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
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
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.