Lake Toba and the people of Batak

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Lake Toba and the people of Batak in the northern part of the Indonesian island of Sumatra is, they say, the second largest volcanic lake in the world.  Sumatra is the second largest island, after Borneo, in the Indonesian archipelago.

Lake Toba is about a hundred kilometres long. The island of Samosir on the lake has traditionally been considered the heart of the territory on which the people of Batak have been living since the days of yore. The lake is situated in the crater of a mega volcano, and is still quite hard to reach. Because of this the people of Batak had remained unexplored for a relatively long time. The second reason is much more gruesome. Namely, they are believed to have been cannibals, which definitely did not encourage the early explorers. It was not until about 1863 that the German missionaries had come to the region and started to baptize the locals. This was officially the end of the cannibalism era. The Bataks originate from Proto-Malay tribes. Today, they number about 6 million and are quite successful in Indonesian politics and social life. Some still belong to the old religion, although the majority of them are Protestants, and some are Muslim.


In the old days, they used to believe that all beings possess a spirit which the priest could summon with the help of a female guru. To some extent, this religion is considered to be a form of animalism. The people lived in villages, with several families/clans living together in so called longhouses. The ruler was the king. When a criminal was sentenced to death, they would keep him in a cage, thus degrading him to the level of an animal. Before the execution, they would torture him until his body became weak, and then cut off his head. This would be followed by collecting his blood, heart and organs, which the king would then offer to others to eat. Anyone could say no, but those who didn’t were considered to be brave and soldiers, for which they enjoyed a privileged status.

Therefore, in this tradition cannibalism did not mean they would eat human flesh for dinner, but was rather a ritual during which, as the belief had it, they would take a part of the victim’s spirit and strength. Today they claim that it is no longer practiced. The current king who told us this story was quite convincing. Some sources allege that they also ate the flesh, even sold it in markets, but since there were no wars at the time when the region was invaded by Dutch conquerors, it is very questionable what the source of this flesh was. The colonizers are not really to be trusted when it comes to such information.

The Batak society was very developed. One of the traditions was for a person’s field to be cultivated by the whole village, with everyone pitching in. They would marry outside their clan, and clans were headed by the father of the clan. The woman’s family would get a large dowry, and the woman would move to the husband’s clan. Origin was very important, and everyone knew their own family tree for generations back.

They believe there are three concepts of the spirit. Tondi is the soul or spirit. It gives strength to the body, and leaves it when the body dies. Sahala is the spirit of one’s own strength that not everyone has. Everyone has Tondi, but not Sahala. Begu is the Tondi of a deceased ancestor. They also believe in the power of the magical talisman called Tongkal.

The greeting of the people of Batak is very popular and recognizable throughout Indonesia. It includes saying “Horas” three times, once for every spirit.

When I visited Lake Toba and the people of Batak in May 2017, I had an opportunity to speak to the king. He was our guide through the traditional village of Tuktuk, which used to be the center of power. He described their customs, from social to cannibal ones, in much detail, so we heard about them from the right source.  Their music is very interesting, in a way even similar to the Balkan melos, and very rhythmical.

Nowadays, the people of Batak live all over Indonesia, with many being in the government in Jakarta. They say many of them are lawyers because they speak as if they were arguing and are very extroverted. Lake Toba is very interesting as a tourist destination and considerably cheaper than Bali or other better known places. I have seen quite a few Caucasians who have obviously been there for a while. The lake shore is hilly, but with a number of sandy beaches, and the climate very pleasant and not as humid as by the ocean. Food is abundant, with bananas, coconuts and rice growing everywhere. The shore is dotted with hotels and bungalows of lower and mid-category, which means that stays here are long and life quite cheap.

The visit to Lake Toba and the people of Batak was my best experience on this trip to Indonesia .

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