Peoples & Societies

The Batak of Sumatra

The Batak live mainly in the mountainous region of north­ern Sumatra, the largest of Indonesia’s roughly seventeen thousand islands. Estimated as numbering around six million, they constitute one of the largest ethnic minorities in this multiethnic nation, with its now almost two hundred fifty million inhabitants. The true home of the Batak, as described in orally transmitted traditional myths about the creation of the world and the people’s primeval ancestors, is the area around the vast Lake Toba. The lake—created after a powerful volcanic explosion—lies in a huge caldera at an altitude of roughly thirty three hundred feet above sea level, and measures some twenty three hundred feet in depth at its deepest spot.

The Batak highlands form a part of the Bukit Barisan mountain chain that extends across all of Sumatra. In pre-European times, Batak were already living outside this region in hilly border areas and nearer the coast. The coastal strips themselves were settled many centuries ago by Muslim Malays who maintained diverse trading relationships with Arab and Asian seafaring nations. In contrast to these cosmopolitan coastlines, the mountain pre­serve of the Batak remained closed to outsiders until the middle of the 19th century. To keep unwanted visitors away from sacred Lake Toba, the Batak kept trails and passes garrisoned. As a result, the Batak region came to be thought of as wholly inac­cessible and impenetrable. Today, Batak also live in Sumatra’s western and eastern coastal regions north of the equator and west of the 100th meridian. In addition, after the Batak homeland was opened up in the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Batak have emigrated to other islands, so that sizable popula­tion groups are found there as well, especially in commercial and trading centers.

The Batak are not a homogeneous people, and their culture is by no means uniform. Six ethnic groups are included under the umbrella term “Batak”: the Toba, Pakpak/Dairi, Simalungun, Karo, Angkola, and Mandailing. Among these ethnic groups is a large number of cultural differences that have evolved over the course of centuries. These differences are clearly apparent in their varied dialects, religious concepts, social structures, notions of justice, economic organiza­tion, and written characters. Contrasts are also found among the various groups in political systems, village layouts, and types and styles of architecture and arts and crafts. Common to all is social organization in patrilineal and exogamous clans. At one time among the various Batak groups, their practices of ancestor wor­ship and their religious ideas regarding the properties of living and dead souls shared common features as well. Of course, over time many of these early beliefs have changed dramatically, so that today the differences among Batak cultures are more appar­ent than the similarities. Indeed, members of several of the ethnic groups mentioned above deny any affiliation with the Batak and wish to see that name applied only to the Toba. The Batak art objects at the Museum come exclusively from the Toba.

Adapted from

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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Learn about the Batak people.