The Bataks

British traveller William Marsden astonished the ‘civilised’ world in 1783 when he returned to London with an account of a cannibalistic kingdom in the interior of Sumatra which, nevertheless, had a highly developed culture and a system of writing. The Bataks have remained a subject of fascination ever since.

According to Batak legend, all Bataks are descended from Si Radja Batak, who was born of supernatural parentage on Bukit Pusuk, a mountain on the western edge of Danau Toba (Lake Toba). According to anthropologists, the Bataks are a Proto-Malay people descended from neolithic mountain tribes in northern Thailand and Myanmar (Burma), who were driven out by migrating Mongolian and Siamese tribes.

When they arrived in Sumatra they did not linger long at the coast but trekked inland, making their first settlements around Danau Toba, where the surrounding mountains provided a natural protective barrier. They lived in virtual isolation for centuries.

The Bataks were among the most warlike peoples in Sumatra – along with the natives of Nias – and their villages were constantly feuding. They were so mistrustful of each other (not to mention outsiders) that they did not build or maintain natural paths between villages, or construct bridges.

They practised ritual cannibalism in which the flesh of a slain enemy or a person found guilty of a serious breach of adat (traditional law) was eaten.

Today, there are more than six million Bataks and their lands extend 200 km north and 300 km south of Danau Toba. They are divided into six main groupings: the Pakpak Batak to the north-west of Danau Toba; the Karo Batak around Berastagi and Kabanjahe; the Simalungun Batak around Pematangsiantar; the Toba Batak around Danau Toba; and the Angkola Batak and Mandailing Batak further south.

The name’Batak‘ was certainly in use in the 17th century, but its origins are not dear. It could come from a derogatory Malay term for robber or blackmailer, while another suggestion is that it was an abusive nickname coined by Muslims meaning ‘pig eater’.

The Bataks are primarily an agricultural people. The rich farmlands of the Karo Highlands supply vegetables for much of North Sumatra, as well as for export.

In contrast to the matrilineal Minangkabau, the Bataks have the most rigid patrilineal structure in Indonesia. Women not only do all the work around the house, but also much of the work in the fields. Although there is an indigenous Batak script, it was never used to record events. It seems to have been used only by priests and dukuns (mystics) in divination and to record magic spells.

Religion & Mythology The Batak have long been squeezed between the Islamic strongholds of Aceh and West Sumatra. The Karo Batak, in particular, were constantly at odds with the Islamic Acehnese to the north, who several times tried to conquer them and convert them to Islam.

Interestingly enough, after long years of resistance to the Acehnese, the Karo were easily subdued by the Dutch, who brought with them Christianity.

The majority of today’s Bataks are Protestant Christians, especially in the north around Danau Toba and the Karo Highlands. Islam is the predominant religion in the south.

Most Bataks, however, still incorporate elements of traditional animist belief and ritual. Traditional beliefs combine cosmology, ancestor and spirit worship and tondi. Tondi is the concept of the soul, the spirit – the essence of a person’s individuality – which is believed to develop before the child is born. It exists near the body and from time to time takes its leave, which causes illness. It is essential for Bataks to make sacrifices to their tondi to keep it in good humour.

The Bataks regard the banyan as the tree of life and relate a creation legend of their omnipotent god Ompung:

One day Ompung leant casually against a huge banyan tree and dislodged a decayed bough that plummeted into the sea. From this branch came the fish and all the living creatures of the oceans. Not long afterwards, another bough dropped to the ground and from this issued crickets, caterpillars, centipedes, scorpions and insects. Athird branch broke into large chunks which were transformed into tigers, deer, boars, monkeys, birds and all the animals of the jungle. The fourth branch which scattered over the plains became horses, buffalo, goats, pigs and all the domestic animals. Human beings appeared from the eggs produced by a pair of newly created birds, born at the height of a violent earthquake.

Architecture Traditional Batak houses are built on stilts one to two metres from the ground. Finishing touches vary from region to region, but all follow the same basic pattern.


They are made of wood (slotted and bound together without nails) and roofed with sugar palm fibre or, more often these days, rusting corrugated iron.

The roof has a concave, saddleback bend, and each end rises in a sharp point which, from certain angles, look like the buffalo horns they are invariably decorated with. The gables are usually extravagantly embellished with mosaics and carvings of serpents, spirals, lizards and monster heads complete with bulbous eyes.

The space under the main structure is used for rearing domestic animals like cows, pigs and goats. The living quarters, or middle section, is large and open with no fixed internal walls and is often inhabited by up to a dozen families. This area is usually sectioned off by rattan mats which are let down at nightto provide partial privacy. It is dark and gloomy, the only opening being a doorapproached by a wooden ladder. A traditional village is made up of a number of such houses, similar to the villages of the Toraja people of central Sulawesi.

There are many interesting traditional villages around Berastagi. The houses have very high roofs and are much larger that those of the Toba Batak. A traditional Toba village (huta) was always surrounded by a moat and bamboo trees to protect the villagers from attack. The villages had only one gateway because of this. The houses in the village are lined up to the left and right of the king’s house. In front of the houses is a line of rice barns, used for storing the harvest. Even today, walking around Pulau Samosir, you can still see how the villages were designed with defence in mind.

Culture A strong Indian influence on the Bataks is evident in the cultivation of wet field rice, the type of houses, chess, cotton and even the type of spinning wheel.

A purely Batak tradition is the sigalegale puppet dance, once performed at funeral ceremonies, but now more often a part of wedding ceremonies. The puppet, carved from the wood of a banyan tree, is a life-size likeness of a Batak youth. It is dressed in the traditional costume of red turban, loose shirt and blue sarong. A red ulos (a piece of rectangular cloth traditionally used to wrap round babies or around the bride and groom to bless them with fertility, unity and harmony) is draped from the shoulders.

The sigalegale stand up on long, wooden boxes, through which ropes are threaded and operated like pulleys to manipulate its jointed limbs. This enables the operator to make the sigalegale dance to gamelan music accompanied by flute and drums. In some super-skilled performances the sigalegale weeps or smokes a cigarette. Its tongue can be made to poke out and its eyelids to blink. The sigalegale is remarkably similar in appearance to the tau tau statues of Tanatoraja in central Sulawesi, although the tau tau do not move.

One story of the origin of the sigalegale puppet concerns a loving, but childless, couple who lived on Pulau Samosir. Bereft and lonely after the death of her husband, the wife made a wooden image of him. Whenever she felt intensely lonely she hired a dalang to make the puppet dance and a dukun to communicate with the soul of her husband through the puppet. –

The other story goes that there was once a king who had only one child, a son. When his son passed away the king was grieved because he now had no successor. In memory of his dead son the king ordered a wooden statue to be made in his likeness and when he went to see it for the first time, he invited his people to take part in a dance feast.

Whatever its origins, the sigalegale soon became part of Batak culture and was used at funeral ceremonies to revive the souls of the dead and to communicate with them. Personal possessions of the deceased were used to decorate the puppet and the dukun would invite the deceased’s soul to enter the wooden puppet as it danced on top of the grave. At the end of the dance, the villagers would hurl spears and arrows at the puppet while the dukun performed a ceremony to drive away evil spirits. A few days later the dukun would return to perform another ceremony, sometimes lasting 24 hours, to chase away evil spirits again.

Arts & Crafts Traditionally the Bataks are skilled metalworkers and woodcarvers; other materials they use are shells, bark, bone and horns. They decorate their work with fertility symbols, magic signs and animals.

One particularly idiosyncratic form of art developed by the Toba Bataks is the magic augury book called pustaha. These books comprise the most significant part of their written history. Usually carved out of bark or bamboo, they are important religious records which explain the established verbal rituals and responses of priests and mourners. Other books, inscribed on bone or bamboo and ornately decorated at each end, document Batak myths.



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