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17 November 2009
The Batak                   

- The history and western discovery of the Batak
- Social and political life
Religion and rituals
            * The beliefs
            * Tondi and begu
The objects of the priest: the datu items
- The Death
- Synopsis of the exhibition

            * The Workd of the Dead
            * Singa
            * Musical instruments
            * The Toba House
            * Enclosing the world
            * Weapons and associated objects
* The datu items
            * The protection
- Bibliography



The history and western discovery of the Batak


Writing a comprehensive history of the Batak is impossible. Although the Batak have a writing system, there are no local written sources on the history of any Batak group. The script was only used by priests for ritual purposes. Much historical information is lacking and will probably never be regained from obliviance. Archaeological evidence is also scarce, since only little research has been done in the area. Compared to the large amount of literature on Javanese Hindu Buddhist remains, our knowledge of the past of Sumatran cultures - including the Hindu Buddhist past – is shamefully limited. In South Sumatra the search for evidence of the powerful empire of Srivijaya (6th and 7th century AD) led to quite some attention of archaeologists for the area, but in North Sumatra such, partly political, incentive for more research on the past has never existed. Therefore a systematic approach is lacking.




The pustaha are books in beaten bark protected by wood plates: there are inside the crowned texts and the magic receipts that only the datu could read. The elements related to the supernatural world in the beliefs batak are described in the pustaha.

© musée du quai Branly, photo Patrick Gries, Valérie Torre, 70.2001.27.370.






From the few sources we have, I will try to give a picture – however incomplete - of the history of the Batak. We know that the Batak, in particular the southern part of the Batak area, have been influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism in the 11th century AD. Quite a few Hindu temples (17) have been found in the Mandailing region, but again no detailed research has been done. After some of the temples had been discovered as early as the middle of the 19th century, by Junghuhn (1847) and also reported upon by Von Rosenberg (1878), it took until the 20th century before a serious scientific report was written, by P.V. van Stein Callenfels who travelled through the area in 1920. A curator of the museum in Palembang, F.M. Schnitger (1936, 1937, 1939), also wrote about the Hindu remains in the Batak region, dating some of them in the 6th century. Schnitger’s reports are interesting because they are one of the few sources on this subject; not because they are so good and thorough. His research methods were far from modern. He mainly wrote about the temple remains near the village of Bahal (calling them Bahal I, II and III), the nearby Pamoetoeng, and the temple of Sangkilon further south. Some other remains are mentioned as well and recently another temple has been discovered nearby (Candi Pulau). Bahal I is richly decorated with Hindu motifs. An attempt has been made to renovate it, but in the coarse of history probably many statues and other objects have disappeared. In the Handbook of North Sumatra (Bangkaru 2001: 352) it is explicitly mentioned:

The temples are very interesting but, alas, in a sad state due to lack of funding and interest amongst central authorities. Padang Lawas is too far from Jakarta. According to information, most of the many statues and artifacts that once were found have been taken away, partly for museums and storage, but also theft for private collections. This has happened both during the Dutch period and afterwards. Some temples have been renovated but, due to inappropiate renovation, valuable artifacts have been destroyed, especially at Candi Bahal I.

Schnitger’s style writing gives an idea on how quickly far reaching conclusions were formulated. After having described a violent ritual scene, in which a human being was killed and offered to the Gods (he clearly writes about something that took place in the past, but he does not mention the source of this information), he continued (1939: 95):

Usually this horrible ceremony terminated in the company of women. It is not difficult to recognize in such rites the influence of Batak religion. Before the arrival of the Europeans, cannibalism was quite common among the Batak. … Finding the demonic image of the woman at Pamoetoeng is sufficient proof too, that this greatest sanctary of Padang Lawas was dedicated to a horrible buddist demon.




Small pot with perminaken where the magic substances prepared by the datu were displayed. Chinese ceramics, the cambered back of the female figure assembled to the Amazon on a singa. The bent language is engraved by small scales. A head of buffalo emerges from the posterior of the animal.

© musée du quai Branly, photo Patrick Gries, 70.2001.27.401.1-2.



The local population is not very familiar with the Hindu/Buddist past. They are said to have arrived in the area only five generations ago and when they arrived the region was uninhabited. We can suspect, however, that the Hindu and Buddhist temples were built by the people of the Panei empire, already mentioned in Chinese texts in the 6th century. In the 11th century there was also a large Tamil community living in Barus, along the West Coast, a very lively old trading community. There was probably no direct link between the Tamil in Barus (quite far from the Mandailing area) and the Hindu and Buddhist temples mentioned above, but the scarce facts we have of that period show that both the coastal areas and the interior have been involved in extensively relationships with other areas; both in and outside Sumatra.
A clear proof of the Hindu/Buddhist influence in the Batak region is the writing system, used to help the priests to perform their rituals. The script is derived from Old-Javanese and indirectly from Sanskrit. It probably arrived in North Sumatra in the period in which the Buddhist empire of Srivijaya was dominating large parts of Sumatra.

When the first Europeans arrived in what is now called Indonesia, the Hindu/Buddhist empires were still functioning. However, we hardly find useful information in the early reports. Apparently the world these early European travellers – it is said that Marco Polo was in Barus in 1233 - entered was so different from what they were used to, that they were mainly focusing on the strange and bizarre (in their eyes) aspects of the cultures they encountered. Reliable ethnographic information was virtually lacking. This started to change, slowly, in the 18th century. Gradually, western knowledge on the Batak increased, but it was a complicated process of about 150 years of travelling, mission activity, European competition (between England and the Netherlands) and, above all, colonial expansion. Many Batak resisted to the increasing influence of the Europeans in their regions. Travellers were blocked by the local population, were forced to return, and it took until 1853 before the first white man succeeded to see Lake Toba; the area seen by many Batak as the place of origin of all the Batak groups. This story of hostile and friendly encounters, of resistance and acceptance, fear and respect is summarized by C.M. Pleyte in three articles (1895) in the Journal of the Geographical Society. In the text below, I will mainly follow Pleyte’s description and Tichelman’s additions (n.d.).







Musée du quai Branly. "In Northern: the Batak".
© musée du quai Branly, photo Antoine Schneck





The story of the European discovery of the Batak starts with Portuguese involvement in the area (Reid 1995). There are some travel reports from the 16th century of Portugese visitors in North Sumatra. However, these reports were superficial and large time gaps occurred. In 1772 two Englishmen Giles Holloway and Charles Miller visited the Batak. Holloway was a colonial officer in Tapanuli and Miller served as botanist in the English East Indies Company. In those days European control over Sumatra was still very limited and the English were still competing with the Dutch over who would finally add the island to its colonial empire. In fact the Dutch state was not yet involved in straightforward colonialism. It was still the epoch of the Dutch East Indies Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC) and earning money by trade activities was considered to be more important than exercising political and military control over an area. However, the presence of the English on Sumatra (an important stronghold in Bengkulu) no doubt stimulated a Dutch interest in the island; particularly in the North, with the independent Aceh and the other – English – side of Strait Malaka so near by.

Holloway and Miller reported on two issues that were to become recurring themes in the discovery of the Batak region. Firstly, they reported on cannibalism since they saw a skull, hanging in a house, of a man who had been killed and eaten a few months before. Secondly, they were misled by Batak guides and were lost for some time before they could find their way home. The issue of cannibalism occurred in many early accounts of encounters with the Batak. None of the travellers had ever seen a ritual in which a human being was killed, but the local people told them violent stories of cannibalism; probably to frighten the curious Europeans. The second point also shows that the Batak were not at all eager to led the white men come in their region, since they deliberately misled visitors. In Miller’s diary one finds the following remark (cited in Marsden 1966) about the fact that the expedition was led so far South: ‘to prevent their seeing a particular kampong (village, PtK) of some consideration at the back of Tappanuli’. Miller probably means the village of Bakkara, the seat of Si Singa Mangaraja, an important Batak ruler. He and his descendants would succeed to keep the English and the Dutch out of the Central Batak area for nearly a hundred years.

The first contact from the North, with the Karo and the Toba, occurred about fifty years later. In 1820-1823 John Anderson travelled through the Karo area to the Toba and succeeded to collect some valuable information, particularly about the Toba. He found some Malay people living on the coast of East Sumatra and, what he called, Karau-karau dominating the lowlands and the highland plateau (Kipp 1990: 59). The people practised slash-and-burn agriculture, using the fields to grow crops such as rice, vegetables, pepper, sugar cane and bananas. Some of these crops were used as trade goods. He did not meet any resistance and even had the impression that the local people were in favour of more contact with the newcomers. A year later Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, at that time Governor of Bengkulu, sent two missionaries to the Toba region. The two missionaries tried to reach Lake Toba, but were stopped by a crowd of ‘unfriendly’ people. This was the last English attempt to get more knowledge of the interior of Sumatra. In 1824 a treaty between England and the Netherlands arranged the power struggle between the two colonial powers. The Netherlands would get control over Sumatra, including the difficult Aceh region (North of the Batak), and the English would get the whole region Northeast of Strait Malacca. A new treaty in 1871 arranged matters further.










Ornament of datu bag. Its shape is a head of singa stylized which represents a decoration of lines, spirals, braids and " diamonds" motifs. It is possible to insert a chain to the ring. Four small rings are indeed visible inside the singa.
© musée du quai Branly, photo Patrick Gries, Valérie Torre, 70.2001.27.413.




The 1820s and the 1830s were periods of a series of violent eruptions known as the Padri Wars. Militant Muslim groups from the Northern Minangkabau region conquered the southern Batak region and forced the Mandailing and the Angkola to accept Islam. It is said that an attempt had been made to do the same among that Toba, but this time unsuccesful. Large parts of Sumatra were unsafe for many years, therefore this part of the 19th century remains to a large extent a mystery; at least for European explorers. Two American missionaries, who approached the region from the West coast in 1834, were killed. It would take until 1840 before the Dutch colonial authorities could continue with the exploration of the Batak region.

In 1820 the Dutch King William I, who wanted to stimulate scientific research in the Dutch colonies, founded the Natural Science Committee. Until the end of the 1830s the Committee organized several expeditions in the Dutch East Indies and in 1840 it focused its attention to Sumatra. The German Natural Scientist F.W. Junghuhn (1809-1864) was asked to explore the Batak region and, if possible, Lake Toba. This marked the beginning of a long period of western scientific interest in the region and consequently a growing body of knowledge about the different Batak groups. In fact, October 2 1840 can be seen as the formal beginning of this process. On this date Junghuhn arrived in Tapanuli to commence his work. One of his assistants was a fellow German, the young Baron Von Rosenberg (1817-1888) from Darmstadt. Von Rosenberg would travel through the archipelago for more than thirty years and would produce a large amount of articles on the various aspects of his work. His most important work is Der Malayische Archipel (1878), in which a lot of attention is given to his early work among the Batak. Junghuhn published, in 1847, his Die Battaländer auf Sumatra. Although he succeeded to collect interesting information, Junghuhn never reached Lake Toba. He was probably deliberately diverted to other directions and because of the resistance of the local population even had to give up his trip prematurely. Junghuhn even denied the existence of Lake Toba and claimed that the stories about a large lake in the interior of Sumatra refered to another lake called Eik Daho or Eik Mankara.

Von Rosenberg would follow in Junghuhn’s footsteps; first in Sumatra and later in other parts of the Dutch East Indies. He was the one who collected one of the oldest known Batak magic staffs (tunggal panaluan), now in the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (National Museum of Ethnology) in Leiden and registrered as RMV 79-3. It is often not very clear how Von Rosenberg collected and where exactly he acquired the objects. His publications about the Batak leave many questions unanswered, which is not an exception for mid-19th century reports.




Detail of the oldest magic cane of the tunggal panaluan collections. The rhythm of its composition alternates human figures and  fantastic animals covered by scales. Gift of Mr. Harmsen to the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro in 1885.

© musée du quai Branly, photo Patrick Gries, 71.1885.3.21.



The next major step in the Western discovery of the Batak region came in 1853. The Dutch Bible Society had sent, in 1850, a young student, H. Neubronner van der Tuuk, to the coastal settlement of Barus with the assignment to study the Batak language, in order to translate the Bible into the local language. At first, Van der Tuuk had little success in his contacts with the Batak, but in 1853 he felt strong enough to attempt a exploration of the interior and to search for the mysterious Lake Toba. By that time it was already clear that a lot of the resistance against Dutch expansion came from the Valley of Bakkara, where the Toba leader Si Singa Mangaraja ruled. He was described as the priest-king, but the Dutch had no idea where his power was based on and how powerful he actually was. Van der Tuuk decided to go to Bakkara and to meet Si Singa Mangaraja. In that valley, close to Lake Toba, Van der Tuuk was met by thousands of armed warriors from various districts in the Toba area. He was prohibited to continue and the warriors threatened to kill him. The gifts Van der Tuuk took for the priest-king were not accepted and the atmosphere remained extremely hostile. Finally, after aggressive negotiations, in which Van der Tuuks assistents had to threaten with a complete war of the Dutch against Si Singa Mangaraja, the people of Bakkara allowed the Dutchman to return to the coast. During the return trip the expedition was again threatened by local people.

Despite the aggressive way in which Van der Tuuk was received in the Valley of Bakkara his trip was considered to be a success, since he had seen – as the first European – Lake Toba; the sacred area of origin of the Batak. It remained difficult, for many years, for Europeans to approach Lake Toba, but the first step was set and there was no way back. Gradually the Lake was mapped by geographers and the population came more and more in contact with the European intruders. In 1860 the German ‘Rheinische Mission’ (a Protestant mission organization) got permission from the colonial authorities to establish itself in the Toba region and pioneer missionary Nommensen arrived in Tapanuli in 1861. He founded a mission post in Silindung, at that time still an independent region and Christianity started to spread among the Toba. Naturally there was also resistance. Again the main opponent of the European expansion was Si Singa Mangaraja. In 1877 he threatened to attack the Christian community in Silindung and this was used as an excuse for the Dutch authorities to send the army in. Bakkara was conquered in 1878 and the area was brought under political controll of the Dutch. Sri Singa Mangaraja, however, escaped and it took the Dutch until 1907 before they could finally neutralize the power of the Si Singa Mangaraja dynasty. In that year the then-ruling priest-king and two of his sons were killed during a military expedition under the command of Captain Christoffel.


The story of the German mission among the Toba, with Nommensen as the first missionary, was in many ways a success story. By the end of the 1860s the missionaries succeeded to convert a large number of Toba to the new religion. The history of the mission among the Karo Batak was an entirely different story. Rita Smith Kipp (1990) has published a fascinating book in which she tells the story of the Dutch protestant mission among the Karo. Before summarizing her work, however,  some remarks on the exploration of the Karo region in the period before the arrival of the missionaries have to be made. Since Anderson’s trip (mentioned above) not much had been undertaken before 1865. In this year there was military activity against the Sultanate of Asahan, on the coast, and in the Sultanate of Deli the Dutch ‘controleur’ (J.A.M. van Cats baron de Raet) moved to prevent the Malay leaders from blackmailing the Karo who lived more inland. This gave Baron de Raet access to the Karo region. In December 1866 and January 1867 De Raet travelled through the Batak area in the north and became the first European to reach Lake Toba from that direction. He even crossed the Lake from the North to the Southwest. In 1870 ‘controleur’ C. de Haan explored the Karo region, accompanied by the Sultan of Deli and photographer C. Feilberg. Everywhere they came they were well received and De Haan had the opportunity to make many notes about Karo culture. His report was for a long time the best source about the Karo.



Group of karo warriors photographed by Feilberg who explored the Karo region in 1870. The photographs of Feilberg are the oldest one taken of the Karo.

© Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden, Inv a13-2.




During the same period, in the 1870s important economic developments took place in the Deli region (the East coast of Sumatra). These developments would influence the culture of the Karo Batak fundamentally, although it would take decades before all the consequences would be visible. Around the Sultanate of Deli Dutch businessmen started to exploit the soil by founding tobacco plantations. This would prove to be a very lucrative business and the city of Medan thrived. It developed from a relatively small, unimportant settlement into a busy evergrowing city with many colonial style buildings. The Dutch founded the Deli Company, meant to coordinate the activities of the plantation owners. The land for the plantations was obtained from the Sultan of Deli and he was very well paid, since he could afford to build a new palace after some time. Until now the Karo, who lived further inland, were not very much affected by what was going on in the coastal area. Ground politics, related to the plantation companies, was considered to be an affair between the Malay and the Dutch. This situation changed when the plantations expanded and wanted to use the soil that was located more inland. It occurred that land owned by Karo families was bought from the Sultan. The Sultan was paid for this transaction, but the Karo did not receive any compensation for it. The Karo idea of ownership was completely foreign to the Dutch, so nobody of the plantation owners had any idea of what was happening. Under these circumstances it should come as no surprise that the Karo did not react very enthousiasticly when the Dutch moved more and more inland.

In the 1890s the Dutch Protestant Mission moved in. Kipp (1990) gave a detailed account of the circumstances under which mission activity among the Karo began. She mentioned extensively the problem about land ownership, mentioned above, and she analized in detail the way the Deli Company and the mission were connected. In fact, business men in Medan had urged the Nederlandsch Zendelingen Genootschap (Dutch Missionary Society) to start working among the Karo for a variety of reasons. One reason was that they hoped that the Karo, with a convertion to Christianity, would become more inclined to work on the plantations, since untill then the Karo showed a deep dislike for working for the Dutch companies. As a consequence the plantatation owners always had to use the limited workforce of the Malay people or to import labour (mainly Chinese coolies). A second reason, probably more important then the first one, was that the Dutch feared too much influence of the Islam so near by a, economically, very important region. This fear was not unfounded. The Padri Wars were still recent and one of the tangible results was that the Mandailing had already been converted to Islam. This Southern Batak region was already considered to be lost for Christianity. North of the Karo the Dutch were engaged in their longest colonial war, where it appeared to be very difficult to control the independent Islamic state of Aceh, including the surrounding Gayo and Alas regions.

A leading figure in the world of the plantation owners, J.T. Cremer, asked the Dutch Missionary Society to send one or two missionaries and to convert both the lowland Karo and the Karo living on the plateau to Christianity. In addition, he offered to raise the money to make mission involvement (salaries, material costs etc.) possible for three years. After an evaluation it would be decided to continue or not. The board of the missionary society had its doubts. Acceptance of Cremer’s offer would mean a great dependence on the planters, who clearly had less noble feelings than the missionaries. To refuse the offer would mean to miss a ‘God-given’ opportunity to bring the gospel to a haithen people. After receiving the garantee that the business men would not intervene with mission politics, the board accepted. In April 1890 Hendrik Kruyt, the first missionary destined for the Karo, arrived in Medan.

The development of the protestant mission in the Karo region is a story of great difficulties, of misunderstandings, of complex personalities and of differences of opinion with the planters, with the government and among missionaries themselves. In a way, the mission involvement can be seen as a failure. In 1904, when the Karo were annexed in the Dutch colonial empire, the Karo mission could report only 130 converts, scattered over several communities; indeed not a very impressive result (Kipp 1990: 226). On the long run, however, the mission was succesful. In the 1930s, just before the Second World War, there were about 5000 Christian Karo, but the great successes came when there were no longer Dutch missionaries in the field. When the Japanese occupied Indonesia the Dutch missionaries were taken prisoner. The Karo, although there were no trained people available, took over the mission posts and founded, in 1943, the independent Karo Batak Protestant Church. Again two decades later, the Karo turned massively towards the Protestant Church. Afraid of being accused to be a communist, Christianity seemed a good alternative.



Detail of a raja or datu toba pipe decorated with face of singa. The pipes are the most impressive works of the bronziers toba. They belong to the objects of prestige that have the raja and the notable ones. They can measure until to 120 cm and weigh several kilos. Taking into account their weight, the furnace rested on the ground.

© musée du quai Branly, photo Patrick Gries, 71.1880.73.47.             







Both the people of the ‘Rheinische Mission’ and of the ‘Nederlandsch Zendelingen Genootschap’ have contributed enormously to our knowledge about, respectively, the Toba and the Karo. J. Warneck’s publications on Toba religion are indispensible for anyone interested in the Toba. J.H. Meerwaldt, a Dutch missionary working for the Rheinische Mission in the Toba region, published two landmark articles on the Toba. M. Joustra, one of Kruyt’s successors, contributed much to our understanding of the Karo. Apart from the increasing mission involvement, the growing influence of political authorities also produced many important publications. C. Westenberg was a ‘controleur’ in the early years of mission involvement among the Karo, but he occcupied a unique position as intermediar between the Karo and the colonial government. His article of 1892 remained important for many years. G.L. Tichelman, also a ‘controleur’, wrote many good and readable articles. And, of course, there were the scholars working usually in the service of the mission or the government. Neubronner van der Tuuk’s work is very important, as well as the publications of another linguist P. Voorhoeve.

Some of the people mentioned in this chapter about early European contacts with the Batak also collected artefacts. Each of them is worth a separate case-study. Von Rosenberg, Christoffel, Neubronner van der Tuuk, Cremer, and many others, contributed to the collections of the museums in Leiden, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Jakarta, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Cologne, Antwerp, to mention just a few old collections. So far, these Batak collections, and the related documentation, have not yet been studied satisfactory. Many fascinating issues remain open for further research. The historical context, in particular the colonial situation and the way this influenced the collecting activities, should be an integral part of such research.





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