The Batak People of Sumatra

[Source: Lonely Planet Indonesia, 2007.]

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 that, neverthe- less, had a highly developed culture and a system of writing. The Bataks have been a subject of fascination ever since.

The Bataks are a Proto-Malay people descended from Neolithic mountain tribes from northern Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) who were driven out by migrating Mongolian and Siamese tribes. When the Bataks arrived in Sumatra they 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, and villages were constantly feuding. They were so mistrustful that they did not build or maintain natural paths between villages, or construct bridges. The practice of ritual cannibalism, involving eating the flesh of a slain enemy or a person found guilty of a serious breach of adat (traditional law), survived among the Toba Bataks until 1816.

Today there are more than six million Bataks, divided into six main linguistic groups, and their lands extend 200km north and 300km south of Danau Toba. The origins of the name ‘Batak’ are unclear; one theory suggests it could come from a de- rogatory Malay term for robber or blackmailer. Another claims that it was an abusive nickname, coined by Muslims, meaning ‘pig eater’. The Bataks are primarily an agricultural people and the rich farmlands of the Karo Highlands supply vegetables for much of North Sumatra, as well as for export.

Religion & Mythology

The Bataks have long been squeezed between the Islamic strongholds of Aceh and West Sumatra and, despite several Acehnese attempts to conquer and convert, it was the European missionaries who finally quelled the waters with Christianity.

The majority of today’s Bataks are Protestant Christians, however, many still practise elements of traditional animist belief and ritual. Traditional beliefs combine cosmology, ancestor and spirit worship and tondi – the concept of the soul that 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 believe the banyan to be the tree of life; they tell a legend of their omnipotent god Ompung, who created all living creatures by dislodging decayed branches of a huge banyan into the sea.


The most distinctive element of Batak culture is traditional architecture. Batak houses are built on stilts, up to 2m from the ground with a hipped (Karo) or saddleback (Toba) roof ending in sharp rising points said to resemble buffalo horns. Houses are traditionally made of wood (slot- ted and bound together without nails) and roofed with sugar-palm fibre or, more often these days, rusting corrugated iron. The gables are usually extravagantly embellished with carvings of serpents, spirals, lizards and monster heads complete with bulbous eyes.

The space under the main structure is used for rearing domestic animals such as cows, pigs and goats. The living area, or middle section, is large and open with no fixed internal walls. A traditional village is made up of a number of such houses, similar to the villages of the Toraja people of central Sulawesi.


The strong Indian influence running through Batak culture 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 funerals, but now more often a part of wedding ceremonies. The life-sized puppet, carved from the wood of a banyan tree, is dressed in the traditional costume of red turban, loose shirt and blue sarong. The sigalegale stand up on long, wooden boxes where the operator makes them dance to gamelan (percussion orchestra) music accompanied by flute and drums.

One story of the origin of the sigalegale puppet concerns a widow who lived on Samosir. Bereft and lonely after the death of her husband, she made a wooden image of him and whenever she felt lonely hired a dalang (puppeteer-storyteller) to make the puppet dance and a dukun (mystic) to communicate with the soul of her husband.

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.

Arts & Crafts

Traditionally, the Bataks are skilled metalworkers and woodcarvers; other materials they use are shells, bark, bone and horn. Their work is decorated with fertility symbols, magic signs and animals.

One particularly idiosyncratic art form developed by the Toba Bataks is the magic augury book, pustaha. These books comprise the most significant part of their written history. Usually carved out of bark or bamboo, the books are important religious records that 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.

Porhalaan are divining calendars – 12 months of 30 days each – engraved on a cylinder of bamboo. They are used to determine auspicious days on which to embark on certain activities, such as marriage or the planting of the fields.


Music is as important to the Bataks as it is to most societies, but traditionally it was played as part of religious ceremonies rather than for everyday pleasure. Today the Bataks are famous for their powerful and emotive hymn singing.

Most of their musical instruments are similar to those found elsewhere in Indonesia – cloth- covered copper gongs in varying sizes struck with wooden hammers; a small two-stringed violin, which makes a pure but harsh sound; and a kind of reedy clarinet.



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