The BATAK People – North Sumatra clans maintaining a proud and distinctive culture

Batak dancers in traditional costume
Our North Sumatra Tour schedule has us on Samosir island on a Sunday and it is programmed as a FREE day – a chance to rest, reflect and truly enjoy the magnificent surroundings.

But if you awake wide-eyed and bushy tailed then we recommend you bounce up, don some smart and conservative attire and go to church!

Why? Because if you don’t you may miss out on some enthusiastic and truly heavenly and music and harmony singing.

It’s also a great opportunity to meet, befriend and chat with local people from this small, exotic part of Indonesia – they will welcome you.

True music lovers will experience shivers up the spine when they hear the singing. Even the least musically challenged will likely realize they are hearing something special.

If you feel too awkward about entering, then find a place to stand or sit outside, or just walk by and let the sounds wash over you.

Good Batak words to know

A good word to remember at Lake Toba is HORAS” – it’s the traditional catch-all Batak word of greeting loosely meaning “hello and welcome” . But it is also used to say “good health” or “goodbye” (and “bless you” after you sneeze). You will hear it often during our visit.

Should you find yourself enjoying a drink with new Batak friends then the word to use when offering a toast is “LISSOI”.

Extended clan and family networks mean wedding parties are a big event in Batak society with hundreds of guests

A place for everyone – traditional rules an integral part of the Batak way of life

Samosir provides fascinating insights into the history, culture and traditional way of life of the Batak clans of North Sumatra and we see some of this during our visits to traditional villages around the island.

The Batak fall into six closely related sub-groups made up of extended family clans, namely the Toba (the biggest), Karo, Pakpak, Simalungun, Angkola and Mandailing.

Two Batak subgroups have converted to Islam, while the others have mostly converted to Christianity, mainly through the efforts of German Lutheran and Dutch Calvinist missionaries.

“Which clan do you belong to?” is usually the first question Batak people ask when they meet. They then quickly determine how closely they may be related.

The relationships matter when boy meets girl because of traditional marriage rules. Maternal cousins are considered an ideal match, but marrying a paternal cousin, or someone from the same clan, is taboo.

Under the rules men from clan A seek wives from clan B, men from clan B take wives from clan C, and men from clan C take wives from clan A. These circular alliances reiforce Batak bonds of kinship and link newlyweds to vast networks of relatives.

Marriage customs vary between clan groups but are elaborate with lengthy discussions between the families of bride and groom.

Batak couple are congratulated as they arrive for wedding party

Typically there are both church and registry office ceremonies (the registration is required to give the marriage legal force under Indonesian law).

Traditionally no Batak marriage is considered complete until an elaborate traditional clan wedding celebration is held. This can involve hundreds of relatives and continue for many hours with singing, dancing and carousing.

Batak people generally are expected to marry Bataks. Should they wish to marry a non-Batak then the “foreigner” must first be “adopted” by Batak family and thus become an eligible marriage partner

The above video by motorcycle travel Youtuber Kristian Hansen offers some good insights into  Batak cultural norms. It’s a little long at around 20 minutes, but make sure you watch the coverage of the Batak wedding celebration – it starts  from around 14 minutes in.

A minority ethnic group but notable for their wide success and influence

The estimated 8 million Batak people of North Sumatra represent about 3% of the Indonesian population and have punched well above their weight in shaping modern Indonesia.

Batak communities are strongly committed to education and a large proportion go on to professional careers throughout Indonesia as teachers, academics, engineers, civil servants and, especially, lawyers.

They have risen to national prominence in the military, the judiciary, politics, the bureaucracy, literature, the arts and music.

Batak bands and musicians are to be found throughout Indonesia and most countries of South-east Asia and Batak chefs hold key positions in the kitchens of many of the great restaurants of Indonesia, the region and the wider world.

The Batak clans have undergone a remarkable transition from historic earlier eras of ritual cannibalism, fierce warriors and shared long houses.

But this is not surprising given the cultural cohesion, order, independence and self-confidence of this regional society that had its own Sanskrit-based writing system and international trading relationships hundreds of years before European colonization.

Famous Batak historical figures

Si Singamangaraja XII, the last priest-king of the Batak peoples of North Sumatra, was declared a National Hero of Indonesia in 1961 for his resistance to Dutch colonialism. Born in 1849, he led a lengthy guerrilla campaign against Dutch rule from 1878 and died in a skirmish with Dutch troops in 1907. This etching is taken from the 1980s series Indonesian 1,000 rupiah banknote.

Adam Malik Batubara served as vice president of Indonesia under President Suharto for five years from 1978 and as a highly respect diplomat and Indonesian Foreign Minister for 11 years from 1966. A Mandailang Muslim Batak, he is credited with being an intellectual force in the Indonesian independence movement and a major figure in third world politics. Key achievements included President of the 26th United Nations General Assembly, a year as Speaker of the Indonesian parliament and helping to establish the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

A culinary caution you may appreciate

Most of Toba’s Batak people are Christian and therefore, unlike Muslim Indonesians, they can eat and enjoy pork (babi) dishes.

But they also eat dog!

Many Batak people eat dog and consider it a delicacy

Babi Panggang is a famous Batak pork dish – it’s BBQ pork, not dog. 

Dog will seldom be offered to Western visitors, but some local menus will list Babi Satu (pork 1) or Babi Dua (pork 2). 

So, when you dine out on Samosir Island or around the region remember that the Babi Satu (1) refers to dog meat!

That aside, a famous Batak pork dish you should try is Babi Panggang. Bite sized pieces of spiced and marinated pork are grilled or baked and served with a dipping sauce (which may include pig’s blood as an ingredient). Don’t be put off – it’s delicious.

A Batak brew to warm the soul and cement friendships

When it comes to beverages, if you are feeling emboldened, you might sample Tuak, the local ‘palm wine’ or ‘toddy’ made from lightly fermenting the milky sap of palm trees.

It is really nothing like a wine. It has a tangy taste and  an alcohol content of about 4% when fresh (about the same as many beers).

To the Toba Batak it’s a drink of celebration and life, served at weddings, funerals, festivals, parties and even after church on Sunday.

You can try it in local, sometimes open-air, eating places cum bars. Often there will be live music with guitars, bamboo flutes, keyboards, improvised percussion and much singing.

Tuak –  bottles of happiness ?

Perhaps you can trot out your party piece – it’s a guaranteed opportunity to get to know the locals, regardless of the quality of your performance. With luck you might get to enjoy an experience like that of the visitor who made a video: of his experience and explained what happened:

“We went to a restaurant on Samosir Island that turned out to be owned by Elisabet Sirait, the lead singer of a Batak group. After cooking and serving us a delicious dinner, she took a guitar and started singing. After a while more members of the group joined in – it sounded wonderful and provided an unforgettable evening.” – Hamarten

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Head and should Douglas Cole - founder
Douglas Cole

Doug is a former journalist and broadcaster who lived and travelled in Indonesia and Southeast Asia from 2002 to 2018. He returned to Indonesia in mid-2022 after being stranded in Australia by COVID border closures. He is completing a book under the working title ‘INDONESIA – Safely, Easily, and in Comfort.’

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