Of Indonesia’s myriad indigenous peoples, a few – like the Balinese and Javanese – are known for their hospitality. Others, on the other hand, boast legacies that could make you think twice about offending your hosts. Like the Batak of North Sumatra.
Best known for their iconic jabu houses with massive gabled roofs, the Batak were also feared for their strict laws, black magic, and rituals…including child sacrifice and cannibalism. Here on my first visit to Lake Toba, I was fortunate enough to enjoy a personal tour at the TB Silalahi Center and Batak Museum, where the secrets of the Batak were revealed to me.
Batak culture: religion, lineage, and…feminism?
Vast plantations of pineapple, rice, coffee, and other crops thrive on the rich volcanic soil around Lake Toba, reflecting the agricultural way of life of the Batak. In fact, the Batak Museum overlooks a picture of serenity on the southern bank of the lake, where fields of rice grew like a high-pile rug over the ground. But Mr. Ondi, our museum guide, explained that the Batak – which comprise six subgroups around North Sumatra – are also fierce guardians of their heritage. Apparently, when British and American Christian missionaries first arrived in North Sumatra, they were swiftly disposed of by the locals.
“It was German missionary Dr. Ludwig Ingwer Nommensen who successfully converted the Batak to Christianity through his sincere efforts,” explained Ondi. “He even translated the New Testament of the Bible, not from English or German, but from the Greek text, and served as an interpreter when the Dutch invaded.”
All Batak trace their lineage to a single ancestor, Si Raja Batak, and must know their family genealogy – from their respective clans, or marga, to the generation in which they’re born. Ondi shares that these impact even day-to-day interactions, such as using respectful language to address to fellow Batak belonging to an older generation.
Although Batak society is patriarchal, Batak culture often emphasizes respect for women, especially wives and their families. This is especially important since marriages are based on clan alliances, with men typically marrying their maternal cousins. In fact, the Batak philosophy of Dalihan Na Tolu advocates respect and kindness to wives and in-law families, as well as to women in general.
Learning the symbolism of Batak houses at Huta Batak
After touring the interior of the museum, Ondi led us to Huta Batak: a replica huta (village) with six Toba Batak houses. He explained that these were original houses donated by various owners, and that some were over a hundred years old.
In such a geologically volatile region, it’s no surprise the Batak people have developed structures that can withstand earthquakes and eruptions. Batak houses are built without any nails or screws; instead, wood joinery and palm cord are used to secure the floors, walls, and roof. In fact, the entire house rests on pillars and can be moved – that’s how these houses could be donated to the museum!
Ancient rites: of blood sacrifice and cannibalism
While the Batak were known to be established traders and steely warriors, they were also feared for their practice of magic. At the far end of the village grounds, Ondi pointed out a small shrine, within which stood a stone statue carved with human features.
“This is the pangulubalang, the guardian spirit found in every village. When starting a village, the datu or priest will select a male child to become the pangulubalang. The boy lives in luxury with the priest until the day of his sacrifice, when he’s killed with poison and boiled with herbs.” When I ask if the statue is an original, Ondi says it’s only a replica, but the grinning figure is eerie all the same.
Historical records also indicate that the Batak practiced ritual cannibalism, consuming the meat and organs of their prisoners. Ondi explains that this was exaggerated by his own ancestors as well as colonial explorers: cannibalism served as a punishment only for the most serious of crimes, and also helped to scare off potential invaders!
If you love all things occult, the Sigale-gale performance here may delight you. In traditional Batak culture, this life-sized wooden marionette is created in the likeness of anyone who has died childless, and can be maneuvered to perform funeral dances. For me, however, the stiff movements and twisted joints of the puppet was immensely creepy – I couldn’t look at it after a few moments!
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Getting to the Batak Museum
The Batak Museum (Map) is a private museum officially known as the “Museum TB Silalahi Center” (named after its founder, Indonesian politician T.B. Silalahi). Frankly, it’s located far from the typical tourist route and you may even have the entire museum to yourself. However, if you’re flying to Silangit International Airport, the museum is a 20-minute drive away and on the way to nearby Balige town.
Finally, if you do visit the Batak Museum, ask the guides about the secret of the Huta Batak houses. They may or may not share it with you – but I won’t tell you what it is. Go there and find out for yourself!