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LOCATION: Indonesia (North Sumatra)
POPULATION: 6.1 million
LANGUAGE: Various Batak dialects
RELIGION: Christianity; Protestant Toba church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestant) and Catholic; Pebegu (indigenous animist religion); Islam
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Indonesians


The name "Batak," which also applies to a totally different ethnic group on the Philippine island of Palawan, seems to have originated as a derogatory term by which Muslim lowlanders of the archipelago referred to pagan highlanders. In North Sumatra, six related though distinct peoples have come under the blanket classification of "Batak": the Toba, Karo, Simalungun, Dairi (Pakpak), Angkola, and Mandailing. Of these, the heavily Islamized Angkola and Mandailing reject the label; only the largely Christianized Toba, the largest of the groups, has taken this former insult as a badge of pride.

The Batak descend from the earliest Austronesians to have settled on Sumatra, arriving from Borneo perhaps as early as 2500 BC, well in advance of the Malayic peoples whose dialects would come to dominate the coasts and, in the south, even the interior of the island [seeMalays, Acehnese , and Minangkabau ]. Thickly forested mountain ranges and the Batak's own reputation for ferocity deterred coastal states from penetrating the highlands; thus, Batak villages enjoyed not only independence from foreign rule but also the freedom to wage war on each other. Moreover, although from the earliest times trade (most importantly in local benzoinwood, used to make incense) linked the Batak lands to the outside world, the Batak experienced the waves of Indic influence that transformed neighboring societies only as faint ripples, mediated by the island's more modest Hindu-Buddhist statelets or by armed Tamil merchant guilds on the coast. While in general lowlanders or coastal peoples feared highland or interior peoples as headhunters (for instance, the Dayak of Borneo or the Igorots of Luzon), the Batak were also infamous as cannibals. Popular rumor has greatly exaggerated the extent of Batak cannibalism; some Batak groups were only recorded as subjecting a person condemned to die for especially heinous crimes to the additional torture of having fellow villagers slice off and swallow bits of his flesh.

Islamic influence remained similarly superficial until the early 19th century, when the Padri struggle to purge Minangkabau culture of pre-Islamic elements spilled over into the southern Batak lands as a war to force the conversion of the pagan Mandailing and Angkola. Intervening against the Padri, Dutch colonial power followed them into the southern Batak lands; by the 1840s, the coasts below the Batak highlands fell under Dutch control. Despite facing no pan-Batak resistance, the Dutch subdued all the Batak only after several fierce campaigns over the latter half of the 19th century.

In 1862, Ludwig Nommensen of the Rhenish Mission Society (German Lutheran) began working among the Toba. By 1900, most Toba had become Protestants, thanks in great part to Nommensen distancing himself from the Dutch colonial authorities and offering his services as doctor, teacher, and mediator. Most concretely expressed in the 1908 construction of the first road into the highlands (formerly accessible only by footpaths), the Dutch penetration of Batak society, nonetheless, did face resistance: in armed syncretistic and messianic movements; in Karo and Simalungun mistrust of a Christianity viewed as a partner of colonialism; and, in the establishment of a self-governing Batak church, free of European missionary paternalism.

The educational advantages that Batak received from the mission schools enabled them to fill commercial and teaching jobs throughout the Netherlands Indies and, later, to play prominent roles in Indonesia's national leadership from the revolution down to the present day. The Batak lands are undergoing rapid development as the farming hinterland of the oil- and rubber-rich northeast Sumatra coast, of Medan (the metropolis of western Indonesia), and even of Singapore and Malaysia. The Karo and Toba highlands are attracting the greatest number of tourists in all of Indonesia, after Bali and Yogya.


The Batak homeland in North Sumatra province is located on a high rolling plateau (1,000 m or 3,280 ft above sea level) between the two parallel volcanic ranges of the 2,000 m (6,560-ft-high) Bukit Barisan Mountains. The region centers on Lake Toba, a veritable inland sea occupying the crater left by a volcanic explosion 75,000 years ago (2,000 times more powerful than that of Mount Saint Helen's). In this century, overpopulation has forced many Batak to settle in the densely forested piedmont and in the coastal plantation zones to both the east and west. Batak also form a major part of the population of the multiethnic metropolis of Medan and can be found in cities throughout Indonesia.

According to the 2000 census, Batak numbered 6.1 million, Indonesia's fifth largest ethnic group, which is 3% of the population. This was almost twice the 1990 census figure of 3.1 million for speakers of the three Batak languages. A more recent estimate puts the number at 9 million. The relative size of the various Batak sub-groups can be judged from the following estimates from 1991 (or 1989, where noted): 2 million Toba, living around Lake Toba, on Samosir Island, and in the highlands to the south; 600,000 Karo to the northwest of the lake; 1.2 million Simalungun, east of the lake; 1.2 million Dairi, west of the lake; 750,000 Angkola (1991) and 400,000 Mandailing (1989) between the Toba and the Minangkabau; and 800,000 Alas-Kluet (1989) in southern Aceh.


Batak dialects divide into three mutually unintelligible groups: Toba-Angkola-Mandailing, Karo-Dairi, and Simalungun. In the past, intercommunication was possible because many Batak knew Batak languages other than their own and sometimes also Malay (which could also be used with non-Batak). Today, it is a widespread mastery of Bahasa Indonesia that facilitates intercommunication.

Batak religious specialists have long employed a script (ultimately of Indian origin) to record occult knowledge; the letters vary slightly among the six Batak groups.

Children take as surnames the clan (marga) names of their father.


According to the Toba creation myth, the primordial universe consists of the seven-layered upperworld of the god Mula Jadi Na Bolon, and the watery underworld of the dragon-serpent Naga Padoha. Mula Jadi Na Bolon sired three sons by a blue hen: Batara Guru, Mangalabulan, and Soripada. He also sired three daughters to give to his sons as wives. It is the daughter of Batara Guru, Si Boru Deak Parujar, who created the earth. She married her cousin Boraspati ni Tano, the lizard-shaped son of Mangalabulan, and gave birth to twins of different sexes. In turn, these twins married each other, descended to the earth at the volcano Pusuk Buhit (on the west shore of Lake Toba), and founded a village, Si Anjur Mulamula. From this pair, all humanity descends. From one of their grandchildren, Si Raja Batak, all the Batak descend (the other Batak groups do not widely recognize this genealogy).


The Toba have been predominantly Protestant Christian for over a century, while the Angkola and Mandailing have been Muslim several decades longer. Pebegu, the indigenous animist religion, is strongest among the Karo, claiming 57% as adherents (though many of these describe themselves as "secular," i.e., with a rather uncertain grasp of their religion). Some 12% of Karo profess Islam, while 31% are Christian (converts were few until the 1965 suppression of communism compelled every Indonesian to declare adherence to a universal religion). The self-governing Toba church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestant or HKBP) is the largest Christian body in Indonesia and one of the most powerful. The Simalungun and Karo Protestants have each established their own churches. Finally, about 10% of all Batak are Catholics, missionary work having begun only after independence. To a considerable extent, however, Christian and Muslim Batak maintain beliefs and practices of the traditional religion alongside those of the newer creeds.

The traditional Batak religion recognizes numerous gods but focuses much more upon handling spirits directly associated with human life. One of two deities who do figure prominently is Boru Saniang Naga, goddess of rivers and lakes, who must be honored before fishing, farming, and making or traveling by boats. The other is Boraspati ni Tano, a fertility god whose lizard form appears on house façades; every working of the soil requires that he be appeased.

Tondi (in Toba, tendi in Karo) is the life-force present in human beings (as well as in rice and iron). The god Mula Jadi Na Bolon gives each person his or her tondi before birth; the tondi also chooses the person's destiny before birth. The tondi is not bound to the body; it may roam, or a more powerful spirit may capture it. The separation of the tondi from the body causes illness, and, if the tondi cannot be enticed back by offerings or successfully summoned back by mediums, this can lead to death.

Upon death, the tondi disappears, releasing the begu or essential soul. The begu remains near its former home or in the vicinity of the cemetery and can contact surviving kin and descendants (for instance, it can express disapproval through a nightmare or a particular mishap). Babies who die before breaking their first tooth; persons who die by accident, murder, or suicide; and young women who die unmarried become begu who protect their families. If their kin group mounts large-scale funerary sacrifices, the begu of powerful individuals attain the higher status of sumangot, an ancestor figure around which a new subclan can be formed. Further rituals can promote sumangot to sombaon, prominent ancestors of 10 to 12 generations back who dwell in spooky places such as mountains or dense forests. Unelevated begu become resentful and, if not sustained through offerings, can harm rather than help humans. The begu is not immortal but will die seven times before turning at last into a blade of grass.

Religious specialists include guru sibaso (female spirit mediums) and datu (male priests). The latter acquire a specialized knowledge of the occult through a rigorous apprenticeship. Pustaha, folding bark-books in Batak script, record information on magic, divination, and medicine.


See the article entitled Indonesians.


A wedding links not only two individuals but, more importantly, two kin groups, usually reaffirming longstanding relations. The man's family sends a delegation to deliver an initial proposal to the woman's family. If the latter accepts the proposal, the two sides hold a later discussion to negotiate the bride-price and the gifts to be given by the man's side to the woman's relatives, as well as to fix the date of the wedding. Among Christianized Toba, it is important for the families to announce the wedding formally to the church congregation. The wedding feast is attended by kin of both sides and by all the inhabitants of the village where it takes place. The celebration includes the handing over of the bride-price, the slaughtering of a water buffalo or several pigs, and the distribution of the meat to the relatives.

Should any of the kin object to the wedding, the couple may elope, the man taking the woman to his parents' house. Before one day passes, the man's kin must send a delegation to the woman's side to inform them of the elopement and of the man's intention to marry the woman. After a while, the man's side asks pardon of the woman's side in a formal ceremony, after which a conventional wedding can take place.

Even among Christians, traditional funerary practices continue to be practiced. These include having masked dancers accompany the coffin to the grave. These masks, representing a male, a female, and either a hornbill or a horse, are oversized, as are the wooden hands that go with them; the masks are left on top of the coffin as protection against evil spirits. Proper funerary rites must be performed by a son; therefore, among the Toba, those without sons substitute a si gal-gale, a dummy with wooden limbs, for the son never born or earlier deceased.

While the poor are simply wrapped in a mat and interred, the wealthy receive elaborate, often massive, coffins, whose crafting often begins while the person is still alive. These incomplete coffins can be seen under houses. Karo are known for the pelangkah, a boat-shaped coffin adorned with a hornbill head at one end. Some Karo and Dairi place the elaborately coffined body of a prestigious notable in a special structure, burning it after a year. More common is for Batak to exhume the bones of the powerful for reburial in a large stone sarcophagus, often with a singa (lion) carved in the front. Today, tombs no longer use stone but rather consist of massive concrete structures and statuary.


In pre-colonial times, political organization above the village level hardly existed. Among the Karo, an urung, a confederation of villages, looked to a raja urung or sibayak for leadership in time of war. The Toba recognized a line of priest-kings of very limited authority, the si singamangaraja. Only Simalungun chiefs who had received titles from the Acehnese sultan were said to wield "despotic" power over their districts.

Thus, for the most part, villages were independent and the individual village chief (raja) answered to no higher authority. The raja arbitrated disputes, extended hospitality to visitors to the village, and gave permission for people to move in or move out of the village. Although a member of the village's founding (and dominant) clan (in Karo, merga taneh), the raja himself was no more than a first among equals, relying on personal charisma to attract loyalty and compliance. He could not exercise authority without consulting with village elders and his family's anak boru (wife-takers). The community could remove a raja for incompetence, and a wealthy freeman (anak mata) could command as much influence as an impoverished raja.

Traditional society distinguished between free persons and slaves (in Toba, hatoban; in Karo, kawan). The former divided into biak raja, the descendants of chiefs and other notables; specialists believed to be mystically potent (iron- and goldsmiths, woodcarvers, musicians, and singers); and ordinary people. Slaves were either debt-pawns or prisoners of war; they worked the lands of the raja and were generally well treated. The Dutch abolished slavery in 1860.

One is careful to speak respectfully to older people and strangers, for instance by prefacing a refusal with words of apology (in Toba, "sattabi"; in Karo, "ula ukurndu litik"). One touches hands in greeting, giving thanks, and bidding farewell.

Among the Toba, one way young people of different sexes may meet acceptably is martandang. In the evening, young men visit the house where young women live, under the supervision of a widow. The young people communicate in riddles. Should a young man find one of the maidens to his liking, he approaches her parents to ask her hand. Among the Mandailing, a young man can communicate with the object of his affection by markusip. He enters the space under her house, stands under the spot where she sleeps, and gives a secret signal to announce his arrival; the two whisper through the floorboards.


The traditional Toba village (huta) consists of 8 to 10 houses facing each other across a broad central avenue, which serves as a place for drying rice and gathering for ceremonial celebrations. All of the village inhabitants belong to the same clan. Community meetings take place in an open area (partukhoan) near the village gate. The Karo kuta is much larger, includes families of different clans, and possesses a meeting-house (balai kerapatan). Batak villages established in warlike pre-colonial times were ringed by a high wall of earth or sometimes stone blocks, a moat, and thick stands of bamboo.

Most Batak now live in brick or cement houses, and roofs of corrugated metal sheets have replaced thatched ones even on many traditional homes. Traditional Batak houses are rectangular structures raised on piles. The Toba house is home to a single couple, their unmarried children, the eldest son and his family, and the father's widowed sisters. The house has a high saddle roof whose ends project well beyond the walls of the house; the roof juts farther out in the front where there is a veranda; the foot of the entrance staircase is under the veranda.

The much larger Karo dwelling houses eight related families, each family inhabiting 5 sq m (approximately 54 sq ft) of living space and sharing a hearth with one other family. The apartments (which today can be rented by unrelated families) line up, four on either side of a central hall that often has a gutter down the middle for debris. The house has identical verandas and doors at both front and back. One particularly distinctive type of roof, for houses with a square plan, has side surfaces rise evenly to the ridgepole, while the front and back sides stop under the ridgepole and connect to it with a wall. Most impressive were the rumah anjung-anjung of rajas whose roofs were topped with a miniature house.

Human Development Indices (combining measures of income, health, and education) in the Batak region vary widely: the HDIs for the residencies of Toba Samosir (74.5) and Karo (73.5) are higher than that for North Sumatra as a whole (72), while those for Simalungun and Dairi residencies are below (71.3 and 70.5 respectively). All are above Indonesia's national HDI of 69.6. One Batak area, Mandailing Natal residency, has one that is slightly below, 68.8. Its GDP per capita is only US$3,677, compared to US$8,035 for Toba Samosir, and its infant mortality rate is 66.61 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to 25.78 for Karo. The provincial IMR is 43,69.


Batak belong to lineages that trace back to a common ancestor though the male line. These broad patrilineages or clans (in Toba, marga; in Karo, merga) are numerous and divide further into subclans. A Toba marga is named after a common ancestor who can be traced back 20 or more generations through genealogies (tarombo). A Karo merga carries a group name that does not refer to a specific ancestor and does not keep tarombo.

The most important social unit is the group (in Toba, saompu; in Karo, sada nini) of all the descendants of a common grandfather who live together in the same settlement. Within the saompu/sada nini are numerous nuclear families (in Toba, ripe; in Karo, jabu), each of which includes a couple, their unmarried children, and their married sons.

The ideal (though now rare) match is between a man and his mother's brother's daughter. Matches between people of the same marga and between a man with his father's sister's daughter are taboo. Members of one kin group customarily take wives from a specific kin group, while giving wives to yet another kin group. Typically, kin group A would give wives to kin group B, which in turn would give wives to kin group C, which would give wives to kin group A, thus forming a circle.

A husband treats his wife's family with great respect, regarding them as dibata ni idah, "gods on earth." Only the wealthy have ever been able to take more than one wife. From time to time, a husband takes a second wife but only visits her, as she remains living with her parents (Christians do not practice this).

Along with childlessness and adultery, a wife's inability to get along with even one of her husband's kin is sufficient reason for divorce. The raja urung among the Karo or the convened village passes divorce decisions, usually requiring the wife's side to return the bride-price. A Karo wife can have a "temporary divorce" (ngelandih) if she goes to stay at her parents' house after a quarrel.


Although elements of traditional clothing can still be seen in everyday use, modern Batak dress much as other Indonesians do, wearing international fashions, such as tee-shirts and jeans, or Malay-style kebaya blouses. Rectangular, finely patterned cloths called ulos (in Toba; uis in Karo) continue as an essential part of ceremonial celebrations, both as part of the attire and as gifts exchanged to affirm the bonds between social groups. An ulos can be folded for a broad headcloth, or worn over the back as a shawl or over the shoulder as a sash (also a baby-carrier). In former times, women wore an ulos as a sarong with the breasts exposed, or wore the cloth wrapped around their whole body with only the shoulders bare. Traditional clothing also included jackets and vests.

The colors of traditional ulos were symbolic: white of the upperworld and life; black of the underworld and magical power; and red of the middle world, bravery, and spiritual potency. While Karo tradition preferred cloth of indigo, contemporary Karo prefer dark red, following Simalungun taste. Toba weavers have long produced cloth in Karo patterns for Karo buyers. Machine-woven fabrics imitate the older hand-woven styles and are actually preferred by the younger generation, who also have begun to request that traditional patterns be done in gold or silver thread (Malay-style songket).


Rice is the staple food, supplemented by cassava, taro, maize, beans, and bananas. A common side dish is bulung gadung tumbuk, cassava leaves pounded and then stewed as a curry. A popular feast food is saksan, roast pig eaten with a ginger-laden spicy sauce that includes the blood of the animal. Dengke ni ura dohot na margota is a big lake fish, spiced and mixed with tamarind as a souring agent and kept for two or three nights before eating. Dengke ni arsik is carp with cassava leaves, spiced, then cooked until the fish is tender and dry. Pinadar is chicken or pig meat grilled until dry, then mixed with hot spices, tamarind, and salt. Tuak tangkasan is palm-sap alcohol, flavored with a kind of bark.


In 2005, the Batak region's level of literacy was very high by Indonesian national standards; that of Mandailing Natal, the regency with the lowest HDI of all the Batak region's regencies, 98.53, was even higher than that of the national capital, Jakarta, 98.32. (See the article entitled Indonesians. )


Batak are celebrated throughout Indonesia for their love of music-making, often appearing as entertainers in hotels and restaurants. Traditional ensembles divide into two types: one for loud, outdoor ceremonial music and the other for soft, indoor informal music. The former includes gondang (a set of long, cylindrical, tuned drums, beat in dynamic rhythms), sarune (a penetrating oboe played with circular breathing), and ogung (gongs). The latter type of ensemble includes the hasapi (a long-necked lute), the surdam (a bamboo flute), and the keteng-keteng (a bamboo-tube zither, struck with sticks).

Accompanying themselves on guitars (and nowadays also on Yamaha electric organs), Batak sing passionate songs (lagu Batak), whose style reflects Portuguese and Spanish influences. This music is widely available on cassette. Churches may have as many as 10 choirs, singing (in unison and improvised four-part harmonies) many hymns that are no longer known in Europe.

Traditional dances served mainly three different functions: to show respect for guests, especially the host's wife-giving kin group; to induce possession by spirits (through orchestral crescendo); and for young people to divert themselves (often with a humorous erotic component). Funerals include the tortor, a solemn dance with slow and rigid movements.

Oral literature includes andung-andung, laments for the dead, including fixed expressions that can no longer be understood; and tonggo-tonggo, poetical prayers recited during offering ceremonies (these include tabas incantations).


Most Batak gain a living from agriculture, in some areas cultivating irrigated rice, in others raising maize, cassava, indigo, sugar palm, and other crops in dry-fields, to some extent still with swidden (shifting-cultivation) methods. Karo and Simalungun farmers grow vegetables and fruits for the Medan market, but also for Singapore and Malaysia. Spreading over the Simalungun area since colonial times, and once employing primarily Chinese and Javanese labor, plantations grow rubber, oil palm, cacao, tea, and tobacco. Other cash crops are coffee (especially among the Mandailing and Dairi) and cloves.

Men clear and plow the land as well as set up irrigation systems, while women plant, weed, and harvest; neighbors and close kin cooperate in accomplishing agricultural tasks. Batak keep water buffalo as draft animals and to be sacrificed and consumed at ritual celebrations; pigs are raised both for meat for everyday meals and feasts. Cattle, goats, chickens, and ducks are raised for sale in coastal cities. Fishing is a major occupation on Lake Toba.

Because of a relatively high educational level, Batak fill office (including bureaucratic), teaching, and health service jobs throughout Indonesia.


See the article entitled Indonesians.


See the article entitled Indonesians.


Villages and regions specialize in particular crafts: textile-weaving; mat- and basket weaving; iron-, gold-, and silver working; pottery; and woodcarving (important in decorating the walls of traditional houses).


See the article entitled Indonesians.


In 2002, the Gender-Related Development Indices (combining measures of women's health, education, and income relative to men's) of the regencies of the Batak region were almost all higher than Indonesia's national GDI of 59.2: 69.3 for Toba Samosir, 68.5 for Karo, 66.5 for Dairi, and 61.5 for Simalungun. Only Mandailing Natal was lower, at 58.4, which was also lower than that for North Sumatra as a whole, 61.5. The Batak regencies' Gender Empowerment Measures (reflecting women's participation and power in political and economic life relative to men's), however, were all lower than the national GEM of 54.6, ranging from Dairi's 53.4 to Karo's 46.


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—revised by A. J. Abalahin