Gayo - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Gayo have been Muslims at least since the seventeenth century. Beginning in the late 1920s, modernist Muslims ( kaum mude ) sought to purge religious practices of "improper" elements. They focused on rituals of propitiation, the form of worship ( salat , semiyang ), and marriage exchange. Other religions are represented in the town of Takèngën by Chinese (Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism) and a small number of Batak residents (Christian). In rural areas Gayo communicate with guardian spirits, ancestors, and prophets, as well as spirits sent to cause illness. In the modernist town environment such activities are less common, but healing through exorcism is widely practiced.

Religious Practitioners. Each Gayo village has a religious official ( imëm ) who assists at weddings, funerals, and religious festivals, but every Gayo man and woman carries out duties as a Muslim, including burying the dead, bringing children into the world, and worshipping God. Healers exorcise illness-causing spirits from patients. Associated with each mosque is a sermon giver and one or more attendants. Government-appointed officials register marriages, divorces, and reconciliations under Islamic law. A district branch of the national Council of Ulama delivers opinions on religious matters.

Ceremonies. Gayo observe a number of festivals according to the lunar Muslim calendar, most notably the prophet Mohammed's birthday (Molud, Arabic Maulud en-nabi), the Mohammed's birthday (Molud, Arabic Maulud en-nabi), the feast after the fasting month (Reraya, Arabic Id al-fitr), and the day of sacrifice during the pilgrimage events (Reraya Haji/Korban, Arabic Id al-adhal). The life cycle is marked by ritual events. Seven days after birth the child is ritually bathed, introduced to the natural and spirit worlds, and given a name. Circumcision (boys) and incision (girls) takes place at varying times during youth. Wedding celebrations include the Islamic ritual ( nikah ) and formal exchanges of speeches and goods between the two parties. Most ritual or ceremonial events center on a ritual meal ( kenduri ).

Arts. Gayo art is largely verbal. The didong, sung poetry, once involved a single performer, but since the 1950s has pitted two teams of men and boys against each other. The teams trade songs and insults throughout the night. Saèr, religious poetry, was an important instrument of religious change in the 1930s and 1940s. Saman is a series of songs and chants, usually with religious content, that is performed by a line of kneeling boys and resembles dhikir religious chanting. Although Gayo once built water vessels, wove, and carved, these skills became obsolete because of the availability of cheap imported goods; in the 1970s and 1980s, only the art of embroidering Gayo designs remained.

Medicine. Gayo utilize spiritual healing, local knowledge of leaves and roots, and the medicines available through the local polyclinics. Healers attribute illness to the activities of malevolent spirits.

Death and Afterlife. At least since the late 1920s Gayo have differed among themselves about the nature of death, with some holding that postmortem communication with the dead is possible and morally important for the deceased's well-being, and others arguing that such attempts deny the act of God that took the person out of this world and thus represent the illegitimate supplication of spirits. Postmortem chanting ( sammadiyah ) sends blessings to the deceased, and graves of important ancestors sometimes are visited as part of the healing process.


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