Chapter 4, Part 26
By the 19th century, the coastal regions of northern Sumatra were strongholds of Muslim sultanates, from Aceh – where the first Islamic kingdom in the Indonesian archipelago was established – to Deli which is now part of the city of Medan. Deep in the mountainous interior of the island, however, lived the Batak people who for centuries had managed to keep their unique faiths and customs without any significant interference from outsiders.
Since the first contact was established between the outside world and Batak communities, they had always been reported as a cannibalistic society who were keen on devouring the flesh of their elders who could no longer work, sucked the bone marrow of other humans, and waged continual wars on their neighbors. These accounts were chronicled by the likes of Marco Polo who visited Sumatra at the end of the 13th century, and Niccolò de’ Conti, a 14th-century merchant from Venice who also explored the great empire of Vijayanagara in southern India. However, later Europeans who made contact with the Batak people elucidated this horrifying practice being limited to punishing convicts who perpetrated serious crimes.
When much of Sumatra was part of the Netherlands East Indies, which took over the colonial possessions of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) following its dissolution (as the British Raj did to the East India Company), Christian missionaries began coming into the archipelago in the 19th century. The land of the Batak people was one of the focus regions for missionary work in Sumatra, which not only aimed to abolish cannibalism among the people, but also to create a buffer zone between the staunchly Islamist Aceh to the north and the equally conservative Minangkabau to the south. But proselytizing the gospel to the Batak people proved to be too difficult to some, for even two American Baptist missionaries fell victim to the cannibalistic practice themselves. Nevertheless, in spite of the apparent danger, Dutch Calvinists successfully introduced Christianity to the Karo community – one of the six main groups in Batak society. Meanwhile, German Lutherans, led by Ludwig Ingwer Nommensen, were credited for reaching out to the Toba and Simalungun communities – two other main Batak groups.
The Toba people, named after the world’s largest volcanic lake created by a massive eruption of a supervolcano some 70,000 years ago, are native to the regions surrounding the lake as well as Samosir, an island in the middle of the lake. With a land area slightly smaller than Singapore, the island has only 3% of the city-state’s population, and a much slower pace of life than the busy economic hub. Today, the once animist community of Samosir which were divided into smaller groups with their own belief systems is largely Christian.
From the village of Tuk-Tuk on Samosir, where most hotels are located, James and I head south to Tomok which was once the realm of King Sidabutar – believed to be the first person to settle on the island. At the heart of the village is the king’s tomb, adorned with a larger-than-life head and two figurines below it and at the back of the tomb. Not far from the graveyard is a museum which houses a collection of Toba Batak artifacts. A vendor outside the museum tries to persuade us to come and buy souvenirs at her stall, which I politely decline.
“How could you do this to me?” she says, followed by a series of giggles from her and other vendors nearby. The Batak people are not known for being shy indeed.
To the north of Tuk-Tuk is another village which belongs to a different community that once practiced a different belief to the one observed by the people in Tomok. The village of Siallagan is known for Batu Parsidangan, “Trial Stones”, where wrongdoers were tried, with some ending up being eaten as a punishment. The cannibalistic practices have long been abandoned, but a set of stone table and chairs at the far side of the village provides a glimpse of how it was carried out in the past.
Further north on the island is the village of Simanindo, where a daily performance of Toba Batak traditional dances has been put on by the locals for years. As the performers enter the open-air stage – basically the central field of the village with a small tree as a focal point – I instantly recognize their faces. They are the same people who performed during my visit to the island three years earlier. But looking at them for the second time, it is evident that this has become a routine for them, making me wonder whether the next generation will even consider replacing them given the modest income these people receive from the performance.
In the eastern hills across the lake is the land of the Simalungun people, who prior to Dutch colonial rule consisted of scattered minor kingdoms. At Pematang Purba, a former capital of one of these small realms, stands a Bolon house – the king’s residence – as well as other more modest structures which are the vestiges of the kingdom of Purba. Inside the long house, crosses are juxtaposed with buffalo skulls and Batak patterns, a reminder of this community’s deeply traditional lifestyle despite having embraced Christianity. The house served as the palace of Purba until 1947 when the kingdom was completely absorbed into the newly-born Republic of Indonesia.
At the northern side of the lake, Sipisopiso waterfall drops 120 meters to a rivulet below, making it the highest in Indonesia. Beyond the picturesque scene lies the land of the Karo people who speak an entirely different language to their Toba and Simalungun counterparts. With Mount Sinabung puffing out thick white smoke in the background, the local residents of the Karo village of Lingga seem indifferent and carry on with their daily activities despite the looming threat from the long-dormant volcano which has come back to life in recent years. No one is at the village’s ‘Tourist Information’ post, but as soon as we snap some photos of the traditional houses, a man approaches us and quickly begins to explain Karo culture.
“The house at the end has only one family left, while inside the second house live eight families consisting of more than 30 people in total.” He says this while I’m trying to figure out how they manage to get their own space in such a cramped structure.
“One kitchen serves two families,” he adds as we enter the second house through a narrow door. “People from different faiths are welcome to live under the same roof, just like the Karo community itself, comprising Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and animists.” He clearly seems proud of this harmonious tapestry.
Our impromptu guide further explains that in the past boys had to leave the house and gather at a communal place to learn how to play the flute. Once a boy was ready, he would play the flute near the house of the girl of his dreams. If she liked him, she would open the window, signaling that the feeling was mutual.
The Batak people, despite a general perception (among other Indonesians) of being rough and straight-talking, are also known for their penchant for music. A Batak friend from college once told me that a Batak man has to be able to sing, or play any musical instrument, or both. And here I am, under the cloudy skies of the Batak heartland with Mount Sinabung’s unpredictable temper, a testament to the character of the people themselves: rough but with beautiful edges.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.