Religious Traditions of the Nias Islanders – anthropological essay by Reuben Rutledge


Nias Islanders


      Due to their connection with Indian Hindu culture, the Nias islanders have received considerable attention. This culture bears a great resemblance to the Nagas of Assam. The Nias stone culture does date later than the Nagas. There are stone fortresses, paved streets, and stone step ways. Stone memorial monuments are erected to great feasts. Unlike mainland Sumatra, icons appear in abundance. Linga (phallic symbols) are the most common. Icons are made of clay, stone, and mostly wood.

      The Southern Nias believed that the world originated according to a certain story; at the beginning there was no world, only chaos. Chaos split and a goddess emerged who created the world along with another primordial goddess. This goddess begat two pairs of twins. The child that ruled the sky had a wife who begat a human child. This child was completely round, without hands or feet.  The child was cut in half so that one part was male and the other was female.

      In the Central and North is about a dying god from whose heart grew the World Tree.  The god of the sky blew into their mouths of the first couple and gave them life.

       A person dies when the soul, given to him by the sky god, is finished.

      The sky god, Lowalangi, operates in a position similar to the Indian god Brahma. Lowalangi is also the god of the winds. He gives people their souls, which is returned to him when they die. These souls are also considered a part of the all-soul.

      The god of the dead is Latura who dwells in the underworld. Both Lowalangi and Latura do not receive prayer or sacrifice.

      According to the Nias man is divided into three parts: the material body, the life-bringing breath, and the lumolumo or shadow. The lumolumo is considered to be a second person, the ego outside the body. This is further divided into two parts: the shadow, and the likeness of the person. After death the shadow ghost does to the land of the dead in either heaven or in the underworld. At the gate of heaven there is a watchman that judges the dead according to their worldly deeds. If the dead is determined to be wicked then it is pushed into the water below. The soul is believed to die nine times before it becomes extinct. It is also believed that the dead are reincarnated as animals, whereas the soul returns to the gods.  

      The Nias have two kinds of sacrifice: sacrifice to ancestral spirits and sacrifice to nature spirits and the gods. Sacrifices for ancestors consist of a communal meal that takes place during a great feast. The ghosts eat the lumolumo of the sacrificed animals and the participants eat the meat. To the highest gods only pigs are offered.

      Headhunting was an important part of war. The motive of this practice was religious in nature. These heads were acquired for special purposes, and generally obtained from enemies. They were never acquired for harvest ceremonies. Instead they were procured for the following reasons: blood revenge, at the building of where the gods are housed, the building of a new village, building of a chief’s house, at the death of a chief, at the feast for the dead, at the beginning of a big feast, at the making of gold ornaments, the making of oaths, as a part of a bride-price, and to release the soul of a sick person. The warrior who took the enemy’s head was entitled to wear special decorations.

      Today six out of seven Islanders are Protestant Christian. The remaining Nias Islanders are divided up between Muslim and Catholic. Aspects of the former religion are still being practiced. These practices are the underlying aspects that dominate the culture.

 Loeb, Edwin M. 1935, Sumatra Its History and People, Verlag Des Institutes fur Volkerkunde der Universitat Wein, Austria


Marsden, William, 1966, The History of Sumatra, Oxford University Press, New York



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