilan’.

By building bridges between Malaysian and Indonesian Mandailings broken by colonialism, nationalism and regionalism, the Indonesian Mandailings will benefit through access to a wider range of resources and expertise, while the Malaysian Mandailings will beckon recover their roots and identity. We envision that the Mandailing homeland will be the destination of cultural pilgrimage for Mandailings who have settled in other parts of Indonesia and Malaysia. This will help in the socio-economic development of Mandailing as a whole.

Globalization brings with it a certain degree of secularization, increased consumerism, growing lack of respect for nature, democratization of the media and a general weakening of ‘traditional’ values. In Indonesia and Malaysia alike, some obvious elements of global culture are couched or veiled as Indonesian or Malaysian culture. In response to these, some Mandailings are seeking to revitalize their endangered cultural heritage. Some of the very qualities that were suppressed, sacrificed, ignored or forgotten during the age of nationalism and Islamization, will contribute to the survival and success of the Mandailings in the age of globalization.

The primary manifestation of the global culture hegemony is the international economic order, which is put in place through the implementation of the economic development programme, with its cultivation of industrial cash crops, logging industries, foreign fleets of fishing boats, mining and large-scale tourism development projects. In Indonesia the process of development is often portrayed as a national priority promoting economic and cultural unity. As a result, lands, forests and minerals are considered national resources to be exploited by the state and its cronies during the Suharto’s era. The granting of concessions to national and international logging and mining companies is part of ‘Indonesianization’.

The urgent issues in Mandailing are environmental, in particular, illegal logging, forest burning and water management. Since indigenous populations have lost control over their communal lands, in the post-Sukarto era, illegal logging is rife in what is considered ‘no man’s land’. Illegal logging has been going on in Natal and Batang Natal for years, long before the formation of Madina. The logging is carried out by PT. Gruti, from Jakarta in collusion with the local authorities including the police and military. According to the author’s uncle, Raja Syahbudin who lives in Maga, illegal logging in Hutanamale in Upper Mandailing disrupted water supply to the paddy fields in Maga, causing a misunderstanding between the two villages. The villagers in Sayur Maincat have prevented trucks from entering Desa Pagar Gunung, Upper Mandailing, where illegal logging is taking place. In Sosa, an eighteen year old Febriadi Nasution, was shot dead by police. Many reports about illegal logging in Mandailing were carried by the Medan press towards end of 2000. Kompas reported in April, 2001, that villagers razed to the ground a jungle post belonging to PT KNDI at Desa Tabuyung in Muara Batanggadis.

The struggle for identity is critical to the struggle for regional and local autonomy since identity implies political representation and economic entitlements in forging self-determination. In order for indigenous peoples to recover control over their own habitats, traditional governance has to be integrated with existing political structures. Mandailings can be empowered through a process of recovering their tradition of consultative governance, and learning to engage with the newly constituted Pemda (district authority) in promoting participatory planning and decision-making. Ultimately, the strengthening of the Mandailing people as a stakeholder in national and regional development will allow them to better realize their options in the face of globalization.


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