Nias Island is home to an ancient culture, distinctly different from the rest of Indonesia. The Island is famous in Indonesia for its megalith stones, traditional houses and unique cultural practices. Due to the remoteness of the island and the fierceness of its population, most Niasans lived a traditional lifestyle until the Dutch established control of the whole island in 1914. Nias was one of the last islands in the Indonesian archipelago to be brought under full colonial control.
Nias was a strictly hierarchical warrior society, ruled by powerful chieftains. Life was dominated by traditional rituals, customary law and fighting. The island was never united under one king; instead a number of local chieftains ruled smaller fiefdoms. What united Niasans was their common language, traditions and belief system. Regional variations existed, such as different dialects and architecture, but on the whole Niasans considered themselves one people sharing the same origins and culture. Niasans call themselves Ono Niha (the children of human beings) and their island home is called Tanö Niha (the land of the people).
Many unique aspects of Nias culture can be experienced to this day, while others (such as headhunting) are no longer practiced.
Traditional Nias houses have a unique style and are built without the use of nails. They are able to withstand powerful earthquakes far better than modern houses. There are variations in architecture across the island; North Nias houses are free standing and round in shape, while South Nias houses are rectangular and built next to each other. Nias houses are elevated from the ground and are built for defence, as Nias people used to live in perpetual warfare. Many older Niasans were born in houses like these, but the cost of maintaining a traditional house means that they are becoming increasingly rare.
Megalith stones of various shapes are a unique aspect of Nias culture which can be found all over the Island. They were erected during important events, such as the inauguration of a new village or the wedding of a noble couple. Often different configurations of smaller megaliths can be seen in front of private houses. Larger megaliths with elaborate carvings can be found across the interior, usually marking the centre point of an old village. One hundred years ago, Nias Island was one of the few remaining Megalithic cultures in existence anywhere.
Graves of ancestors takes a prominent place in front of or beside Nias houses. This is an ancient Niasan tradition which is being practiced to this day by the Christian majority on the island. Visitors to Nias will notice that many houses along the road have graves with ornate stones. Important and wealthy people may even have a small house built specifically for their graves. When a person dies, there is a burial ceremony. The building and unveiling of the stone may take place long time after this, even years. This ceremony takes place when the family have saved enough money for the elaborate graves stone and when all the children can be present. This tradition is practiced all over Nias.
Pigs play an important role in Nias culture. No important event can take place without the slaughter of pigs and the number of pigs slaughtered at any given ceremony directly correlates with the importance and of the event and the people involved. In the past, hundreds if pigs would be slaughtered during noble weddings. Even today a family may slaughter 10-20 pigs during a wedding, depending on their wealth. Many Nias families still breed pigs today. Some of them are sold for profit, but most will be used for ceremonies. The sharing, serving and eating of pork follows a strict cultural protocol followed to this day.
Headhunting used to be a grisly but very real part of Nias culture. Heads were used for ceremonial purposes such as funerals of chieftains or the erection of a megalith. The act of taking a head was an important rite of passage for a young warrior. A young man needed to bring a head back to the village before being allowed to marry or sit in on the village council. The more heads a warrior had taken the higher his status in Nias society became. Successful head hunters wore distinctive neck rings and it was believed that the captured heads brought protective forces to the village. For rites of passage and warrior prestige, heads were taken in battle. But for heads to be used for ceremonies any head would do and head hunting parties often preyed on neighbouring villages or set ambushes along roads.
Music & Dancing is very popular on Nias Island. Fierce war dances and mock-fights are performed by men, while dances like the Maina and Moyo have both male and female participants. The Maina is the best known dance and it is often performed during events. The Moyo dance imitates the flight of an eagle and is often performed by women. The dresses of the dancers vary across the island but combinations of red, yellow and black are always worn. Nias dances are accompanied by music played on traditional Nias instruments such as giant drums and large brass gongs.
Today Nias culture is kept alive by the use of Nias language, which is still used by most people on a daily basis. Even though Niasan people today dress and behave like most other Indonesians, there are many local customs and traditions that are still observed, particularly during weddings, births and funerals. Traditional dance and music performances are often put on during important events.
A visit to the Museum Pusaka Nias in Gunung Sitoli is a must for anyone coming Nias Island. This is one of the best cultural heritage museums Indonesia and gives visitors a very good introduction to Nias culture. More in-depth information about the people and culture of Nias is available at the Museums website.