Ono Niha: The Art and Culture of Nias

120 km from mainland Sumatra in western Indonesia lies the small island of Nias. The locals call it Ono Niha, which means “the home of the first ancestors.” Nias wears its name well. Archaeological observations found that there has been human habitation on Nias since the end of the last ice age around 12,000 years ago, through migration from Asia to Sumatra during the Paleolithic period. To ethnographers, Nias is a fascinating showcase of the essence of a “primitive” culture, one that is steeped in ancient myths and elaborate tribal rituals revolving around animism and ancestor worship. The legacy of these practices are still visible today in the island’s traditional houses and megalithic monuments.

Nias is also famously an island of warriors, where young men were trained at a young age to become fierce fighters. High-ranking warriors were distinguished by their insignia of rank such as elaborate necklaces made from coconut shell or gold, gold earrings and bracelets. At the top of the hierarchy, noblemen and chiefs don impressive high-forked headdresses (see photo below).

A chief (with high headdress) with a group of Nias warriors in south Nias, early 20th century.

In a culture that puts a premium on warfare, it is not surprising that an elaborate system of rituals have developed to separate “the men from the boys.” The most spectacular of these is stone-jumping where young men leap over large stone towers as high as two meters in a gravity-defying display of fighting prowess and bravery (watch the video below). This ritual, which was born out of inter-tribal warfare, has been enshrined as part of the initiation rite for young men in their transition to adults and warriors. It is still being practised today.

A villager in traditional costume poses by a stone tower in Bawomataluo. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti
Jumping over a stone in front of ancient houses in the village of Orahili Fau .

Video: The Stone Jumpers of Nias


Art

Stone figure of a chief, North Nias, limestone, 94 cm. 19th century. The Mandala Collection.

For a “primitive” society, Nias has produced some of the finest of all Indonesian tribal art. While the traditional villages on Nias boast impressive stone monuments that speak to its megalithic past, it is the wooden ancestor figures known as adu zatua of central and southern Nias and adu siraha salawa from northern Nias that have captivated tribal art collectors worldwide. Charismatic and regal, these statutes were carved in the belief that venerating one’s ancestors will bring forth fertility to the livestock, fields and family. Some of these figures, particularly those which data to the 19th century or before, are highly prized works of sculpture.

Ancestor figure of a female noblewoman (adu siraha salawa), Northern Nias. 19th century. Height: 31 cm. The Wallace Collection. The elaborate headdress and earrings worn by this figure are signals of high rank.
Ancestor figure of a chief (adu zatua), Central Nias. 19th century. Height: 33 cm. The Wallace Collection. Standing with his knees bent, and both hands holding pegs, this authoritative figure depicts a nobleman in full warrior regalia.

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