Just over an hour of easy driving, some 56 kilometers north of Padang, lies the harbour town of Pariaman, located along a beautiful 7-mile coastline. Once known as a thriving seaport, it is now better known for its Tabuik celebrations, the reenactment of the Battle of Karbala and the martyrdom of the grandchildren of the Prophet Muhammad, Hasan and Husyein along with their family members, which day is better known as the day of Ashura. Therefore, a visit to Pariaman would be best during the first ten days of the month of Muharam, or the first month in the Moslem lunar calendar, when the Tabuik tower is ritually prepared, watched over, and the day massively celebrated.
In its heydays the port of Pariaman was crowded with local and international merchants. Centuries ago, this was the port where traders from the Minangkabau interior of West Sumatra brought gold, pepper, honey, and candlenuts and other local produce to sell and exchange at Pariaman. In the 15th Century, Pariaman became known as an important trading center for Camphor and pepper. While, during the early 17th century, the Sultanate of Aceh came to rule the area. However, with the arrival of the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), which came to dominate the Indonesian archipelago’s strategic trading ports, Pariaman also fell under the control of the VOC. Historical records recount that the people were unhappy under the Dutch and launched continuous revolts for near to a century, forcing the VOC to finally abandon this port.
Pariaman’s history, in fact, started much earlier. Since long time, traders from China, India and other parts of the Indonesian islands called on this port. The oldest record was written by a Portuguese official in Asia, called Tome Pires (1446 – 1524) who mentioned that people from India came to develop successful commerce here, especially with the people of Tiku and Barus (now in the province of North Sumatra), who traded in the camphor tree crystal compounds, locally known as Kamper or Kapur Barus. Camphor was popular in China to make wooden chests to keep textiles from being damaged by weather and insects. Pires also noted that there was horse trading between the Batak from North Sumatra and merchants from Tanah Sunda on Java.
Tabuik, Traders, and Raffles’ British Raj Army
In 1527, two trading ships from France with two brothers on board, Jean and Raoul Parmentier, visited Pariaman. The story has it that the ship anchored here because of the sick crew, and the brothers landed at Tiku and Indrapura. However, they left no significant records on the territory. On November 21st, 1600, the first Dutch ship anchored at Pariaman and Tiku under the command of Paulus Van Cardeen, which was sailing southward from Aceh and Pasaman. Later, Cornelis de Houtman was also one of Dutch sailors to visit Pariaman and sailed further south to Sunda Kelapa, today known as Jakarta.
In 1686, as recorded by W. Marsden, the ‘Pryaman’, or people of Pariaman, started to develop contact with the British. At that time, the Indian Sepoy army under the British Raj, were stationed at Pariaman by order of British Governor Sir Stamford Raffles. These Indians introduced many of their traditions and teachings to the Moslem population in this area. Although contact between the Indians and the local population was not very intensive, yet some traces flourished to become one of the important cultural heritage of the region such as we know today.
Parading the Tabuik
The Indian Army and traders introduced their tradition called Muharram, known locally as Tabuik. The term tabuik, is derived from Bahasa Indonesia, tabut, which has been practiced here since 1831.The port Pariaman is steeped in this tradition and it became one of the places in the world where the remembrance of the martyrdom of Hasan bin Ali and Husyain bin Ali is celebrated.
On the tenth day of Muharram, people in Pariaman traditionally gather to see the tall handsomely decorated tower, symbolizing a funeral structure where the coffin of Al-Husyain would be rested on the day of mourning. Visually, the procession and tower closely resemble the Balinese bade tower at a royal cremation, however, the concept behind tabuik is completely different, and no fire is involved. Besides meant as the day of mourning, tabuik also refers to the decorated tower, which will eventually be floated in the sea at the Gondoriah Beach. Here followers will swim and pluck a ‘souvenir’ from the sinking tabuik.