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The Batak
Many small groups form a population again

The Batak, a colorful and notoriously forthright and aggressive people, inhabit a cluster of spectacularly beautiful and fertile volcanic basins at the northern end of the Bukit Barisan range, focusing around Lake Toba, with the huge island of Samosir at its center.

There are about six million Batak, more than half of them live in the highlands surrounding Lake Toba, divided in a number of distinct Batak societies, each with its own language, style of ceremonial dress and traditions. These are generally grouped under six separate ethnonyms: Karo, Sitalungun, Pakpak, Toba, Angkola and Mandailing.

The six different Batak groups on a mapDespite their geographic isolation, the Batak had regular contact with the outside world. The first clear historical reference to the Batak comes in the 13th century, when the Chinese geographer Zhau Rugua mentions the name Ba'ta, a location on the northeast coat of Sumatra.

The first account of the Batak in English was by Charles Miller, the East India Company botanist at Bengkulu, who visited Batak country in 1772 in the company of Englishman Giles Holloway. They wrote: They have no king, but live in villages absolutely independent of each other, and perpetually at war with one another: their villages they fortify very strongly with double fences of camphor plank pointed, and placed with their points projecting outward, and between their fences they put pieces of bamboo, hardened by fire and concealed by the grass, which will quickly run through a man's foot.

In his detailed account of the Batak published in 1783, William Marsden as tounded his readers with the paradox of a cannibalistic people who possessed a system of writing. Warfare was endemic and hostilities were formally declared. Prior to colonial rule, Batak villages were fortified with earthen and bamboo walls. The villages consisted of 6 or 7 houses, at least one council house (sopo) and a skull house. Batak houses were built on piles above the ground. The interior was open and quite barren of furniture. At night mats were let down to provide privacy. Open hearths produced a constant fog of smoke, which in the absence of a chimney was forced to find its way out through the thatched roof.

Like the Toraja of Sulawesi, who share the same ancient heritage, the Batak house was divided into three levels symbolizing a three fold division of the cosmos (the underworld, the earth and the upper world). Animals were kept below the house (where they warned against attacks), people lived in the middle and sacred heir­looms were hung under the eaves. Important items were kept in the sopo: the skulls of slain enemy, magical writings incised on bark, and the bronze drum which summoned villagers to feast or council.

Traditional Batak religious beliefs were influenced by Hindu-Buddhist ideas, but as in Bali these rested on an older Austronesian substratum dating back some 5,000 years, The Toba universe was divided into three. The upperworld, which had seven levels. Andwas the home of gods, the middle world belonging to humans and the underworld which was home of ghosts and demons. A high god, Mula jadi Na Bolon (the Creator) was a remote, mythical being who had a fabulous blue chick­en for a wife and did not concern himself much with human affairs.

Ancestors protect and receive honor from meat-sacrificing communities of descendant, called bius. Batak medical theory focuses on the condition of the soul. The soul of a healthy person is 'hard' and remains firmly in place. Illness befalls someone who has been starded, causing the soul to flee the body. By ritual means, a shaman calls the wandering soul home again. and thus cures' the patient.

Karo shamans (guru),were both men and women, although male guru tended to have a higher status. Women guru were often spirit mediums as well as healers. The Toba, shaman (dukun) usually male, was instrumental in communicating with spirits, both good and evil, and was second only to the village chief in importance. He was consulted before undertaking, war or the harvest.

Starting in the early 19th century, the southern Batak began to face increasing pressure from. the neighboring Minangkabau areas to convert to Islam. This culminated with the Padri War (1816-1833), when southern Batak succumbed to the burning and looting of West Sumatran Muslims who aimed to spread their faith and control the gold trade. The war pushed as far north as the Toba region, but not many Tobanese converted to Islam.

All of the Mandailing did, however, and most of the Angkola, and these southern groups began to renounce the name Batak and to dispense with their traditional clan names. Karo who the East Coast similarly converted to Islam. and began to consider themselves Malays. In the past, Batak and Muslim were exclusive categories, although today Batak Muslims are better able to reconcile their religious and ethnic identities.

The Batak were an early and obvious target for Christian European missionaries and today the Toba church is the largest in Indonesia. Benefiting from early mission schools, the Toba moved rapidly to fill positions as teachers, medical technicians and office clerks in the post colonial order. As a result they remain disproportionately represented in government and in careers requiring education.
Traditional Batak fabrics

Woven fabrics (Toba ulos, Karo uis) play an important role in traditional Batak society. They are used not only as clothing, but as important gifts presented on ritual occasions to symbolize and reinforce the bonds existing between related groups of people. The need to exchange traditional fabrics at ceremonies such as weddings, births and funerals is indeed the main reason such cloths continue to be produced today, though one can also see them being worn by village women as shawls or head covegs.

In some areas, weaving has long been a full time occupation practiced by viliage women who accept commissions from traders and merchants in towns.One area where such commercial weaving continues to be practiced is along the northwestern shores of Lake Toba, in the so called sitelu huta ('three villages') namely Tongging, Paropo and Silalahi. Although the women of sitelu huta are themselves Toba Bataks, they do not normally produce traditional Toba textiles. For generations they have instead produced fabrics for Karo Batak clients to the north, who had more money to spend on their traditional fabrics and jewelry than the Tobanese.

The patterns woven for the Karo depend on orders, but also on the individual preferences of the weaver. Some older weavers refuse to work with synthetically dyed yams. Toba weavers in Kabanjahe tend to be older than their counterparts in the homeland villages around the lake, and they tend to produce more traditional patterns. Today, however, many of the fabrics produced here employ nontraditional dark red colors, a style of coloring emanating from the Simalungun area. These colors have been popular among the Karo for some time now, and younger Karo often do not even know that their own traditional fabrics; were once exclusively dyed with indigo blue.

The Toba women in Kabanjahe also weave their own traditional sitelu huta village patterns. Some of these they sell, others are kept aside for theit-own use, to be distributed among family members after their death.There is now even an increasing demand for machine-woven fabrics that reproduce traditional Karo motifs using gold and silver threads instead. of the traditional dyed colors of indigo and red.

The Simalungun Batak

The Simalungun (or Batak Timur, 'East Batak') occupy the highlands between Lake Toba and the east coast, today a key plantation region with huge estates producing palm oil, rubber, cocoa and tea. The area is traversed by a 100 kilometer stretch of the Trans­Sumatra Highway leading up to Parapat via Pematang Siantar. The Simalungun and the Karo have much in common, Indianizing traits in their dialect, religious practices and script. The Simalungun were, however, originally reputedly cannibals, whereas the Karo were not

The major Simalungun marga or clans care distinct from those in the other Batak areas: namely Damanik, Sinaga, Saragih and Purba, Islamic influence is strong in areas adjoining the coastal Malay settlements. By the early years of this century, the rajas of Purba and Raya invited Rhenish missionaries into their territories. In 1907, the rajas signed the Korte Verklaring (a short statement) of submission to the Dutch, and in 1908 a colonial administration was established in Pematang Siantar.

Last revised on November 26, 2010
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