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ETHNONYMS: Batak subsocieties include Angkola-Sipirok, Dairi-Pakpak, Karo, Mandailing, Simelungun, and Toba


Identification. The Batak subsocieties are closely related, rapidly modernizing ethnic monority groups whose rural home regions are in the rugged highlands and plains near North Sumatra's Lake Toba. The word "Batak" may have originally been an epithet used by Muslim lowlanders to refer to the mountain peoples in a derogatory way, as "primitives." Today the term is much less stigmatic and is used in some subsocieties, such as the Toba, as an everyday ethnic designation. Some of the groups along the borders of the Batak regions (e.g., Karo, Mandailing) eschew the label "Batak" in favor of their subsociety designations. Although the Batak societies share close dialects and similar social structural patterns, they never have had any significant political unity. During Dutch colonial times they were loose tribal confederations, with some chiefdom formation in border areas. Ethnic boundaries shift often and ethnic identity is labile. Today, with large numbers of city migrants and greater political power in multiethnic competition, many Batak are reemphasizing their Batak ethnic character, and inventing "ancient Batak village traditions" through their use of the mass media and by staging lavish rituals.

Location. The Batak home regions surround Lake Toba in North Sumatra, spanning the large highland region between the Acehnese and Gayo-Alas peoples to the north and the Minangkabau to the south. The home regions include heavily forested mountains, now crosscut with passable roads, and wide, fertile plains, laid out into rice paddies and grazing land. The Batak farm areas straddle the Bukit Barisan, Sumatra's main northwest-southeast mountain chain. North Sumatra has a distinct rainy season (September-December) and a pronounced hot, dry period (May-August).

Demography. North Sumatra had a 1989 population of 10,330,091. Most of this population is Batak, with smaller numbers of Javanese, Indonesian-Chinese, Acehnese, and Minangkabau. There is also a large Batak diaspora population in multiethnic cities such as Jakarta, Bandung, and Surabaya. Many Bataks moved to Javanese cities in the 1920s and 1930s for employment as clerks, teachers, and newspaper writers and editors (the Bataks were one of Outer-Island Indonesia's first deeply literate peoples). This migration pattern has continued, augmented by Bataks from poorer families seeking jobs in the army and transportation.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Batak dialects are Western Austronesian languages closely related to Malay, Javanese, and Tagalog. The Toba, Angkola, and Mandailing dialects are quite similar and mutually intelligible, while Karo, Kairi-Pakpak, and Simelungun are generally not understood outside their home areas. No Batak language is mutually intelligible with the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, although the latter is widely known throughout the Batak home regions. Batak languages have a conversational level and a more esoteric oratory level, used in adat (ancient custorn) ceremonies. Genres of speech here include verse-form verbal duels, mythic chants, dirges, and clan genealogies. Literacy in the Latin alphabet is widespread (introduced in Dutch colonial public schools and mission schools, beginning in the 1850s in Angkola and Mandailing). There was also an old Batak script, a syllabary based on Sanskrit-derived court-writing systems from west or south Sumatra. Little used or even known today, the Batak script was once a runic code for divination and spells, for village priests.

History and Cultural Relations

Despite the relative inaccessibility of the highlands, the Batak groups have been deeply shaped by influences from neighboring cultures. Many words for Batak political leaders and religious concepts show Indian influence, as do Batak divination and astrological lore. Border areas such as Karo and Mandailing model their traditional political systems on the nearby state societies, Aceh and Minangkabau. Islam was introduced to the southern Batak lands from Minangkabau in the 1820s, on the eve of the Dutch incursion into the area. By the 1850s, they had established a civil administration in the southern Batak areas, a region they hoped to use as a buffer between Muslim Aceh and Muslim Minangkabau. The Dutch gradually extended their control northward through Toba, encountering armed resistance from the charismatic warrior chief, Sisingamangaraja XII. By 1910 all Batak areas were under Dutch control, schools had been established in Toba, Angkola, and Mandailing, and missionary Christianity was thriving in Toba. By the 1920s, literate Batak had established a cosmopolitan city culture of newspapers and book publishing in Medan and Sibolga; writers were turning their attention to nationalist and anti-Dutch concerns. North Sumatra was occupied by the Japanese from 1942 to 1945. Since the Indonesian national revolution of 1945-1949, the region has remained an economically vital part of the Indonesian state. Owing to population pressure on over-used farmland, out-migration to cities continues.


Village size varies greatly by subsociety: some Toba rice-farming villages have only 4 or 5 houses, while some Mandailing and Angkola villages have 100 to 200 houses. Market towns dot the highlands too, serving as hubs for large numbers of mountain villages. In Karo and Toba, some traditional villages remain, with Great Houses (carved, high-peaked, adat houses, for several families linked through clanship and marriage alliance). More common today are Malay-style houses, divided into rooms and roofed with zinc, not thatch. Throughout the Batak areas the "complete" village is both a small model of the cosmos and a replica of the entire social order, with all its requisite interlocking parts. These consist of the village founders and their close lineage mates, their traditional wife givers (who have provided the founders with brides and blessings over many generations), and their traditional wife receivers, who marry the founders' daughters and provide the village with labor services and physical protection. Cosmic as well as social order is maintained, it is thought, if all three partners mutually support each other and keep the "flow of blessings" circulating through human society and the agricultural realm. Similar patterns of thought are found throughout eastern Indonesia.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. All regions are rice-cultivation areas, combining dry fields with extensive, terraced paddies. One rice crop per year is typical in some of the less fertile uplands, although wide plainlands sometimes support two crops. Government development projects are spreading green-revolution varieties of high-yield rice throughout the province. Cash crops (coffee, tobacco, cloves, cinnamon) have been grown since colonial times; market gardening also supplements rice production (peppers, cabbage, tomatoes, beans). Government projects encourage the cultivation of peanuts and fish farming. Traditional forest products such as camphor and incense are still collected, as is forest rubber. Karo is a major fruit and vegetable exporter. Domestic animals include chickens, ducks, water buffalo, goats, and (in non-Muslim areas) pigs. Outside the agricultural sector, Batak work in the transportation industry, in cloth sales, and in Sumatra's ubiquitous markets.

Industrial Arts. Market towns typically have mechanics, carpenters, house builders, tailors, and road-pavement crews, while village men make fish nets and women weave ceremonial textiles and make rattan baskets. In larger towns, shops and repair businesses are owned by Indonesian-Chinese entrepreneurs.

Trade. Since at least early colonial times, the highlands have been crosscut by trade routes for salt, salted fish, dried hot peppers, and cooking oilthe basic ingredients, with rice and greens, of the standard village meal. Since the 1950s, paved roads and crushed stone roads have been extended to many village areas, augmenting the old colonial main routes between market centers. Bus transport to Medan and Padang is dependable and frequent.

Division of Labor. Farm families tend to share household tasks and field labor among the men, women, and children. Heavy planting and harvest tasks are often done by larger work groups, recruited by age (groups of adolescents) or clan and marriage-alliance ties to the farm family in question. Some wealthier village families hire poorer relatives to work their land, on a sharecropping basis. In pre-Dutch times southern Batak high chiefs had slaves who worked as their house servants and field laborers.

Land Tenure. In the ideal situation, family rice land is not to be bought and sold but should pass to sons and their households, with a smaller share going to daughters. In practice, some families do sell paddy land, for school tuition or other pressing needs; in addition, the establishment of new villages east of the traditional Batak lands has opened up new farming territory. Traditional houses and lineage heirlooms pass down through the patriline. Parents often circumvent the strict patrilineal inheritance rules for land by bestowing land gifts on favored daughters at their weddings or on the birth of their first child.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Batak peoples have kinship systems similar to the Kachin of highland Burma. They have patrilineal clans, divided into localized lineages (often centered on ancestral houses and tombs). Lineages of different clans are linked together through asymmetrical marriage allianceLineage A will get its wives from Lineage B of another clan. Lineage B will thus serve as the politically and ritually superordinate alliance partner to A, showering it with fertility blessings, good luck, and supernatural protection. Lineage A in turn will give its daughters in a second direction to C, of still another clan. Lineage C will then become A's own subordinate alliance partner. Lineages of varying time-depths are the operative units in this marriage system. Today, many lineages have members in several villages as well as in migrant communities in the multiethnic cities. Clans are very large, never meet corporately, and in fact often straddle two ethnic subsocieties such as Toba and Angkola. Some Batak peoples imagine that all clans originated in a Toba ancestral home, and spread outward from there because of ancient clan wars. Much adat ceremonial activity is directed toward contacting lineage ancestors and securing their blessings.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. As noted, the ideal marriage involves a young man and a young woman from two linked lineages that have a long-standing alliance relationship. In practice, many marriages forge bonds between lineages with no previous alliance; that situation is usually accepted as a means "to widen the sphere of kin-term usage" and to provide more alliance partners for support. When families are conforming to the ideal, however, a man would marry his exact mother's brother's daughter. This marriage would repeat the marriage his father made in the previous generation: both the older man and his son would have obtained brides from the same house in the same traditional wife-giver lineage. Elaborate gift exchange accompanies marriage in many subsocieties. The bride brings ritual textiles and various foods (identified with femininity) to her new house, while the bridegroom's family gives countergifts of bride-wealth payments, jewelry, and livestock. Such exchange is conceptualized as part of a complementary opposition scheme in which wife givers and wife receivers work together to produce a fertile marriage, which in turn empowers the village. Residence is ideally with or near the new husband's parents for several years, after which the new couple formally split off to set up their own household. In prenational times some areas such as Karo and Toba had large, multifamily houses, with a full complement of wife givers and wife takers. Lower-class people never had such large and complex houses. Divorce, much discouraged in the adat oratory, is possible under Islamic law and Indonesian civil law. For wealthier families, given the fact that marriage alliance carries so many larger political implications, divorce is shameful. When Batak migrant men marry women from other, non-Batak ethnic groups, a new bride is sometimes adopted into a lineage as her groom's mother's brother's daughter.

Domestic Unit. There are several household types: (1) older married couples living with married sons and their other unmarried children; (2) new couples just separated from such parental households; (3) young married couples with children; and (4) older couples with several unmarried relatives sharing the same house. Many migrants from the cities move back to their home villages temporarily and live with relatives, so household structure is extremely fluid. Multifamily wife giver/wife receiver "complete" households have been rare in recent decades.

Inheritance. Sacred property such as old rice land, lineage heirlooms, and the ancestral house should pass down the patriline, whereas bride-wealth goods circulate among houses linked through marriage alliance. Daughters can obtain rice land as bridal gifts from their fathers. In some areas, the eldest son and the youngest son get the larger share of heritable goods, and the youngest son and his wife are obligated to care for his aged parents.

Socialization. Attendance at public school or at Muslim school is compulsory and dominates children's lives today. The national schools stress Indonesian patriotism and "modern values." At home, older siblings have a large role in the care of younger brothers and sisters, frequently carrying them around in tight cloth slings. Young children are rarely scolded or even reprimanded; children are cajoled into obeying with small food or cash gifts.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Batak subsocieties are part of the multiethnic nation of Indonesia, centered in the capital of Jakarta and dominated by the Javanese. North Sumatra is a province of the nation, and all Bataks are citizens. The civil servants who administer the area are, for the most part, Batak themselves.

Social Organization. Like other Southeast Asians, Batak tend to pay great attention to social hierarchy. In this area, this is phrased in terms of traditional social-class background (aristocrat, free commoner, or slave descendant), closeness to the founder lineage of a person's home village, and occupation prestige (with farm labor at the bottom and salaried office work at the top). Using a system of indirect rule, the Dutch rigidified the old Batak class systems, strengthening the hand of the traditional nobles. Poorer families looked to the colonial schools as a means for their children to escape class discrimination in farm villages.

Political Organization. Each Batak area has a dual political organization today: the bureaucracy of the national Indonesian government extends from the province of North Sumatra down to the village level (with civil officials, a police force, and a judiciary), while Batak villages have their councils of elders, their chiefs (rajas ), and their chiefs' councils, selected according to genealogical position in each area's founder clans. Village clusters and larger chieftaincy domains are organized according to both marriage alliance and descent ties, in a pattern reminiscent of traditional social organization in eastern Indonesia. The chiefs and their councils supervise adat ceremonials and some points of inheritance law and marriage, and serve as the prestigious, morally upright "old guard" of their villages. The government officials, for their part, control the secular political sphere.

Social Control. Violent crime and business law are under the control of the national government and their police force, while traditional councils exercise some moral control over everyday village social order. Adat leaders can exact fines for disallowed marriages; they also supervise the payment of bride-wealth, a major source of tension. In some areas fear of witchcraft and sorcery is common and articulates with factional disputes. Poisoners are often thought to lurk just over the next hill (a common ethnic boundary-maintenance device).

Conflict. Until Dutch pacification efforts in the mid1800s, intervillage warfare and lineage-to-lineage feuding were quite common, given severe pressure for the farmland. After the colonial era, this legacy of intense intergroup rivalry took new forms: conflict within the Protestant church, conflict among lineages to see which one can put on the most lavish ancestor-commemoration ceremony, and conflict over access to modern jobs. At the village level factionalism is bitter, constant, and quick-changing, based on competition for land and, today, government favors.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Virtually all Batak have converted to Islam or Protestant Christianity over the last 170 years, although in some areas beliefs that spirits can infest people and make them ill remain strong. An older Batak pantheon of creator deities and mythical clan founders has largely been eclipsed by the world religions. Batak converts often speak of an older "Age of Darkness" before their forefathers found out about "true religion." The southern Batak areas of Angkola-Sipirok and Mandailing converted to Islam starting in the 1820s; these are markedly pious, learned areas today, with many hajji and Quranic schools. Toba is a similarly serious, well-schooled Christian area, with many ministers and religious teachers. Karo is a region of much more recent conversions: pagan areas remain, and some villagers and townspeople converted to world religions in 1965, to avoid being labeled Communist sympathizers in the national unrest attending the establishment of the Suharto regime.

Each area has a varying syncretic blend of Islamic or Christian figures with indigenous spirits; the latter are a very minor part of the system of thought in long-converted areas. With increasing literacy, the old creator deities and the figures of myth have generally been demoted to the status of folklore figures.

Religious Practitioners. All areas have the standard religious personnel of world Islam and Christianity, as well as curer-diviners who contact supernaturals through trances and perform exorcisms.

Ceremonies. Most areas have split off adat, or custom, from agama, or true religion (that is, Islam or Christianity). This strategem allows Batak to remain pious monotheists and to maintain an elaborate round of adat ceremonies, with ritual Speeches, dances, processions, and gift exchange. Adat ceremonies focus on lineage ancestors, births in the lineage, and marriage alliance (with long, contentious weddings).

Arts. Nineteenth-century European missionaries discouraged carving and ritual dirges and dances, fearing these were blasphemous. This eliminated much of Toba's magnificent traditional sculpture and masked dances. House architecture in the old Great-House style has become too expensive to maintain today; few "Cosmic Houses" remain. Batak textile arts still thrive, as these cloths are still a vital part of marriage and mortuary exchange.

Medicine. Modern, scientific medicine is practiced by a thin network of government health workers, based in clinics, while curer-diviners practice alongside them, concentrating now on "spirit infestations" and some aspects of childbirth and poison control.

Death and Afterlife. Resilient beliefs in powerful lineage ancestors exist in some areas in tandem with the afterlife theories of Christianity and Islam. Adat's ceremonial speeches can be used to invoke the blessings of long-dead lineage ancestors. Masked dancers once served as mediums for ancestors to interact with living persons, but such performances have now been redefined as quaint customs.

See also Gayo


Carle, Rainer, et al. (1987). Cultures and Societies of North Sumatra. Berlin: D. Reimer Verlag.

Cunningham, Clark N. (1958). The Postwar Migration of the Toba-Bataks to East Sumatra. Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, Cultural Report no. 5. New Haven.

Kipp, Rita Smith, and Richard Kipp, eds. (1983). Beyond Samosir: Recent Studies of the Batak Peoples of Sumatra. Ohio University Papers in International Studies, Southeast Asia Series, no. 62. Athens.

Siagian, T. P. (1966). "A Bibliography of the Batak Peoples." Indonesia 2:161-185.

Singarimbun, Masri (1975). Kinship, Descent, and Alliance among the Karo Batak. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Vergouwen, J. C. (1933). The Customary Law of the Toba Bataks of Northern Sumatra. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.


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