The Minangkabau Empire

Luhak nan Tigo


Provinsi Sumatera Barat




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The history of West Sumatera is mainly the history of the Minangkabau Empire.This empire was founded in the 14th century by a nobleman called Adityawarman (also Adityavarman), born in east Java. and a follower of Tantric Buddhism. He conquered Jambi region, and later the Tanah Datar region in Sumatra to take control of the gold trade. Adityawarman then founded the royal dynasty of Minangkabau in Pagar Uyung (near Batusangkar former Fort Van der Capellen) and presided over the central Sumatra region between 1347 and 1375.

By the 16th century, the time of the next report after the reign of Adityawarman, royal power had been split into three recognized reigning kings. They were the Raja Alam (King of the World), the Raja Adat  (King of Adat), and the Raja Ibadat  (King of Religion), and collectively they were known as the Rajo Tigo Selo (Kings of the Three Seats). [1]

In the mid-16th century, the Aceh Sultanate invaded the Minangkabau coast. It was also around the 16th century that Islam started to be adopted by the Minangkabau. The first contact between the Minangkabau and western nations occurred with the 1529 voyage of Jean Parmentier to Sumatra. The Dutch East India Company first acquired gold at Pariaman in 1651, but later moved south to Padang to avoid interference from the Acehnese occupiers. In 1663 the Dutch agreed to protect and liberate local villages from the Acehnese in return for a trading monopoly, and as a result setup trading posts at Painan and Padang. Until early in the 19th century the Dutch remained content with their coastal trade of gold and produce, and made no attempt to visit the Minangkabau highlands. As a result of conflict in Europe, the British occupied Padang from 1781 to 1784 during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, and again from 1795 to 1819 during the Napoleonic Wars.

A civil war started in 1803 with the Padri fundamentalist Islamic group in conflict with the traditional syncretic groups, elite families and Pagaruyung royals. A large part of the Minangkabau royal family were killed by the Padri in 1815. As a result of a treaty with a number of penghulu and representatives of the murdered Minangkabau royal family, Dutch forces made their first attack on a Padri village in April 1821. The first phase of the war ended in 1825 when the Dutch signed an agreement with the Padri leader Tuanku Imam Bonjol to halt hostilities, allowing them to redeploy their forces to fight the Java War. When fighting resumed in 1832, the reinforced Dutch troops were able to more effectively attack the Padri. The main center of resistance was captured in 1837, Tuanku Imam Bonjol was captured and exiled soon after, and by the end of the next year the war was effectively over. In 1849 the State of Minangkabau was abolished by the Dutch government.

During World War II the Minangkabau territories were occupied by the Japanese, and when the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 Indonesia proclaimed independence. Dutch attempts to regain control of the area were ultimately unsuccessful and in 1948 the Minangkabau territories became part of Indonesia in the province of Central Sumatera (Sumatera Tengah). This province was split up in the West-Sumatra, the Riau and the Jambi Residencies which were upgraded into provinces in 1957 when Central Sumatera Province was abolished.


King Commanders of Minangkabau

(Raja Alam Yang di Pertuan Sakti)

Tuanku Sultan Alif Kalipatullah Raja Alam XXV


Tuanku Perkasa Alam Pemangku Raja Alam XXVI


Tuanku Sultan Bagewang II Pemangku Raja Alam XXVII


Tuanku Sultan Arif Badaeunsyah Raja Alam XXVIII


Tuanku Raja Alam Muningsyah Raja Alam XXIX


Tuanku Raja Basusu Ampek Tuanku Raja Alam Muningsyah II Raja Alam XXX


Tuanku Raja Bawang Tuanku Raja Alam Muningsyah III Raja Alam XXXI


Raja Garang Tuanku Sambahyang III Sumpur Kudus Pemangku Raja Alam  XXXII


Tuanku Raja Hitam Tuanku Raja Alam Bagagarsyah Johan Berdaulat





The Minangkabau Empire


Adityavarman Statue

National Museum of Indonesia

From the earliest times of the Minangkabau Empire one would expect a system of tantric-buddhist socio-political symbols. These would have existed of the sun, the moon and the cakra and for the three spheres of authority of a vajra (thunderbolt), a lotus and a conch. Alas, however we only have the statue of Adityavarman to provide us with useful data. Taking the skulls on which he is standing into account he is represented as a kind of (human) Mahakala. Indeed, he is standing on a lotus on which in Tantric Buddhism there usually is a disc representing the (full) moon. Also, we meet the monstruous head (Gorgoneion/Boma) of a chief commander on his belly and a dagger (not a vajra) as a symbol of armed authority in his hand. [2] Altogether however, these data are too few to be able to extrapolate a whole system of socio-political symbols.



Adityavarman statue: skulls, lotus and (hidden) moon


Adityavarman statue: monstruous head and dagger


The same is true for the Muslim Minangkabau Empire. One would expect a sun radiant for the Empire, a crescent for the State (or the Rajo Tigo Selo) and a star for the (non existent) Ruler. An emblem for the Commander or Raja Alam could have been a dagger or a sword.

No such emblems however are preserved or known of in Minangkabau context.



What we have is a flag of Sumatra, probably of the Minangkabau Empire, and consisting of seven stripes red, green, red, white, green red and white. [3] These may have been the colors of the three Raja’s, the red for the Raja Alam, the green for the Raja Adat and the white for the Raja Ibadat.

Also we have the seal of the last Raja Alam. This has the shape of a lotus (!) with the names and titles of Tuanku Raja Hitam Tuanku Raja Alam Bagagarsyah Johan Berdaulat written in the central field.




Minangkabau Royal Seal, 19th century


After the V.O.C. had settled in Padang European heraldry was introduced as well. At first the heraldic symbols of the V.O.C. were used in Padang and later the heraldic symbols of its successors, the British East India Company and the Dutch Government. Only in 1926 a specific coat of arms for the city of Padang was adopted.


Luhak nan Tigo / The Three Districts


The Minangkabau people believe that their history began with the settlement on the southern slopes of Mount Merapi (2891 m). The Merapi settlement was divided into three communities, each centered around its own well, called a luhak. After some time each of the three groups set off to pioneer and settle a district of its own. The group from luhak agam, the well where the agam plant (used for weaving mats) flourished, travelled to the plain north of the Merapi, facing Mount Singgolang. Those from the luhak tanah datar, the well of the flat ground, settled on a plain southwest of the Merapi. The people from the third well of whom there were fifty (lima puluh) families, established themselves on the plain north of Mount Sago.

Henceforth, these three areas of settlement formed the heartland of Minangkabau and were known collectively as the Luhak nan Tigo (the Three Districts) - Luhak Agam, Luhak Tanah Datar and Luhak Lima Puluh. Although the Minangkabau people continued to expand in all directions from these core districts, the Luhak nan Tigo are considered the real and true Miningkabau country, and all other areas have legends of settlement which tie their ancestors to one of the three original Luhak communities. [4]



An emblem for this Luhak nan Tigo apparently was designed not long ago but remains undated. It consists of a payong per pale, crested with a crescent-and-star, charged on the pole with a pedang and a keris in saltire and a buffalo’s head affrontée in base, and between two tombak (spears) per pale.



In this emblem

The payong is the emblem of Glory, Peace and Wellbeing (of the people)

The crescent and star is the emblem of Muslim Faith

The pedang (a Sumatran sword) and the keris are for the Traditional and Islamic Law.

The buffalo’s head symbolizes Wisdom, Intelligence, Steadfasness and Perseverance.

The spears represent the Defensive Power of the (Minangkabau) Society.

The motto means: United Prosperity






The colors of the Luhak nan Tigo are Yellow, Red and Black:

Yellow is for the Luhak Tanah Datar

Red is for the Luhak Agam

Black is for the Luhak Lima Puluh Kota.




Since the 16th century Padang has been a trade centre. During the 16th and 17th centuries pepper was cultivated and traded with India, Portugal, Britain and the Netherlands. In 1663 the city came under the authority of the Dutch which built a trading post here in 1680. The city came under British authority twice, the first time from 1781 to 1784 during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, and again from 1795 to 1819 during the Napoleonic Wars. By Anglo-Dutch Treaty the city was transferred back to the Netherlands.

After WWII and Japanese occupation Dutch rule was restored in Padang and surroundings. On 9 March 1950 this Padang dan Sekitarnya was incorporated into the Republic of Indonesia.



The achievement of the community of Padang was adopted by decree of 11 November 1926. It is:


Arms: Quarterly, 1. Azure, the Dutch Lion Or; 2 Argent, a sailing vessel Or on a sea Vert; 3. A landscape with sawah’s, palmtrees and the Gunung Marapi (2891 m) in the distance proper; 4. Azure, a buffalo’s head Or.

Crest: A Minangkabau Hall or Rumah Gadang Gules, decorated Or and roofed Argent.

Supporters: Two tigers Or, langued Gules

Motto: SALUS POPULI SUPREMA LEX (The Wellbeing of the People is the Supreme Law) in golden lettering on a scroll Gules.


The arms were meant to symbolize the relations between the mother counry (i.e. The Netherlands) and Padang. The Netherlands are represented by the lion, the relations between the motherland and these regions by the sailing ship (also the symbol of the V.O.C.). The cash crops are represented by the coconut trees and the sawah’s and the buffalo’s head refers to the name Minangkabau. The Rumah Gadang refers to the Minangkabau region and people


After Japanese occupation Dutch Rule was restored temporarily in Padang and surroundings by the KNIL U-Brigade. This brigade was founded in Malacca on 1 March 1946. In December 1949 it was disbanded.


The arms of the U-Brigade were:


Arms: Azure, a Mediaeval European helmet to the sinister Argent, crested with plumes Gules.



The present emblem of the city of Padang shows the roof of a Minangkabau Hall, charged with the profile of Gunung Padang, supported by a pile and a keris and waves of the sea in between below. The motto reads PADANG KOTA TERCINTA.



The emblem symbolizes the city as a shelter of the Minagkabau people between the mountains and the sea. The motto means: Padang the Beloved City.



Gunung Padang


Provinsi Sumatera Barat


The arms of the Province of Sumatara Barat show a Minangkabau Hall or Rumah Gadang as erected in many places in the province. The motto means United Prosperity.


š See illustration in the head of this essay.










Today West Sumatera is controlled by TNI

Kodam I/Bukit Barisan



The arms of the POLDA Sumatera Barat shows the usual shield per bend sinister Or and Sable charged with a disc showing a Ruma Gadang, a tree and a sawah.



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© Hubert de Vries 2010-10-31 / Updated 2011-03-08

[1] ) A system that may be compared with the democratic Hellenistic archon system: Initially there were three archontes in Athens: the archon eponymos a kind of head of state, an archon polemarchos (supreme commander) and an archon basileus (high priest). It may also be compared with the Mameluk system in which there was a division into the Men of the Sword, the Men of the Turban and the Men of the Pen. In this system the Head of  State (not the ruler) was a man of the sword.  (Riley-Smith, J.: Atlas des Crusades).

[2] ) Such a knife is the 15th century Balinese Golok La Nggunti Rante which was the official weapon of the Sultan of Bima (the warrior prince among the Pandawa princes of the Brathayudha cycle) before the introduction of the state keris. š Ibbitson, Helen: Court Arts of Indonesia. New York 1990, No 25.

[3] ) Rühl, Dirk: Vlaggen van den Oost-Indischen Archipel (1600-1942). In: Jaarboek van het Centraal Bureau voor Genealogie. Dl. VI, 1952. pp. 136-148.

[4] ) From: Grant, Elizabeth E.: The Minangkabau Response to Dutch Colonial Rule in the Nineteenth Century, 1981. P. 18.