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Batak Houses
Traditional community houses

Most main roads which run through the Batak highlands, date back to the Dutch colonial time and the settlements along the roads are not traditional. Batakvillages used to be built far away from main roads for security reasons. The Karo villages, for example, were located on high mountain edges, surrounded by steep cliffs, which causes them to be defendable very well. People who want to see the traditional villages should leave the main road to visit the more desolate areas.

However there are many regional building styles, most Batak houses do have certain features in common. They are all square, wooden structures on pillars, with high roofs in a point. The space inside is open and unfurnished, and was traditionally used by several families at one time. The front does usually have a balcony or a veranda for storage anf for guests; pets like pigs and buffalos live in an open space under the house.

All earlier houses were traditionally covered with fibres of the arenga-palm, which also gives palmsugar and palmwine. The walls and pillars were decorated and painted with symbolic motives. The boraspatini tano or lizard, a luck- and fertility symbol of the God of the Earth, was favorite. The very important sopo or riceshed is just across the house.

Howadays much has changed. Modern one-family houses of concrete of masonry, not on pillars, are the most commonly built, while the ijuk-roofs of the older houses has been replaced by corrugated iron. In most Batak areas the traditional houses are in fact all gone However there are still good examples to be found.

Karo- and Simalungung houses

Traditional Karo houses were built and used by eight related families. Each of them had a living space of about 5 sq.metres, located around four burning places. Many older houses are still in use, however the residents are not related to eachother all the times, since the original residents often rent their 'appartments'.

Old Karo houses are to be found in the villages around Kabanjahe. The village of Lingga for example now is a tourist place. The houses are queued. Most of them date from the 1930's. Since the independence no new houses are built anymore, and their number is declining because every year one or two just collapse because they are not maintained anymore.

A remarkable brand of the Karo houses is that they don't have a clear front or back side, but two identical entrances, reachable by a bamboo platform. In some very old houses, a big wooden trench separates the floor in two. The trench was used for litter, but also had an important place in ceremonies.

The only decoration is a big trialgulair piece of the front wall made out of bamboo, with the date of the house on it. The corners of the houses can be decorated with geometrical patterns, meant to scare away bad influences.
Traditional houses always had a rice shed, but these are not used anymore, since rice is now kept in plastic bag in the house itself. In some ricesheds an extra sleeping room is created for the young men, which are not allowed to sleep in the family house anymore when they entered puberty. Nowadays these boys sleep in empty houses and the rice sheds are used for playing chess and talking, especially in the warmer, more western Karo areas.

Old Simalungun houses are simple, except the ones that belonged to the raja's. These are built just like the Karo houses. The living areas of the raja are located in the front half of the house and can be reached by a wooden stairs. His women lived at the back with their own rooms, but a central entrance. There are only two authentical royal Simalungun houses left, one in Hutaraja and the other one in Purbatongga.

A third in the neighboring Pematang Purba was built in the 1930's as new residence for the head of Hutaraja. Especially in Hutaraja there are still many old houses, a visit to this village (about five kilometres norths of Pematang Purba) gives a good impression of the Simalungun villages in the hightimes of the plantations.

Toba- and Mandailing houses

The Toba villages are the most traditional of all Batak villages. Normally they are rather small, with eight to ten houses in rows across eachother. In between is the central main street, used to dry rice and other products, and which is crowded during the annual village festivities (mostly in June and July). Compared to the giant Karo houses, the ones of the Toba Batak are modest. There used to live four families, which is hard to imagine, seen the size of the houses. Nowadays there is one family per house which is usually decorated with furniture like chairs and tables.

The Toba houses do have a characteristic veranda with a wooden stairs in front. Very old houses had a hatch which could be closed rapidly whenever enemies appeared. The front of the house stretches further than the back side, and under that is an open gallery. During festivities, an orchestra is located here which guides the ceremonies that take place here.

The houses are usually decorated beautifully with very nice woodcarvings, usually with geometrical or cosmis motives like the 'tree of live' which reaches into the sky. Oracle animals are also shown, like the singa (lit. 'lion' but it means 'the stylized head of a mythical being'). Just like the gaja dompah or elephant-figure it is probably influenced by the Hindu-Buddhist makara, a compiled monsterhead which decorated old temple entries.

The location of a singa at the corners of the house used to be done with special ceremonies and festive dinners, like people want to mark the moment when the house was brought to live. It seems thathuman skulls were added to the singa, tied up with grass, to give extra power to the house.

Typical Mandailing houses can still be found in the far away villages of Simpang Banyak Jae and Simpak Banyak Julu in the area of Kuta Nopan, in the far south of the province. These houses look like the Karo houses, but every house is lived by only one family. On top of the roofs are metal decorations, and under the influence of the nearby Minanbakau houses some houses have a gallery.

Across the hous of the village head is a house where nine drums can be found which are used during festivities. A raised floor is used as seat for the head during special events; four beautiful wooden statues mark the corners.

Last revised on December 17, 2011
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