It’s no Micronesia but, ya know, that’s a lot of islands…

Indonesia consists of 17,508 islands, about 6,000 of which are inhabited. Where do I even begin?


Starting on the left, there’s Sumatra, the largest and, best known, as of late, as the epicenter of the earthquake which caused the enormous tsunami of 2004. This was most devastating in Aceh, the westernmost province on the island, which, interestingly enough, implemented a form of sharia law in 2003. 87% of Sumatrans are thought to be Muslim. Sumatra is the largest island entirely within Indonesia, and the sixth largest island in the world.

Sumatra has a huge range of plant and animal species but has lost almost 50% of its tropical rainforest in the last 35 years, and many species are Critically Endangered such as Sumatran TigerSumatran Rhino (similar to the Javan Rhino discussed in another posting) and Sumatran Orangutan.

Rafflesia arnoldii

To the east of the major mountain chain, big rivers carry silt from the mountains, forming the vast lowland interspersed by swamps. The region produces oil from both above and below the soil—palm oil and petroleum. Sumatra is also the largest producer of Indonesian coffee. Unique species to the island include Rafflesia arnoldiithe world’s largest individual flower, and the Titan Arum (the world’s largest unbranched inflorescence).

Titan Arum

Sumatra was known in ancient times by the Sanskrit names of Swarnadwīpa (“Island of Gold”) and Swarnabhūmi (“Land of Gold”), because of the gold deposits of the island’s highland. Sultan Alauddin Shah of Aceh, on letters written in 1602 addressed to Queen Elizabeth I of England, referred to himself as “king of Aceh and Samudra”. The word itself is from Sanskrit “Samudra“, (समुद्र), meaning “gathering together of waters, sea or ocean“.

Sumatra came under the control of the Dutch East Indies and became a major producer of pepper, rubber, and oil. In the early and mid-twentieth century, Sumatran academics and leaders were important figures in Indonesia’s independence movements, such as : Mohammad Hatta (the first vice-president) and Sutan Sjahrir (the first prime minister).

Minangkabau home. The society is generally matrilineal.

The people represent many different ethnic groups, speaking 52 different languages.  Ethnic Malay dominate most of the eastern coast, while people in the southern and central interior speak languages related to Malay, such as the Lampung and Minangkabau people. The highland of northern Sumatra is inhabited by the Bataks, while the northernmost coast is dominated byAcehsEthnic Chinese minorities are present in urban centres.

young Minangkabau women attending a high status wedding











Batak Warriors, 1870

The creation myth of the Batak peoples varies, so I will summarize what I learned from Wikipedia as the story of the daughter of a god of the skies. In the beginning the gods lived in the skies, below which lay a sea and the underworld dragon, Naga Padoha. The god Mula Jadi Na Bolon, whose name translates to the “beginning of becoming”, begets three daughters whom he gives as wives for his three sons, who resulted from the fertilizing of a hen by Mula Jadi. Mankind is the result of the union of the three couples. A granddaughter flees from her intended husband, a lizard-shaped god, and slides down a thread to the world of the seas. Out of compassion, Mula Jadi sends his granddaughter a handful of earth, which is spread out on the head of the dragon. Earthquakes are the result of his restlessness.


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