Located west of the island of Sumatra in the Indian Ocean are a chain of islands, running alongside Sumatra but separated from the mainland by a deep trench, they include the islands of Nias, Simeulue, the Mentawai islands and Enggano. Few early trading ships dared to approach these islands because of their forbidding appearance, veering instead to the ports of Padang and Bengkulu in Sumatra.
At over 5,000 square kilometers, Nias is the largest of those islands. It is 130 km long and 45 km wide, lying 125 km off Sumatra’s west coast.
This far-flung island with rugged terrain, fiercely independent people and a distinct hierarchical culture is a unique destination having remained largely resistant to outside influences for centuries.
Today Nias is most famous for stones and surf. Stone jumping (lombat batu) is a phenomenon where local young men jump over stone walls up to two meters high while the surf here is famous the world over for massive breaks and awe inspiring swells. Australian surfers in search of the perfect wave were among the first to "discover" Nias and the island is now home to the Indonesian Open surfing Championship at Lagundri beach.
This is an ancient land. While no one knows exactly how long people have lived on the island, according to Nias legend life originated at the Gomo River where six gods descended and began the human race. This is why Nias people call themselves ono niha or ‘children of the people’. From Central Nias people moved North and South developing distinctive languages, customs and art in each region.
Traditionally Nias villages are ruled by a chief who heads a council of elders. Society is hierarchical with the aristocratic upper caste at the top, followed by the common people, and below them the slaves.
The people here have a reputation for fierceness and a militaristic culture which is one of the reasons Nias has resisted the impact of foreign influences for so long. The warrior culture of Nias goes back for centuries when local villages would band together in coalitions and declare war on each other. Inter-village warfare was fierce and furious, provoked by a desire for revenge, slaves or human heads.
Along with being warriors, the people of Nias are traditionally farmers, cultivating yams, maize and taro. Pigs were considered a mark of social status and the more pigs you had, the higher your status in the village.
Throughout its history, the Chinese, Portugese as well as Arab traders have all explored Nias. The island became known as a source of slaves with the Acehnese, Portuguese and Dutch all probably having bought slaves from here at one time or another. In fact, up until the 19th century Nias’ only connection with the outside world was through the slave trade.
The Dutch assumed control of the island in 1825. Despite a century of contact and conflict with the outside world, Nias traditional culture today remains remarkably intact. The population of the island is spread over more than 650 villages, many of which are inaccessible by road.
Gunung Sitoli is the capital city of Nias with most of the islands tourist facilities concentrated there.
Watch the video about North Sumatera: