Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Batak is a collective term used to identify a number of ethnic groups found in the highlands of North Sumatra, Indonesia. Their heartland lies to the west of Medan centred on Lake Toba. In fact the "Batak" include several groups with distinct, albeit related, languages and customs (adat). While the term is used to include the Toba, Karo, Pakpak-Dairi, Simalungun, Angkola and Mandailing. Occasionally it is also used to include the Alas-Kluet people of Central/Southern Aceh, but usually only as relates to language groups.

Please also refer to related blog "Mandailing Batak(Kanak) people" dated 11-1-2010.

Map of area around Lake Toba, Sumatra

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Past Ritual of Cannibalism
The earliest accounts of Batak peoples emphasized their practice of cannibalizing prisoners of intervillage warfare. In Marco Polo’s memoirs of his stay on the east coast of Sumatra (then called Java Minor) from April to September of 1292, he mentions an encounter with hill folk whom he refers to as “man-eaters”. Marco Polo describes ritual cannibalism among the "Battas" which he evidently did not witness personally, in which a condemned man was eaten:

"They suffocate him. And when he is dead they have him cooked, and gather together all the dead man's kin, and eat him. And I assure you they do suck the very bones till not a particle of marrow remains in them...And so they eat him up stump and rump. And when they have thus eaten him they collect his bones and put them in fine chests, and carry them away, and place them in caverns among the mountains where no beast nor other creature can get at them. And you must know also that if they take prisoner a man of another country, and he cannot pay a ransom in coin, they kill him and eat him straightway

The Venetian Niccolò de' Conti (1395-1469) spent most of 1421 in Sumatra in the course of a long trading journey to Southeast Asia (1414-1439), and wrote a brief description of the inhabitants: "In a part of the island called Batech live cannibals who wage continual war on their neighbors.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in the 1820s studied the Batak and their rituals and laws regarding the consumption of human flesh, writing in detail about the transgressions that warranted such an act as well as their methods[9]. Raffles stated that "It is usual for the people to eat their parents when too old to work," and that for certain crimes a criminal would be eaten alive: “The flesh is eaten raw or grilled, with lime, salt and a little rice.

In 1890 the Dutch colonial government banned cannibalism in the regions under their control. Rumors of Batak cannibalism survived into the early 20th century but it seems probable that the custom was rare after 1816, due to the influence of religion.

At the time of Marco Polo's visit in 1292 the people had not been influenced by outside religions, however by Ibn Battuta's visit in 1345 Arab traders had established river-ports along the northern coasts of Sumatra and Sultan Al-Malik Al-Dhahir had recently converted to Islam. During the Padri War in the 1820s Minangkabau Wahhabist forces entered Batak lands and made large-scale forced conversions among the Mandailing and Angkola Batak. The areas around Lake Toba retained their traditional animist-spiritualist religion until the arrival of the first protestant missionaries of the Rhenish Mission of Barmen in the 1850s

The Toba and Karo Bataks accepted Christianity rapidly and by the early 20th century it had become part of their cultural identity.

This period was characterized by the arrival of Dutch colonists and while most Bataks did not oppose the Dutch, the Toba Batak fought a guerrilla war that lasted into the early 20th century and ended only with the death in 1907 of their charismatic priest-warrior-king Si Singamangaraja XII, who had battled the Dutch during the First Toba War with both magic and weaponry

Batak community

Batak societies are patriarchal organized along clans known as Marga. The Toba Batak traditionally believe that they originate from one ancestor "Si Raja Batak", with all Margas, descended from him. A family tree that defines the father-son relationship among Batak people is called tarombo. In contemporary Indonesia Batak people have a strong focus on education and a prominent position within the professions, particularly as teachers, engineers, doctors and lawyers. Toba Batak are known traditionally for their weaving, wood carving and especially ornate stone tombs. Their burial and marriage traditions are very rich and complex. The burial tradition includes a ceremony in which the bones of one's ancestors are reinterred several years after death. This secondary burial is known among the Toba Batak as (mangongkal holi).

Before they became subjects of the colonial Dutch East Indies government, the Batak had a reputation for being fierce warriors. Today the Batak are mostly Christian with a Muslim minority. Presently the largest Christian congregation in Indonesia is the HKBP (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan) Christian church. The dominant Christian theology was brought by Lutheran German missionaries in the 19th century, including the well-known missionary Ludwig Ingwer Nommensen. Christianity was introduced to the Karo by Dutch Calvinist missionaries and their largest church is the GBKP (Gereja Batak Karo Protestan). The Mandailing Batak were converted to Islam in the early 19th century.

The HKBP(The Huria Kristen Batak Protestan)

The Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) Church was established in Balige in September, 1917. By the late 1920s a nursing school was training nurse midwives there. In 1941, the Gereja Batak Karo Protestan (GBKP) was established. Although missionaries ceded much power to Batak converts in the first decades of the 20th century, Bataks never pressured the missionaries to leave and only took control of church activities as a result of the forced departure and internment of thousands of foreign missionaries[25] after the 1942 invasion of Sumatra by the Japanes

Batak in Singapore

The Batak people are the smallest Malay group in Singapore. Up till 1978, there were less than 350 Bataks in Singapore. Unlike other Malay groups that are predominantly Muslim, there are many Christians in the Batak community (Seventh-day Adventists, Lutherans, Jehovah's Witnesses).

The Batak had been coming to Singapore before the 20th century. Not much is known about the Bataks that came to Singapore in the 19th century and before World War 2. Most were young men in their twenties who were from the Toba, Mandailing and Angkola.

The Bataks came to Singapore for economic, educational and social reasons. Most of those who came to Singapore before the War had received their primary education in the Batak and Malay language. Some came to Singapore to continue their education in the private and Christian schools. For example, the Seventh-day Adventist organisation had students' amenities in Singapore in 1915 and they encouraged the Bataks from Spirok, Angkola and Permatang Siantar in Sumatra to send their children to continue their studies in Singapore. An English education was prized as it was seen as a passport to getting a white-collar job in the plantations in Eastern Sumatra that were owned by the Dutch and the Americans. After receiving their education in Singapore, the Bataks would return to their homeland. Some would marry and bring their wives to Singapore. The Batak Christians were the first Bataks to bring their wives to Singapore.

Most of the Bataks who came before World War 2 worked as gardeners, peons and manual labourers. During the Japanese Occupation, the Bataks were conscripted as foot soldiers or forced labourers by the Japanese. Some were sent to Singapore for military training. After the War, many of the Bataks returned home. At the same time, many others came to Singapore from places like Medan, Palembang and the Riau Islands. Some managed to find work as clerks, storekeepers and some started businesses with non-Bataks partners. Some also joined the British army as soldiers, technicians and electricians. Others started identifying themselves as Malays so that they could join the military or get jobs given to local Malays.

In 1947, the Bataks in Singapore formed a welfare organisation called Saroha (“one heart” in the Batak language). The aim of the organisation was to help the Bataks in Singapore. The organisation lasted until 1954 and was disbanded due to leadership problems and a lack of support from its members. Attempts to revive it later in 1958 proved futile.

There were Bataks who took Malay wives and converted to Islam. The majority of them and their descendants were assimilated into the Malay community and preferred to be known as Malays. A well-known Batak Muslim in Singapore is the radio personality, Aminah Siregar.

Bataks in Malaysia?. Please refer to related blog "Mandailing Batak(Kanak) people" dated 11-1-2010.

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