Minang Kerbau - The Conquering Buffalo

Sumatra has a very ancient history. The Ramayana's (3rd century B.C.) Svarnadvipa or Golden Isle could have been Sumatra. Ptolemy may well have meant North Sumatra when he spoke of cannibal isles east of India in the 1st century AD. The Srivijaya empire ruled most of the island during the eighth through tenth centuries. Melayu governed the eleventh and twelfth. The Javanese ousted Melayu. And then King Adityavarman was born of a Sumatran princess and a Javanese prince, in the days of the Majapahit empire of Java and its great peasant-born statesman Gajah Mada. Adityavarman broke with Java and took refuge in the West Sumatran highlands, where he ruled as supreme king in a buddhist realm. But did the Javanese conquer West Sumatra? Legend, to be sure, has it differently...

There was a great war. The people of Sumatra fought bravely against the intruders from the East, and managed to stand their ground. The king of the Sumatrans, who some say was called Adityavarman, and the leaders of the Javanese held council together, and a deal was struck. This matter would be settled by a fight of bulls. Both parties would bring forward their strongest bull, and the two would fight until there was one winner. If the Javanese bull won, the Javanese would stay and Majapahit would rule over West-Sumatra. If it lost, the invaders would return to their own country.

On the day of the fight, the Javanese brought forward an immense animal. Its chest measured the width of four people, its haunches stood as high as a man and half a man again. Its horns were long, strong and pointed. It was clear to every Javanese soldier that no other bull could ever withstand this animal's onslaught. The battle would be won.

The defenders brought a tiny, emaciated suckling calf out into the glaring midday sun. Its horns were mere stumps, its legs trembled and a pitiful wailing emerged from its throat. The Javanese, in their spontaneous laughter, immediately acceded to the Sumatrans' request to be allowed to tie knives to the calf's head, to give it a better chance. The Sumatrans apologised for the absence of a true fighting bull, but the war had been long and hard and there were none to be found in all the land.

Then the fight was on, and the ploy of the Sumatrans unfolded before the eyes of the astonished Javanese. Upon the sight of the Javanese bull the calf, which had been deliberately withheld nourishment for a full seven days, broke into a stumbling run towards its opponent (which, in its starved frenzy, it took to be its mother), ducked under the mighty chest and horns and made a thrust for where it supposed the teats to be. In doing so the knives tied to its head gored the bull's belly and delivered a mortal wound.

In this way, the fight was ended and the war was over. The Javanese withdrew, and the Sumatrans celebrated their victory and their Conquering Buffalo, or 'Minang Kerbau' in their own language. To this day, these proud people from the highlands of West Sumatra continue to call themselves the Minangkabau, and will be glad to tell you this story in one of its many forms.


Unfortunately for legend, the Javanese did conquer Sumatra and Majapahit did rule over West Sumatra. Also, other etymologies for the word Minangkabau seem more plausible. But sometimes history and linguistics are a poor substitute for legend, and a good story deserves to be told.