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Introduction to North Sumatra

Northern Sumatra, with it's colorful and ethnically mixed population, is after Java, the most crowded province in Indonesia. Currently it has over 11 milion inhabitants and that overshoots Kalimantan or Nusa Tenggara. Dynamic Batak, Malay, Javanese, Indians and Chinese created a big variety of modern and traditional Indonesian culture.

The economy, which has been based on plantation for a long time, has now been expanded with the big Asahan aluminium project and multiple service-companies, and belongs to the strongest in the country. Tourism thrives mainly on the picturesque beauty of Danau Toba and the Karo highlands, and it just being overshadowed by Bali and Yogyakarta.

The province has two important ecological zones - a fertile, swampy plain in the east with mainly plantations, and a central vulcanic chain of mountains (Bukit Barisan) which was formed 70 milion years ago by tectonical movements. The western part does also has a small coastal plain and a chain of low-populated islands at the coast, of which Nias is the most known.

The proud of Sumatra Utara is Danau Toba, which was formed about 100,000 years ago during one of the most powerfull vulcanic eruptions known to human kind; a tremendous disaster, which caused a layer of ashes of 600 metres to fall down. About 30,000 years ago, a new series of explosions formed a new vulcano inside the old one. The hole that was formed by these explosions nowadays measures 120 by 45 kilometres. To compare: the famous eruption of Mount St. Helens (1980) left a crater of only 2

The explosion caused the area around Danau Toba to become an ecological border. Spiecies like orang-hutan, other monkeys and 17 kinds of birds can only be found north of this area, while the tapit and others including 10 kinds of birds can only be found south of the border. Probably a big desolated area remained after the eruption, in which not many animals could live, or could cross.

The Batak, now one of the biggest populations in Indonesia, arrived in the highlands about 3 to 4 thousand years ago from the Phillippines and Borneo. About probable earlier inhabitants, nothing is known. Following Toba legends Si Raja Batak was the mythical ancestor of all Batak people, he descended on Gunung Pusuk Buhit (1981 metres), a vulcano on the western banks of Danau Toba. Nowadays there are six groups of Batak living around Danau Toba, who distunguish themselves with their languages and habits. Their habitational areas border eachother.

Europeans got knowledge about this very big lake reasonably late. Marsden, which spend eight years in Bengkulu at the end of the 18th century, heard rumours about is. Two British missionaried, Burton and Ward, spend a week in the Silidung valley in 1824, but were probably kept out of the way of the lake on purpose, which is considered sacred by the population.

The first European to see Danau Toba was the excantric Dutch linguist H.N. van der Tuuk, in 1853. Two missionaries from Boston, Lyman and Munsen, were less fortunate. In the beginning of the 1860's they accidentally killed a Batak woman during hunting, and they were simply eaten.

The Batak highlands only came under Dutch rule in the first years of the 20th century, so the European rule only lasted a few years, until the Japanese occupation in 1943. It is accepted that the Batak were very primitife and isolated before these times. Schokking reports from the early literature tell that they are fierce headhunters, cannibalists and warriors. This image is kind of misleading. The Batak didn't only have their own writing and a higly developed culture, but also seemed to have early and long lasting trade contacts with eachothers and the outside world.

The Dairi-area west of Danau Toba around Sidikalang for example, used to be a rich area of benzoe, a kind of incense that has been asked for for as long there are people, and which is used for ritual purposes. For a long time this was an important export product and it is still being exported from Tarutung to Java. Ratten from the mountains is also popular, and Samosir, which was famous because of it's cloths, produced pottery for the markets.

Little is known about the early history of the Batal highlands, because hard archeological evidence does not excist. However, splinters of Soeng, Juan and Ming pottery proove that several Karo villages like Siberaya and Tiga Panah, had trading contacts with foreigners ever since the start of the second millennium. Stories from the Karo suggest that well-armed Indian traders came to the area centuries ago, and in 1925 a bronze Krishna-statue in Tamil style was found near Ajibuhara on the Karo plateau.

Furthermore there are similarities between Dravians and the Sembiring Sinyombak, a Karo bBatak clan. They wanted to ged rid of the dead body after the big Pe'kualuh ceremony. The Sinyombak are not allowed to eat dogmeat, but there is no clear reason for that; a legend says that an ancestor was saved by a dog. Possibly the prohibition was taken from the Tamils, which came here for camphor and benzoe.

The Sinyombak Karo have interesting family names like Berahmana, Culia, Depari, Keling, Meliyala, Panya, Tekang and Mukham, which all have something to do with Southern Indian dynasties or castes, and probably they got here through the contact with Ayyavole, a Southern Indian trading guild which appeared on Sumatra Utara in the 11th century.

The Ayyavole belonged to a guild of Indian traders which possessed their own temples, priests and armies, and which operated over the political borders. They provided cloths, incense, medicinal and ritaul merchandize to the rulers. Along the western coast of Sumatra Utara, near Barsus, is a Ayyavole-inscription from 1808. Other traces of Southern Indian origine were found in the Karo names of the villages like Lingga, Cingkem and Kubuculia. A small Batak group, the Pardembanan, also seems to have strong Indian signs. The group lived between the river Silau and the river Asahan, but has now fully asssimilated with the Simalungun Batak.

In the Padang Lawas-area, 200 kilometres south of Medan, some impressive remains of temples from the hindu-buddhist Panai-culture can be found, the most important is the masonry biaro in Bahal, close to Gunung Tua, which was founded between the 10th and 14th century. Here too are traces of trade with Northwestern India and China; one village is named Senamandala, after the ruling dynasty of Bengal and a marga or clan is named Daulay, after a city in the Indian district of Orissa.

The Batak always gave much value to magic. So there are many stories about orang jadijadian, men which could change themselves into tigers whenever they wanted to. These stories connect with the prooves of all kinds of Buddhist practices from archeological remains.

Before the Indonesian independence the different batak groups stayed in their own ancestral areas. Around the turn of the century the Dutch eventually annexed the karo highlands and in 1908, the first road through the area was built. The Karo are now mainly converted to christianity and some to islam; a number still holds strong to the old pebegu animistic religion. The Toba were christianized by Dutch and German missionaries at the end of the 19th century, while the Mandailing and Angkola were converted to the islam by strong religious Minangkabau warriors during the Paderi ware from 1816 until 1837.

Nowadays christian and islamic populations live together, united by the strong power of adat, strongly influenced by old relational ties. The total abcence of order and power after the Japanse occupation causes a mass exodus from the highlands towards the fertile, mostly uninhabited eastern coastal plains, and many Batak are now scattered all over Indonesia as teachers, civil servants and businessmen, and they use the new economical chances which they have never had before.

Last revised on November 10, 2011
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