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Tanah Karo
Green plateau in the highlands

Tanah Karo or Karoland, the homeland of the Karo Batak, is an extraordinary fertile plateau in the centre of the vulcanic Bukit Barisan, south of Medan. It has a surface of about 5000 and is being surrounded by high peaks. The northern border rises steel from the densely forested area's about 50 to 60 km from the coast, while the southern border just touches the banks of Danau Toba.

This green plateau already serves as Sumatra's vegetable garden for quite some time. With the construction of a road to the backlands in 1908, local crops like coles, corn, carrots and potatoes were introduced, and the Karo farmers started to grow vegetables to produce food for the fast growing population.

Irrigation systems that were built by the Dutch were maintained after the independence and were extended, and little agricultural areas on Sumatra are as productive as these highlands. The juice of the markisa (passion fruit) which is produced here are famous all over Indonesia.

The heigth of the plateau varies from 700 to 1400 metres, which causes it to be fairly cool throughout the year, with temperatures between 10 and 28C. The area is dominated by two active vulcanoes: the Sibayak (2094 m) in the north, near Berastagi, and the Sinabung (2451 m) in the west, both ejecting steam continuously. However the steep and rough wall that separates the plateau from the coast makes travelling to the area difficult, this area has been a meeting point for traders for a long time.

The 'first arrived'

The Karopeople, which call themselves as merga silima 'five clans', form a clear cultural unity with their own language, history and tradition. Legends speak about the fact that they were the earliest inhabitants of this area; their name really means 'the first arrived'.

However some early European scientists reported if cannibalism among the Karo, they never were cannibalistic, however they might have looked a little unconventional, and had their own unconventional habits. Filing their teeth and painting them black only dissappeared around the start of the 20th century, this combined with their red-stained lips from sirih, they probably got their frightening look from.
About 300,000 Karo live on the plateau, and at least as much outside the area. Already several centuries ago, the karo settled in the neighboring hills and the coastal plains. Since the 1950 many Karo have moved even further from their original lands, towards Medan, Jakarta and other metropolitan areas.

The Karo villages in the highlands are much bigger than those in the lowlands (they are also bigger than most Toba Batak villages), due to fertile, vulcanic soil. Early European travellers reported villages of no less than 3,000 inhabitants, which formed federations by family and descendance. Skirmishes between villages were common - even among villages in the same federation. The villages were located high, on the edge of a cliff, surrounded by soil walls and fences of sharp bamboo.

Every village in the highlands was autonomous, with each their own leader. In the 19th century some lowland Karo lived under the rule of Malay sultans along the coast, but the highlanders in the mountains didn't accept any foreign rule, until the area was occupied and conquerred by the Dutch in 1904. Before that Aceh also tried to get influence over the area, and they also tried to convert the Karo to the islam, but without much success.

Characterising Adat houses

The traditional adat houses of the Karo - with their open grounds in which eight related families live under one bended roof, covered with ijuk - is a microcosmos of the traditional Karo community. The most common groundplan does have four fireplaces, which are shared by two families each. A central gangway, with two fireplaces at both sides, leads to two doors. In these big spaces without dividing wall, the daily live happens, in front of the neighbors eyes. However they are related, every family does everything on it's own and their pets run just everywhere.

The remarkable big roofs which are decorated with triangular sashes and buffalo-horns, dont serve a clear job, but they take care of smoke by a lack of shimneys, but also offer space to rats, bats, lizzards and very much insects. The black heirlooms, tools and other objects are above the fireplaces on the roof pillars.
Smaller structures with the same roof design are used as grane sheds or contain bones of important ancestors. In the past, every village had a mens house where the men gambled, smoked and rested, and where the young men who were ready for marriage slept at night too. Nowadays many villages do still have a los, a stay for ceremonial events.

Too bad there are only a few traditional houses left. During the revolution the Karo better burned their villages than leave them for the Dutch, and after the war the one-family houses became more popular.

Marriage-givers and marriage-receivers

As well as among other Batak populations the ascendance among the Karo is given through females, however not the village, nor the house belong to the family. Every new born child belongs to one of the five Karo clans (merga silima). Marriage within the clan is prohibited, even if there is no blood-relation.

The marriage relations in a family are as important as the clan relations from ascendance, just as among other Batak difference is made between marriage-receivers (anakberu, those who take daughters of others into the family) and marriage givers (kalimbubu, which give their daughter as bride to the other family). The first enjoy a lower social status than the last.

The marriage receivers can be asked for ceremonial events, while the givers are seen as honoured are protectors, supernatural 'visible gods' who have influence on fertility, health and wealth. A traditional household had to consist of three relational groups, as well as the own family group as both kinds of relations through the marriage. The clam-combination of the Karo villages and houses is very mixed because of that.

The Karo considder their environment as a community of related people, through marriage as well as descendance. When two Karo meet eachother for the first time, they always ask eachother a number of standard questiond to be able to construct their relational construction.

Neighbors or strangers, all Karo speak to eachother by their family names; first names are hardly uses, accept for children or as an insult. The Karo, which do not acknowlegde king and only pay respect to their relatives, believe in communal equality. The submissiveness and the rich etiquette of many other Indonesian people are not known to the Karo.

Religious pluralism

The first Dutch protestant mission arrived in Medan in 1890, on demand of European planters. The mission was restricted to the hills near Sibolangit at first, but after the Dutch annexation of the highlands, it was moved to Kabanjahe. In both cases no success was made, probably christianity was too much compared with the hated colonial rule. During the Japanese occupation, just a handfull of Karo were converted. The Dutch were just gone, when an independent ethnical church developped, anf the Karo converted in big numbers.

Nowadays the Kato community is religiously pluralistic. About 60 to 70 per cent belongs to one of the christian churches, of the remaining 40 per cent, over 50 per cent is muslem; the rest still practices the traditional Karo religion. This aims at the spirits of ancestors which appear in remarkable natural events, like vulcanic eruptions, and on good and bad spirits which either protect or bring illness, death and bad harvests.

After a funeral, during seances that last until after sunrise, female medeiums work together with the spirits of the house to save the souls of the deceased. During this ceremony, this is called erpangir (lit. 'washing hair'), normal people get possessed as well, dance extatic and demand special food.

The old Karo pebegu (believe in spirits) demanded very special honor for the souls and remains of the deceased. After an initial burial, the bones of the honored ancestors are excavated after an appropriate time, washed carefully and ritually displayed in geriten of skull houses.

The most ceremonies in Tanah Karo have a seculiar character these days, whether this is christian, islamic or traditional, they take place at the beginning or the end; in the period between people eat, discuss about heirlooms and dance. Weddings follow about the same pattern. A christian couple can marry in the church in the morning and hold a traditional party wioth dances in the afternoon. These dances are done by a group of men and a group of women who opposite eachother. With bend knees and on the pass of a giant brum, the dancers slowly move their arms and legs.

At funerals the related people wear clothes of the deceased to strengthen the grieve of the others; the dancers ought to cry openly. They are also trying to look for contact with the deceased by poets. Weddings and funerals still are important for celebrating communai relations. They mirror the wealth of a family, the importance and social network, and can be postponed for years, until there are enough resources to pay it all. Until the real wedding or burial is done, a family feels like owing something to the others. It's possible for a family to bury all people in a grave, but reburial after a number of years with a big celebration and a big party will follow.

Since the 1950's the Karo have aimed strongly on education. Currently there are over 2000 graduated (on a population of 600,000), an exeptionally high number for an ethnical group. Young Karo visit universities all over Indonesia, after which they settle in cities. They only return to their homeland for funerals, weddings and supplying money for the construction of the impressive concrete graves which can be found more and more in Tanah Karo.

Last revised on December 17, 2011
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