Priest's staff (tunggal panaluan)

Toba Batak people
19th century or earlier
more object details

General Description

This intricately carved magic staff depicts nine human figures, seven above the haft, or handle, and two beneath it. The figure at the top wearing the large feather headdress is the mythical hero Si Adji Donda Hatahutan. He rides the underworld dragon naga padoha, who appears in the form of a snake. According to Toba Batak religious belief, the indigenous underworld dragon and the snake goddess, taken from Hinduism, are combined to form a mythical creature called a singa. Below the hero is his twin sister Si Tapi Na Uasan, who also stands on a singa. The other figures represent priest-magicians, or datu, and the round lead inlays in their chests cover holes in which magical potions were inserted. A chicken, dogs, and a snake can be seen on the staff as well. The surface of the staff is brightly polished, the result of long-standing use and the frequent rubbing of food and beverage sacrifices.

Three-dimensional human representations depict figures of both sexes in standing, squatting, or kneeling postures, as well as male equestrian figures. Standing sculptures in human form rep­resent spirit beings or ancestors. They are frequently described as “ancestor figures,” although only in the rarest cases do they depict specific forebears known by name. Representations of the founding ancestor couple (debata idup), which were kept in the oldest residen­tial building, known as the house of the founding family of a clan (marga), were regarded as a temporary physical residence for the ancestors during rituals. In contrast, protective spirits (pangulubalang) are permanently connected to the figures representing them thanks to certain magic ingredients, known as pupuk. A pangulubalang is a permanently animated sculpture and not just a casing for a temporarily present spirit.

Among the Batak, two stylistic features are characteristic of sculptural representations of the human form. The first is the over­sized representation of the head, mentioned above. In accordance with Batak ideas of proportion, the head, trunk, and legs of a stand­ing figure were almost always equal in length. An explanation for these proportions, which appear unusual from the Western view­point, relates to the old religious beliefs pertaining to the soul or life force (tondi), which was understood to be especially present in the brain, blood, and liver—but not in the legs. Moreover, a datu applied the magically effective ingredients for the “vivification” of the sculpture precisely to these regions of the body.

The second stylistic feature is a closed-leg posture with slightly bent knees. This posture is widespread in the traditional arts of Southeast Asia and Oceania. In the Batak version of the motif, the legs are pressed closely together. Only rarely is the shape of the feet naturalistic in appearance; the legs often end in a closed block. In many cases, the lower bodies and legs of the figures were dressed with a hip cloth, which made a detailed fashioning of the legs and feet unnecessary from a practical point of view.

This sculpture's surface also has a noticeable patina. During his ritualistic practices, a datu would rub a sacrifice of food and beverages (rice, meat, vegetal mat­ter, or blood) onto the surface of his staff. This regular application and rubbing by hand, over the course of many years, resulted in a lustrous patina, which has been described by some as a “blood patina.” Other objects that were kept in the house over open fire­places have a patina that is crusty and smells of smoke. This patina is usually covered with fat and the tarnish of house dust—provided that it was not polished by later Western owners.

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, Label text, 2013.

  • "A Superb Toba Batak "Tonkat Panaluan" or Shaman's Staff" in the Collections Records object file (2001.266.McD).

  • Achim Sibeth, "The Art of the Batak of Sumatra," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 61-65.

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