I came back from Nias last week and said I would post a few photos and write about my trip. On my four earlier trips, I got glimpses of the culture and visited a World Heritage site in southern Nias, but this time, while inspecting one of our many water, sanitation and housing projects, I discovered a very traditional village named Ono Limbu. Here I saw many traditional houses and stone statues, pillars, columns, flat stones and Stonehenge type arrangements. It was utterly fascinating, I would like to write a little on the Megalithic culture and to do so, I have borrowed from papers written by the Nias Cultural Musuem and also from Wikipedia.
Some historians and archaeologists have cited the local culture as one of the few remaining Megalithic cultures in existence today. While this point of view is hotly debated, there is no doubt that Nias' relative geographic isolation has created a unique culture. Nias best known for its remarkable diversity of festivals and celebration. The most well known events are War Dances, performed regularly for tourists, and Stone Jumping, a manhood ritual that sees young men leaping over two meter stone towers to their fate. In the past the top of the stone board is covered with spikes and sharp pointed bamboo. The music of Nias, performed mostly by women, is noted worldwide for its haunting beauty.
A warrior in battle dress in the Nias Heritage Museum. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Gunungsitoli is home to Nias's only museum, the Museum Pusaka Nias (Nias Heritage Foundation), which houses over 6000 objects related to Nias's cultural heritage. The museum had recently built a new building and had improved their storage and exhibitions when the 2004 earthquake and tsunami occurred. The museum suffered some damage to the grounds and collections, but museum staff are working to recover from this devastating event. More on that later.
Stone Statues outside a house in Ono Limbu, Nias Island. Photo: Bob McKerrow
The predominant religion is Protestant Christianity. Six out of seven Niasans are Protestant; the remainder are about evenly divided between Muslim (mostly immigrants from elsewhere in Indonesia) and Catholic. However adherence to either Christian or Muslim religions is still largely symbolic; Nias continues into current day celebrating its own indigenous culture and traditions as the primary form of spiritual expression.
The people of Nias build omo sebua houses on massive ironwood pillars with towering roofs. Not only were they almost impregnable to attack in former tribal warfare, their flexible nail-less construction provide proven earthquake durability.
Nias is home not only to a unique human culture but also endemic fauna which differ from other areas of North Sumatra because of the island's remote location separate from Sumatra.
The Nias megaliths are found in the hilly and coastal (or lowland areas). Nias megaliths show a mixture of old and new megaliths. Old megaliths, such as menhir, terrace, and flat stones, and new elements (which also may be classified as megaliths), such as human statues and animals, are found there. New megaliths consist of neogadi, sitilubagi, neobehe, and lawolo.
Small stone statues honour the dead. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Menhirs symbolize the male while flat stones are usually female. Vertical standing stones and imposing stone statues are set up to achieve and maintain the honor, prestige and popularity of a leader. A large number of kerbau (water buffaloes) are sacrificed as hundreds of people come from other places to actively participate in the ceremony. A communal spirit of the megalithic society is not only shown in the way they build megaliths or ceremonial houses but also in their way of deciding on questions of customary law or cases. Such a place to settle and reach consensus between leaders and people are found in the areosali.
Firstly, all houses were set on a series of vertical pillars (enomo) which are not anchored into the ground, but rest on stone blocks. Secondly, the vertical pillars were reinforced by slanting piles (ndriwa), which created a very resistant earthquake-proof three-dimensional structure.
While surviving earthquakes, Nias traditional architecture is presently endangered by two big challenges, namely deforestation and modernization. Nias has largely been stripped of its forests over the past 150 years since head hunting ceased and the population grew rapidly. This has nearly depleted the native efoa, manawa dano, and simalambuo hardwood trees, used for the pillars of the traditional clan houses (omo hada), chief houses (omo sebua or omo nifolasara) and large meeting halls (omo bale).
Graves of ancestors, recent and old, take a prominent place in front of the houses. Ono Limbu. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Secondly, modernization has reduced the strength of the clan (mado), with most Nias people preferring now to live in Malay houses, while the government has also forsaken Nias traditional architecture in all official buildings.
Larger stone statues in the village of Ono Limbo. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Fortunately, two European charities — the German aid organization, Johanniter Unfall Hilfe, and the British Turnstone Tsunami Fund — have assisted the rebuilding of remaining omo hada on the island. Johanniter cooperated with the Nias Heritage Museum (Museum Pusaka Nias) in Gunungsitoli, the capital of the Nias district, while the Turnstone Tsunami Fund cooperated with the Medan-based North Sumatera Heritage.
The Nias Heritage Museum. (Museum Pusaka Nias) Photo: Bob McKerrow
With Johanniter’s assistance, Museum Pusaka Nias has helped families rehabilitate 26 traditional wooden houses in 13 villages. In addition, with financial assistance from the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta and the Muenster and Konstant Municipalities in Germany, the Museum has rehabilitated eight more traditional houses in seven other villages. Then, with the assistance of other donors, the Museum has distributed funds — ranging from Rp 200,000 to Rp 5,000,000 — to 357 traditional house owners to rebuild their traditional houses.
Inside the museum in Nias: Photo: Bob McKerrow
The museum was trusted by all those donors due to the serious dedication of its director, Johannes Hammerle, a naturalized German-born priest, to revive Nias traditional architecture. I met Father Johannes some time back and he explained how he has studied chief houses (omo sebua) since 1990, and supervised the construction of the museum compound — with its various wooden buildings — according to Nias traditional architecture, involving Nias and German carpenters.
Tsunami and earthquake:
On December 26, 2004 the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake struck a few kilometers north of the island, creating tsunamis as high as 10 meters. 122 people were killed and hundreds more rendered homeless.
On March 28, 2005, the island was again hit by the 2005 Sumatran earthquake, initially presumed to be an aftershock following the 2004 quake, but now regarded as the second-most powerful earthquake in the world since 1965 and twelfth-most powerful ever recorded. At least 800 people were reported dead, with the possibility of more than 2,000 casualties. Hundreds of buildings were toppled and many thousands of people were made homeless.
Nias's coastline has changed markedly with the tsunami and earthquake.  In some areas, the coast has moved over 50 m inland. In other areas, as much as a further 100 m of land is exposed from the sea. The uplift of land has been recorded as being as much as 2.9 m.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has been priviliged to work with PMI ( Indonesian Red Cross) in building water and sanitation systems, livelihoods and houses on this culturally rich island of Indonesia. The water and sanitation programmes have brought clean water to approximatley 100,000 people. or one sixth of the island's population, and houses have been provided to 3,000 families, 2100 of them from the Canadian Red Cross.It has been a joy, a rare privilige, to workn in one of, or if not, the last megalithic cultures in the world.