Batak Land

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
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Trip End Oct 06, 2013


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Where I stayed
Toledo Inn

Flag of Indonesia  , North Sumatra,
Thursday, June 28, 2012

We had experienced the Karo Batak culture in Berastiga and now on the volcanic 'island' of Samosir we were set to see the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in Toba Batak culture. Samosir used to be connected to the surrounding lake wall by a small isthmus, but that was cut through to aid boat navigation so I guess that, technically, it is an island- that's important because it makes Samosir the largest island-within-an-island as well as the fifth largest lake island in the world (DH thinks these titles are the work of an enthusiastic tourism department, but in much the same way she regularly regals me with tales of her glory days on the Toronto Police Service, everybody/everything needs a claim to fame!). Lake Toba itself is the product of what is described as the largest volcanic explosion in the last 25 million years (it's mystifying that anyone could make a claim like that but apparently science has determined that the Toba eruption took place some 70,000 years ago- outside of Dave B, most of us are a little too young to remember that- and a 6 inch ash layer covered all of South Asia with Malaysia showing evidence of a 30 foot ash coating, global temperatures were altered by 3 degrees C for several years, and a planet wide die-off occurred). Given that Lake Toba lies near the Great Sumatran fault, activity continues to this date with a 7.3 earthquake hitting in January of this year.

Batak is a collective term used to identify a number of ethnic groups predominantly found in North Sumatra, but the only group that seems to 'own' the label are the Toba Batak. Although ostensibly Christian, it seems to be a flexible Christianity with a significant minority of Bataks still practicing their old quasi-animist beliefs. And as with many of the traditional tribes of SE Asia that we've encountered, ritual cannibalism is well documented among Batak people (performed in order to strengthen the eater's internal soul- in particular, the blood, heart, palms and soles of the feet were seen as rich in life-soul). And, with striking similarities to the Toraja of Sulewasi, death is treated in an almost cult-like fashion. It is thought that when the life-soul vanishes the death-soul continues to exist and lives near their previous dwelling. Bad dreams, and misfortune may be signs that the ancestor is not satisfied with the behavior of its descendants. Any individual can attempt to pacify an enraged dead-soul by means of food and drink offerings, and prayers. After dying a further 7 times the death-soul eventually becomes earth.

The one thing that was a real head-shaker for us was that the mausoleums housing the dead were usually much nicer than any of the homes the individual lived in while alive (made very obvious because they often sat side-by-side). This would be strange in any circumstance but given the hand-to-mouth existence for many of the Batak people, it just doesn't seem right or fair. Batak burial traditions are very rich and complex- immediately after death various ritual actions are performed to make the dead-soul understand that from now on its world is separate- symbolically this is done by reversing the mat on which the corpse is laid out so that the body lies with its head at the foot of the mat. While being carried to the grave the corpse is put down at any crossroads   and eleven people go around it four times to confuse the dead-soul so it will be unable to find its way back to the village. When buried, care is taken that the head lies towards the village so that, in the unexpected event that the body should get up, he or she will not be looking in the direction of the village!! How often does that happen!! Maybe it's not that strange- I used to try and ensure that my Directors offices faced away from me so that when they awoke suddenly from one of their many naps, I didn't have to see it.

And just to keep the fun going, there is also a reburial ceremony in which the bones of ones ancestors are re-interred several years after death. The bones of a particularly honored ancestor and those of his descendants are exhumed, cleaned, mourned and finally laid to rest again in a 'bone house'. We got ourselves invited to one of these bone-cleaning ceremonies but arrived after the exhumation process- we did get to see the start of the 'party' with guests arriving with offerings contained in tall thin baskets carried by the women on their heads.

As part of the fixation on death, the Toba Batak people of northern Sumatra have also created sophisticated puppets (si gale-gale) controlled by a complex system of internal strings and levers that allow them to move in a lifelike manner. Si gale-gale formerly played a crucial role in some funerary ceremonies. If a person died childless, a si gale-gale was created as a substitute to perform the necessary funerary rituals. When in use, the puppets are mounted on the front end of a long, flat box through which the strings passed, allowing the puppeteer, who sits behind the box, to control the puppet from some distance, giving the illusion that the figure is self-animated. Deftly manipulated by the puppeteer, the si gale-gale is able to perform all the required dances and ritual protocols for its deceased 'parent'.

Altogether, the various rituals, beliefs, and practices seemed to make for a life that was inordinately consumed with death/after-life but, for us, it made for a fascinating couple of days.

We also got to see some traditional Batak dance performances, and explore a traditional area that was used by Batak royalty to judge the fates of prisoners brought before them- the most gruesome section was where the prisoners would be tortured at length before being put to death (and yes...eaten). A couple more weddings and a lake boat ride and our time was up.
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