The Story of Amawau's Mendaka


Ceremonial pendant (mendaka)
Indonesia, Lesser Sunda Islands, West Sumba, Lamboya, Bogar Kahale
19th century or earlier (possibly 14th to 16th century)
Gold Alloy | 2 1/2 (diameter) x 1/4 (6.4 x 0.6 cm)
© Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA


Authentic mendaka are extremely rare. Unlike large earrings or crowns, mendaka are not found in East Sumba. Their ownership is largely localized to the area around Anakalang in West Sumba. In Power and Gold, Susan Rodgers has described this type of pendant as “apparently an uncommon and perhaps idiosyncratic ornament.” According to Umbu Sangera, a former village headman of Anakalang, mendaka are ancient ornaments whose origin is shrouded in mystery. Such an ornament was worn only by aristocrats as a chest piece or jacket pin, or was displayed when an important person died. They were also worn by the paramount war chiefs as an emblem of their rank and prowess. 

This large and truly exceptional mendaka comes from the kampung of Bogar Kahale, a traditional village perched on the summit of an imposing hill in Lamboya. It was once owned by an aristocrat there named Amawau. Amawau did not inherit this pendant from his father. One evening, nearly seventy-five years ago, he was awakened by the voice of a hornbill, a burung badak. The bird’s song was so strange, so eerie, that Amawau took its presence as an omen. The next day, he journeyed to Kampung Winituna in Wonokaka, where he went to visit the widow of his great-uncle, Rato Muna Nganga. It was there, after promising a prescribed number of buffalo and cattle, and after completing other ceremonial requirements, that Amawau received this precious pendant from his great-aunt.

Amawau, Bogar Kahale, Lamboya, West Sumba, c. 1989. © Stuart Rome


Amawau never intended to part with his pendant, but one night, the omen bird returned, and a sequence of events that had occurred nearly fifty years ago repeated itself.

It was late as I looked out of the window. There, exactly as had happened many years before, the burung badak reappeared and sang to me. It was that same strange song. I never wanted to part with my mendaka. The mendaka’s container began to shake—the mendaka began to awaken and move. It then began to walk. I tried to prevent this from happening, and in clutching the box became feverish while attempting to prevent the inevitable. I knew then that it was time for the mendaka to pass to its new and rightful owner.


Amawau and sons, Bogor Kahale, Lamboya, West Sumba, c. 1960


Legend has it that forty-eight of these pendants were brought to Sumba and given to “big men” there. They range in size from much smaller examples to the size of this pendant. Cornelius Kadobo, the son of Amawau’s elder brother, stated that mendaka were originally presentation pieces given by emissaries of the Majapahit empire of East Java to those who may have been Amawau’s remote ancestors. 

According to Amawau, this mendaka is an object of tremendous power. He described the elongated finial as the head of a winged snake-dragon or serpent (ular galar), which guards a sacred cave. This cave contained both material riches and the knowledge necessary for personal illumination. A mendaka in the hands of a strong man is a key that allows access into this sacred cave. Its ten distinctive prongs are considered to be “male” and represent “the perpetual turning of the cosmos.”

— Steven G. Alpert 

A passage from Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Pages 218, 219)

Eyes of the Ancestors The Arts of Island Southeast Asia Dallas Museum of Art Dr. Reimar Schefold Steven G. Alpert
Steven G. Alpert