The Bataks is the name for a group of sub-societies that live in the rugged highlands and plains around Lake Toba in northern Sumatra. The word Batak is believed to have originally been a derogatory term meaning “primitive” used by lowland Muslims to describe highland people. Today there is little stigma attached to the word. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Living in a beautiful part of North Sumatra around Lake Toba, the Batak people are divided into six main cultures, each with its own language and traditions. Although geographically isolated, the Bataks have a history of regular contact with the outside world. Trade between the highlands and other regions saw the exchange of goods such as salt, cloth and iron for gold, rice and cassia (a type of cinnamon).

The Bataks are a proto-Malay people. Although the Batak groups are closely related but are regarded as separate groups. These groups make up 3.6 percent of the population of Indonesia (about 9 million people), living both in their traditional homelands in Sumatra and elsewhere in Indonesia. Batak groups include the Angkola-Sipirok, Dairi-Pakpak, Karo, Mandailing, Simalungun, Toba, and others. Some Batak languages can be understood by Malays and Indonesians but others can not even be understood by other Bataks. ~

“Batak” groups inhabit the interior of Sumatera Utara Province, south of Aceh and are mostly Christian, with some Muslim groups in the south and east. Historically isolated from Hindu-Buddhist and Muslim influence, they bear closer resemblance culturally to highland swidden cultivators elsewhere in Southeast Asia, even though most practice wet-rice farming. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Batak are fond of pork and also eat dog and congealed blood. They grow wet rice were there is enough irrigation water and have built numerous terraces and raise dry rice where enough water is unavailable for wet rice. They also grow peppers, cabbage, tomatoes and beans and raise cash crops such as coffee, tobacco, fruits and cinnamon. In Lake Toba and other places the Batak practice fish farming. The government has encouraged them to practice fish farming and grow peanuts. Some traditional products such as camphor are still collected from the forest. ~

The Batak have a reputation for being one Indonesia’s most literate and educated peoples. They are found in significant numbers in Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya and other large cities and have traditionally worked as civil servants, teachers, clerks and journalists. ~

Early Batak History

The Bataks are believed to have descended from tribal people who lived in Burma, Thailand and southern China. Language and archaeological evidence suggests that the Austronesian-speaking people of Taiwan have moved to the area the Philippines and Indonesia about 2,500 years ago. When the Bataks arrived in Sumatra they migrated inland and established communities around Danau Toba (Lake Toba). The Batak speak Austronesian languages. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Bataks were regarded as fierce warriors and head-hunters. Marco Polo may have been describing them when he referred to the people in Sumatra as "such as beasts...For I tell you quite truly that they eat flesh of men." The Batak often feuded among themselves and were reportedly reluctant to build bridges or well-maintained trails because they were intensely distrustful of their neighbors and worried about raids. The ritual eating of human flesh—of killed enemies and people that broke taboos—is said to have endured among the Toba Batak until 1816. ~

Research on Karo traditions by JH Neumann, based on transcriptions of oral literature and a history written in local script on the origin of the clan Kembaren Pagaruyung in Minangkabau suggests that the Karo existed as far back as the 14th century based on the number of Karo surnames derived from Tamil language. Tamil people were major traders on Sumatra until the 14th century when they were driven out by the Minangkabau. [Source:]

Anthropologist RW Liddle has argued that prior to the 20th century there were no ethnic groups as coherent social units in northern Sumatra and social interaction in the area was limited to relationships between individuals, between groups of kin, or between villages. He argued there was almost no consciousness to be part of the larger social or political units. Others have suggested that the emergence of the Batak identity emerged in colonial times. In his dissertation J. Pardede argued that the term "Batak Land" and "people of Batak" was created by outsiders. Siti Omas Manurung , the wife of the son of a Toba Batak priest said that before the arrival of the Dutch, all good people Karo and Simalungun recognize him as Batak. There is a myth that Pusuk Buhit , one of the peaks in the west of Lake Toba , was the "birthplace" of the Batak people. [Ibid]

Later Batak History

The first time the outside world heard about the Bataks was in an account in 1783 by the British traveler William Mardens who described them as a cannibalistic people that had a highly developed culture and a sophisticated writing system. The Aceh battled with the Bataks and tried to convert them to Islam but Islam did not make much head way in the Batak regions until the 1820s. The Dutch and Western missionaries had better luck introducing Christianity. ~

The Dutch arrived in the area in the 1850s and encountered some armed resistence from the warrior chief Sisingamangaraja XII and didn’t gain control of the region until 1910 after Sisingamangaraja XII died. Some Batak were involved in pro-Indonesian and anti-Dutch activities before World War II. ~

In 1824, two British Baptist missionaries, Richard Burton and Nathaniel Ward, walked inland from Sibolga Batak. After three days of walking, they reached the plateau Silindung and settled there for two weeks and made direct observations of Batak society. In 1834, Henry Lyman and Samuel Munson from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions visited Batak territory in Sumatra. In 1850, the Board of the Dutch missionaries commissioned Neubronner Herman van der Tuuk published grammar books and dictionaries in the Batak and Dutch.[Source:]

The first German missionaries arrived in the valley around Lake Toba in 1861. A mission was set up by Dr. Ludwig Ingwer Nommensen . The New Testament was translated into Toba Batak language by Nommensen in 1869. Some Toba and Karo communities absorbed Christianity quickly and made Christianity the cultural identity at the beginning of the 20th century. The Protestant Church of Batak Christians (HKBP) was established in Balige in September 1917. In the late 1920s, a school nurse provides care training to midwives there. Later in 1941, the Karo Batak Protestant Church (GBKP) was established. [Ibid]

Batak Religion

Most Bataks are Protestant Christians but a significant number are Muslim. Beliefs in spirits remain strong even though many speak of an “Age of Darkness” that existed before their ancestors were converted to Islam and Christianity. There is some merging of Islamic and Christian beliefs. Traditional animist beleifs are called Sipelebegu or Parbegu.

Traditional Batak beliefs center on a spiritual understanding that the universe is divided into three realms: 1) the upper world where the God’s residesl 2) the middle world which belongs to humans; and 3) the lower world which is home to ghosts and demons. Medical care in Batak culture focuses on the condition of the soul. It is believed that sickness is caused when the soul flees the body in which case a traditional healer is needed to help call the wandering soul back to the patient.

Traditional beliefs manifest themselves in: 1) participation in adat (local customary practices) ceremonies and rituals, 2) a fear of sorcery, witchcraft and poisoning, 3) the practice of spiritual healing and 4) a belief in indi” — the idea that illnesses are cased when the soul leaves the body. Sacrifices are regularly performed for indi to make sure the soul is happy and stays near the body. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Divining calendars known as “porhalaan”—with 12 months of 30 days each—are engraved on sacred bones or cylinders of bamboo and used in determining auspicious days for activities such planting rice. During the funerals, Batak chieftains used to use human-sized puppets mounted on wheeled platforms operated by a shaman who pulled wires and levers to make the effigy "weep tears, gnash its teeth, drag priests and speak in a voice of the departed." The puppets were dressed in possessions of the deceased and were used to revive the souls of the dead and communicate with the dead. Christian and Muslim leaders and colonial officials discouraged such practices as blasphemous. ~

Before the Batak Toba embraced Protestant Christianity, they believed in an all powerful god, Mulajadi Nabolon, who had power over the sky and conveyed his power in Debata Natolu . Concerning the soul and the spirit, the Batak Toba identify three concepts: 1) Tondi, the soul or spirit of a person is the force that gives life to man. If Tondi leaves the body of a person, then that person will get sick or die, and a ceremony called mangalap sombaon is necessary to bring the Tondi back. 2) Sahala is the soul or spirit of one's own power. Everybody has Tondi, but not everyone has Sahala. Sahala with Sumanta, luck or magic that of the king or the hula-hula. 3) Begu is the Tondi of people have died. It has the same behavior as human behavior, but turns up only at night. [Source:]

Batak Society

Batak societies and villages revolve around descendants of the village founder, who sort of play the role of aristocrats, and lineage mates in the form of wife givers (who have provided the descendants of the founders with wives and blessing for many generations) and traditional wife receivers (who marry the founder’s descendant’s daughters and provide the village with various services in return). Batak villages are ruled by a council of elders, chiefs (known as jajas), and chiefs councils in accordance with genealogical positions in founder’s lineage. They preside over ceremonies, preside over some judicial matters and are expected to set high moral standards for others to follow. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Unlike the Balinese, who have several different traditional group affiliations at once, or the Javanese, who affiliate with their village or neighborhood, the Batak traditionally orient themselves primarily to the marga, a landowning patrilineal descent group. Traditionally, each marga is a wife-giving and wife-taking unit. Whereas a young man takes a wife from his mother’s clan (men must seek wives outside their own marga), a young woman marries into a clan within which her paternal aunts live. [Source: Library of Congress]

The marga has proved to be a flexible social unit in contemporary Indonesian society. Batak who resettle in urban areas, such as Medan or Jakarta, draw on marga affiliations for financial support and political alliances. While many of the corporate aspects of the marga have undergone major changes, Batak migrants to other areas of Indonesia retain pride in their ethnic identity. Batak have shown themselves to be creative in drawing on modern media to codify, express, and preserve their “traditional” adat. Anthropologist Susan Rodgers has shown how audiotaped cassette dramas with some soap-opera elements circulated widely in the 1980s and 1990s in the Batak region to dramatize the moral and cultural dilemmas of one’s kinship obligations in a rapidly changing world. In addition, Batak have been prodigious producers of written handbooks designed to show young, urbanized, and secular lineage members how to navigate the complexities of their marriage and funeral customs.

Batak Marriage Customs

Among ordinary Batak marriage and clan alliances are very important. Groups are organized along these lines and have traditionally done field work together. Marriages often take place on a wife giver, wife taker basis between two lineages to form an alliance, often with one lineage being dominate over the other. To maintain the alliance ideally a man marries his mother’s brother’s daughter to fulfill an obligation began by his father. The marriage is often accompanied by elaborate exchanges of gifts such as textiles, livestock and jewelry. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Couples often live with the father’s family for a couple of years before establishing a household of their own. Divorce is frowned upon because it jeopardizes alliances. Household structures are filled with people coming and going from the villages to the cities. Rice fields, the most valued property, is handed down from father to son and sometimes given as a bridal gift. ~

Karo Batak Wedding

Describing the wedding between a German named Heinz and his Batal bride Merry, Danielle Surkatty wrote on “While each of the major Batak societies/tribes (Alas-Kluet, Angkola, Dairi, Karo, Mandailing, Pakpak, Simalungun, Sipirok, and Toba) are related, they have distinctive languages, customs and cultures. The traditional Batak homelands surround Toba Lake in North Sumatra. Merry Ginting is from the Ginting marga (clan) of the Karo Batak ethnic group, and her family ensured that the necessary wedding customs were followed, even though she was marrying a German national. [Source:Danielle Surkatty, Kem Chicks' World, September /^/]

“As most Karo Batak are Christian, a wedding ceremony in the church follows the two traditional ceremonies so the church can bless the union. The newlyweds usually dress up in western wedding finery, with an elaborate white dress and suit/tuxedo. The church ceremony must also be followed by a visit to the Civil Registry office to ensure the government legally registers the marriage. /^/

“The primary obstacle to Heinz and Merry's marriage was the Batak tradition that a Batak can only marry another Batak, so Heinz had to be accepted into a Batak marga. Since tradition further stipulates that a man may not marry a woman from his own clan, Batak grooms have to search among the other 451 marga for a wife. Fortunately, Heinz gives traditional uis nipis textiles to family representatives in the ceremony which will ensure his entrance into the Brahmana clan.non-Batak grooms can be adopted by a willing Batak clan and thereby marry a Batak wife according to tradition. /^/

“When the wedding reception is concluded tradition demands that the bride and groom must return to the groom's family home and reside for four days and nights, without ever leaving the home for any reason. This practice dates to ancient pre-Christian customs where the groom's family prevented the possible kidnapping of a reluctant bride by a thwarted lover. The elaborate ceremonies in a traditional Karo Batak wedding are filled with symbolic rituals and customs. These customs ensure the acceptance of the new union by their new families, establish the intricate relationships that will govern their lives and provide the opportunity for family members to extend advice and good wishes and give gifts to the happy couple. A Karo Batak wedding is a richly meaningful life-cycle event, enjoyed and celebrated by all the members of the families involved.”/^/

Before a Batak Wedding: Becoming Part of the Family

Danielle Surkatty wrote on “The marga is an extensive, complex system of relationships between Batak family members within the clan and between clans. Each person, dependent on their relationship to others through parentage, sibling relationships or marriage has their own place in the relationships between clans, represented by a specific term. Unweaving this web of relationships is difficult at best and near to impossible without hours of study of the various ways in which people are considered to be related. [Source:Danielle Surkatty, Kem Chicks' World, September /^/]

In Heinz's case, the adoptive family was the Brahmana clan of Merry's father's younger sister. Heinz's adoptive parents held a special ceremony to discuss and get their permission for this adoption from their related clan members. All clan members must agree, as the newly admitted son becomes their relative as well. As the Batak are patrilineal, the discussions were held between the male elders of the Brahmana family groupings which would be affected by Heinz's joining the marga. The family grouping representatives involved in this ceremony were the: 1) puang kalimbubu - the prospective mother in-law's clan (Tarigan); 2) kalimbubu - the prospective mother's clan (Ginting); 3) sembuyak - the prospective father's clan (Brahmana); 4) anak beru - all the women in the father's clan (Brahmana women). /^/

“Heinz sat with these family grouping representatives, and gave the symbolic gifts of a uis nipis (traditional ulos When the traditional uis nipis textile is placed around Heinz's neck, he is accepted into the Brahmana clan.textile), a parang (dagger) and money, in this case a symbolic amount of Rp 12,000. The men accepted the uis nipis, and put the textile over their shoulders. Discussions followed where Heinz and the family representatives discussed his joining the clan. At the successful conclusion of the discussions, the Brahmana family gave Heinz a uis nipis as a symbol of his acceptance into the clan. The textile was placed over his shoulders, and Heinz was then considered a son of his new parents and a full member of the Brahmana clan, with full rights and obligations, except the right of inheritance. As he was now a Batak, he could proceed with marrying Merry. /^/

Events Before Karo Batak Wedding

Danielle Surkatty wrote on “Heinz and his new clan members took part in two traditional ceremonies (pesta adat) to seek permission to wed Merry, the ngembah belo selambar (which means to bring a sirih leaf) and the nganting manuk (which means to bring a chicken). Heinz's new family went with him to the Ginting household to conduct these traditional ceremonies. As the prospective groom, the cost of the ceremonies was Heinz's responsibility. [Source:Danielle Surkatty, Kem Chicks' World, September /^/]

“Ngembah belo selambar opens with the giving of the traditional gift of kampil. As dictated by tradition, Heinz gave kampil to his sembuyak, kalimbubu, puang kalimbubu, anak beru and perbibin (maternal aunts). The kampil is a closed basket, which is woven from pandanus leaves. It contains the ingredients for smoking andThe first step in many Batak Karo ceremonies is the giving of kampil to family members betel chew . tobacco, matches or a lighter, sirih and other betel chew ingredients and small food items. The gifts are consumed as friendly conversation is enjoyed. When finished, the basket is returned empty and the ceremony can begin. /^/

“Discussions ensue between the two families . to determine if everyone is in agreement with the marriage, what the dowry will be, where the wedding will be held, how many people will be invited, what the wedding will cost, and who will pay for it. Men and women are separated during these discussions, with the men making all the decisions. Following the successful conclusion of marriage negotiations in the ngembah belo selambar, either on the same day or soon thereafter, the nganting manuk ceremony is held for the symbolic payment of the dowry. Traditionally, the prospective groom's family brings a chicken to the bride's house, as the name of the ceremony implies. Nowadays, the chicken is usually accompanied by a traditional meal. /^/

“The bride's family examines the dowry given to them by the groom and his family.The dowry is symbolic of the replacement cost of the loss of the female to the clan. The amount is determined by the bride's family and is the same for all the clan's women who get married. In the Ginting clan the amount is Rp 286,000. The actual dowry will be paid at the wedding reception to members of the bride's family. /^/

Batak Wedding Reception

Danielle Surkatty wrote on “Anyone who has ever been to a Karo Batak wedding reception can see that the Karo sure know how to enjoy a wedding party, which they refer to as the Kerja si mbelin (pesta besar), or big party. The Karo bring new meaning to the adage, “Eat, drink and be merry” as a good time is had by all attending family and friends. The wedding party enters the reception hall in a long processional with the bride and groom leading the way, - The bride and groom enter the reception hall in a procession followed by their families.followed by the bride's parents, the groom's parents and then the close family members, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The groom's anak beru throw rice in front of the couple, to symbolize fertility. As the procession reaches the center of the hall, it stops and the family members separate with the bride's family sitting on woven mats (tikar) on one side of the hall, and the groom's family sitting on mats on the other side of the hall, facing each other. [Source:Danielle Surkatty, Kem Chicks' World, September /^/]

“One distinctive feature of a Karo Batak wedding reception is that guests are seated on mats, not on chairs. After the dowry is paid, the bride and groom are dance the landek for their guests in the middle of the reception hallThe anak beru of the bride's family cross the room to offer traditional kampil gifts to the groom's family as a sign of respect, though they don't necessarily have to partake of the contents during the reception. The women of the bride's and groom's family then discuss the dowry that was agreed upon, and the groom's family pays the dowry to the members of the bride's family present at the ceremony. Even if they each receive Rp 500 or Rp 1,000, they feel compensated!/^/

The groom's family formally states that since they've paid the dowry they would like to assume possession of the bride. Both families stand and escort the bride and groom to meet in the center of the room, all doing the traditional As the bride and groom sing and dance for their guests, people come forward and drop money into the basket as a gift to the happy couple.landek dance. Since the dowry has been paid and accepted, according to Batak tradition the couple is now considered married. The families return to their respective sides of the room and the bride and groom are left dancing in the center of the room, with all eyes on the newlyweds. They dance the landek and sing to entertain their guests. As they sing and dance, family and friends come forward and put money in a basket at their feet as wedding gifts. The money is a modern custom and is not required by traditional customs (adat). /^/

“When the newlyweds finish entertaining their guests, they are accompanied by their families who dance the landek down the hall to the stage (pelaminan) where the bride and groom sit in a highly decorated setting with both sets of parents. In this instance, since Heinz was adopted into the Brahmana marga, his adoptive parents were onstage, as well as his actual brother and sister who flew in from Germany for the festive occasion. /^/

“After the family members are seated, the speeches begin. The first speeches are given by representatives of the groom's family, followed by the bride's family representatives. Both begin with speeches from their sembuyak, then the kalimbubu, and finally the anak beru. The newlyweds descend from the stage and stand before the various family groups as they give them advice on marriage, and how to maintain good relations with their in-laws and other family members. As the various family groupings come forward and the representative gives the advice to the newlyweds, anyone within that family grouping who wants to give a gift to the couple comes forward and does so. /^/

Batak Wedding Gifts and Dress

Danielle Surkatty wrote on “As in all traditional Indonesian wedding ceremonies, the wearing of elaborate traditional clothing is required. Heavy ornamentation with accessories and layers of various fabrics utilize colors and designs which are highly symbolic to the Karo Batak. The bride's heavy headdress is called tudung gul. The groom's hat is called bulang-bulang. The bride and groom Heinz Kathmann and Rose Merry Ginting in traditional Batak Karo wedding dressare both adorned in a variety of gold accessories, called emas sertali. These include earrings, necklace and bracelets. While solid gold heirloom accessories are lent to young brides by their female relatives, many modern brides opt for gold-plated accessories, as they are much lighter to wear. The solid gold accessories can weigh over 2 1/2 kilograms. [Source:Danielle Surkatty, Kem Chicks' World, September /^/]

“The traditional Batak ulos textiles used in the wedding dress are all called uis nipis. However, they have different, special names when used in wedding dress, dependent on where they are worn on the body. The uis nipis worn over Heinz's shoulders was the one given him during the ceremony to enter the Brahmana marga and is called langge-langge. The bride is wearing a sarong songket Palembang, and over that a red uis nipis which is called ndawa when worn wrapped around the hips in the wedding costume. The black textile that is worn by both bride and groom is called julu. /^/

“Traditionally, close family members give textiles to the couple. These include uis nipis, batik and other textiles,Family members give the newlyweds traditional textiles, which they wrap around the wedding couple as a symbol of togetherness and anticipated fertility which are closely wrapped around the couple's shoulders, bringing them close together, symbolizing the togetherness of marriage. A batik selendang is often wrapped around the couple as a symbol of hoped for fertility as the selendang will one day hold the children that will come from the union. These ritual gift exchanges between the bride-giving and bride-receiving sides of the families are believed to increase fertility in the marriage. /^/

“Another traditional gift is the luah berebere. These practical household items are given by the bride's maternal uncle's family (kalimbubu). They symbolize the setting up of the newlywed's household. Traditionally, luah Presentation of the traditional luah berebere gifts to the newlyweds from the bride's maternal uncle's family.berebere includes: mattress, pillows, sheets, dishes, glasses, silverware, an oil lamp, rice and bowls. In addition to the practical items, food is given which must include one chicken egg and two live yellowish-color hens, which symbolize fertility for the new couple.” /^/

Batak Homes and Villages

Some Batak live in small villages with only four or five houses. Others live in large villages with 100 to 200 houses. Some traditional villages have Great Houses (carved high-peak aday houses, where several clan-related families) but these days these are far outnumbered by Malay-style houses with metal roofs.

Traditional houses have thatch saddle-shaped roofs—that make the houses like as if they have horns—and timbers carved into graceful designs. The living quarters often is a large open space with no walls. Sometimes as many as a dozen families live in this area. Many have a distinctive trapdoor in the floor, large gable ends and buffalo horns.

Most traditional houses are built on stilts, up to two meters off the ground, and constructed of wood without nails using slots and twine. The roofs are made with sugar-palm leaves or corrugated metal. The gables often have carvings of horned lion heads, snakes, lizards or monsters with bulging eyes to protect the occupants from evil spirits. Animals are raised in the open space beneath the house. Rattan mats are often hung inside, giving the house a dark atmosphere.

Batak Culture

Even though the Batak live in a fairly isolated region their culture has been influenced by outside cultures, notably India. The Batak language originally had its own Sanskrit-derived script but now is largely written with the Latin alphabet. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Batak have a rich oral and written traditional as expressed in verse-form verbal duets, mythic chants, dirges and clan genealogies. Bataks music was traditionally performed at religious ceremonies. The Batak are known throughout Indonesia as good singers. They are particularly famous for their emotional hymn singing. Batak traditional instruments are similar to those elsewhere in Indonesia: copper gongs struck with hammers, reedy wind instruments and a two string violin. ~

The Batak have a reputation for being skilled metal craftsmen. They used to have elaborate rituals, carvings and dances. Masked dances once served as a way of communicating with spirits and ancestors but now they are mostly performed for tourists. “Sahan” (Batak medicine holders made from buffalo horn) used to have a high degree of spiritual meaning. Now are they made mainly to sell to tourists. They are still made with high degree of artistic skill. ~

The human-sized puppets are now used more in marriage celebrations than for funerals. The puppets are carved from the wood of a Banyan tree and is dressed in a traditional costume, red turbans and blue sarongs.. They are placed on wooden boxes and made to dance by puppeteers to gamelan music or flutes and drums. The origin of the art form is not known. According to one story it originated with a lonely widow who made a wooden image of her husband after he died and hired a puppeteer to make him dance and a mystic to communicate with the dead. ~

Toga Bataks

It has been said the Toga Bataks, who live on Samosir island in the middle of Lake Toga, hunted heads and ate their victims. Andreas Lingga, the director of the Batak Museum told National Geographic, "My grandfather said [the palm] was the most desired part. It wasn’t the sweetest, but the elders thought palm flesh had medicinal properties." Toga Bataks no longer eat human meat but they enjoy dog stew. Some of the headhunting and cannibalism stories are based less on reality than a desire to conjure up interesting stories for tourists.

Toba has a strong Christian tradition while southern Batak areas or more Islamic. Many of Christians in the Toba area love singing at church. The first missionaries to arrive in the Lake Toba area in 1834 were eaten because of their "Westerner's arrogance." A German Lutheran missionary who arrived in 1862 had more success. He converting the Batak after learning the Batak language and teaching the Bataks Christian songs.

The Batak Toba and Batak Simalungun tribes that live around Lake Toba. The large island of Samosir in the middle of the lake is The original home of the Toba Batak. Scattered around the island are traces from ancient times, including stone tombs and traditional villages, such as at Ambarita which has a courtyard with stone furniture where convicts were tried and beheaded. Tomok is famous Batak handicrafts such as distinctive red and black hand-woven shawls called ulos—that are still used today at important life-cycle occasions—rattan Batak calendar and woodcarvings. The lake itself is believed to be the dwelling place of Namborru (the seven ancestor goddesses). When a Batak tribe performs a traditional ceremony around the Lake, they must first pray for permission from Namborru.

The Toga Bataks made mystical augury books known as “pustaha”. Carved from bamboo and bark, they contained important historical records and provided instruction for religious ceremonies and rituals. Other books made from sacred bones and bamboo recorded myths.

“Horas” is the traditional Toba Batak greeting. It is delivered with much fanfare to visiting tourists.

Batak Cannibalism

Ritual cannibalism has been reported among Batak to strengthen a person’s Tondi. In particular, blood, heart, palms, and soles of the feet are considered as rich Tondi. As early as the 9th century, an Arab text mentions that Sumatra’s inhabitants eat human flesh. During his visit to east Sumatra from April to September 1292, Marco Polo said he met coastal people that described inland people as "man-eaters". Niccolò Da Conti (1395-1469), a Venetian who spent most of 1421 in Sumatra, wrote: "In this part of the island, called cannibals living Batech fight constantly to their neighbors”. [Source: +++]

The first Europeans to venture into Batak territory were missionaries, who began to explore the remote inland region in the late 18th century. Missionaries would send reports home of a fierce and defiant local society with frequent mentions of cannibalism. Today anthropologists believe this was a rare form of capital punishment that may have seemed more common than it actually was as many Batak kept the bones of their tribal ancestors which may have been mistaken by outsiders as grisly trophies.

In 1820 Thomas Stamford Raffles studied the Batak and their rituals, and laws regarding the consumption of human flesh. He stated that: "One thing that is common where people eat their parents when too old to work, and for certain crimes a criminal would be eaten alive ...The flesh eaten raw or roasted, with lime, salt and a bit of rice". The German physician and geographer Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn, visited the Batak lands in 1840-1841. Junghuhn say about ritual cannibalism among the Batak (which he called "Battaer"). He said in a a friendly Batak village he was offered the meat of the two prisoners who had been killed the day before. +++

Oscar von Kessel visited Silindung in the 1840s and said he observed the ritual cannibalism in which a convicted adulteress and eaten alive. Von Kessel stated that cannibalism was regarded by the Batak people as an act of law, and its application was restricted to a very narrow range of crimes: namely theft, adultery, espionage, and treason. Salt, red pepper, and lemon were given by the victim's family as a sign that they accepted the decision and would not take out revenge. +++

Ida Pfeiffer visited the Batak in August 1852. Although he did not observe any cannibalism, he was told that: "Prisoners of war were tied to a tree and beheaded at once, but the blood is carefully preserved for a drink, and sometimes made into a sort of pudding with rice. Body parts are then distributed: ear, nose, and feet are the exclusive property of the king, in addition to a claim for some others. Palms of the hands, feet, head meat, heart, and liver, is a typical dish. The meat usually is roasted and eaten with salt. The women were not allowed to take part in a great public dinner ". +++

In 1890, the Dutch colonial government banned cannibalism in the area of their control. Rumors of Batak cannibalism survived until the beginning of the 20th century, and it seems likely that the custom had been rarely performed since 1816 due to the influence of religion in society Batak migrants. +++

Batak Cannibalism a Myth?

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." Research by Professor Masashi Hirosue, of Rikkyo University in Tokyo suggests the image of "Batak cannibalism", or "anthropophagy” was created. [Source: Professor Masashi Hirosue Rikkyo University, Tokyo,, "European Travelers and Local Informants in the Making of the Image of “Cannibalism” in North Sumatra" published in Japan in 2005 in the academic journal "The Memoirs of the Toyo Bunko", |=|]

Hirosue wrote: “North Sumatran coastal rulers, their entourages and local chiefs were the primary sources of stories about "cannibalism" among the inland people. The north Sumatran case suggests that by means of "cannibalism" rumours, coastal rulers were better able to control local trade with foreign merchants by frightening them out of making direct contact with inland people. Then after those coastal rulers were subjected to European colonial rule during the nineteenth century, it was inland chiefs who took up the campaign to advertise "cannibalism" among their villagers, for the purpose of appealing to foreigners the importance of their role in mediating between foreigners and the local "cannibals"." |=|

Marco Polo visited Sumatra, but stayed in coastal ports, never traveling inland. All his stories were provided by local informants: "Polo was so fearful of "cannibals" among the inland people that he stuck to the coast and even constructed defensive fortifications there. However, in due course the local people came to trust the visitors. Polo was unable to verify the existence of "man-eaters". Before arriving at Samudra, he also refers to inland "cannibals" in the north Sumatran port of Perlak, where, according to his account, some of the coastal inhabitants had just become Muslims." (Hirosue, 2005)

Coastal rulers created rumours to stop foreigners from making direct contact with the inland people and monopolise their position. Hirosue wrote: "No matter how widely the rumours of "anthropophagy" spread among foreign travelers, coastal rulers guaranteed their safety while in the ports under their jurisdiction. Those travelers who were reluctant to come into direct contact with inland people for fear of "cannibalism" chose to stay in the coastal entrepots, like Marco Polo, who even constructed bulwarks to protect himself. It was in this way that coastal rulers played a crucial role of intermediary between foreign visitors and the inland people...In order to attract foreign visitors, coastal rulers needed to make close connections with the inland people nearby to guarantee a steady supply of forest, mineral, and food products...It was in this way that the ruler of Pasai on the coast became a mediator between the inland Sumatran world and the Islamic world, not vice versa." |=|

At the same time, it appears that coastal rulers didn't want the inland people making contact with the foreign travelers, and probably portrayed foreign travelers as dangerous, diseased, slave-hunters: “An agreement was made between the chiefs of the hinterland nearest to Barus and the first king of Downstream Barus concerning the intrusion of outsiders, to the effect that they would fight against all enemies from the sea, except the Malay people, and from the inland, except the Batak people. To the hinterland people, foreigners were very dangerous beings, because they often brought in sickness while hunting them as slaves. The Barus case suggests that the coastal ruler took responsibility for defending local hinterland people against outsiders from the sea in return for a stable supply of hinterland commodities and the defense of his rear." |=|

This created a symbiotic relationship between the coastal rulers and inland people: "This is the social context within which stories of "anthropophagy" became very important for both the coastal rulers, who needed constant supplies of inland products and the hinterland people who needed to defend themselves against intrusion by outsiders. As a matter of fact, rumours of "cannibalism" tended to be more rampant in areas such as north Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, where geographically foreigners could have made contact with inland people more easily, as compared to south Sumatra and Java, where hinterland people generally lived far away from the coast." |=|

Reports of Batak Cannibalism During the Dutch and British Colonial Periods

Batak chiefs understood that Europeans feared the reputation of inland Batak cannibals, and so created stories as evidence of their credentials as "genuine" Bataks: Professor Masashi Hirosue wrote: "In 1823, the English East India Company sent J. Anderson, a staff member at Penang to north Sumatra in order to expand British trade networks...He was welcomed by a powerful Batak chief, who, according to Anderson, held authority over twenty villages...The chief spoke to Anderson in fluent Malay with a friendly tone...Anderson asked the chief about the custom of "cannibalism" in the area. The chief then ordered a villager to bring the skull of a victim whom he said had been eaten six days previous. Anderson was strongly impressed by the chief's explanation that the corpse had been devoured in about five minutes. However, the chief graciously offered to play an intermediary role in any further relations between the Company and the Batak "cannibals." [Source:Professor Masashi Hirosue Rikkyo University, Tokyo,, "European Travelers and Local Informants in the Making of the Image of “Cannibalism” in North Sumatra" published in Japan in 2005 in the academic journal "The Memoirs of the Toyo Bunko", |=|]

They even claimed cannibalism in the name of capitalism: "In 1824 Lieutenant-Governor of Bengkulen, Thomas Stamford Raffles, sent two Baptist missionaries to Silindung in the hinterland of Tapanuli, in order to make direct contact with the inland people. The two missionaries were welcomed by a local Batak chief who occasionally visited Tapanuli for trade and invited them to stay in his village.....They also had occasion to ask the chief about whether or not he had eaten human flesh. The chief replied that he and his villagers had executed and eaten the twenty robbers who had occasionally attacked traders between Silindung and Tapanuli the year before, suggesting that his form of "cannibalism" was being done in a righteous effort to defend the trade economy." |=|

When Dutch began appointing Dutch-educated Bataks as local district chiefs, there was no more role for the intermediaries, and stories of cannibalism lost their power: Hirose wrote: "Furthermore, from about 1915 on, the colonial government began appointing to the posts of district and assistant district chief (demang, assistent demang) Batak officials who had been educated at the Training School for Native Chiefs or had been working directly under Dutch colonial officials, giving them positions above the local Batak chiefs...The Batak chiefs who had played an intermediary role between the local people and the Dutch began to be removed from the important political scenes and were transformed into mere messengers of the colonial government. Finally, after the Dutch put the Batak region under their control, the colonial government prohibited "cannibalism," which consequently passed into the realm of Batak historical tradition...The basic reasons for the disappearance was...the loss of the intermediary (informant) status held by Batak local chiefs and their replacement by colonial district and sub-district chiefs who were allowed make direct contact with local people in the performance of their duties. As local chiefs lost their importance as mediators, their stories about "cannibalism" lost their meaning." |=|

Similar stories occured in similar contexts around the world "It is also interesting that the same type of rumours once flourished in other areas, like Latin America, Africa and Japan (in the later part of the thirteenth century, according to Marco Polo in a historical context similar to Sumatra. These other areas were also well-known for precious mineral deposits, and there were also locations where it was generally difficult for foreigners to directly trade with inland producers without some local intermediary." |=|

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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