Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Batak

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Located in the mountainous highlands of northern Sumatra, the Batak are one of the largest indigenous groups in Indonesia. They are divided into six groups, the Toba, Pak Pak/Dairi, Karo, Angkola, Mandailing, and Simalungun, and have an estimated total population of 3 million.


The traditional communal houses of the Batak have three levels, which correspond to the three levels of their universe: the upper world, the middle world, and the lower world. The high roof represents the upper world, the realm of the gods. The living level (elevated above the ground on pillars) is symbolic of the middle world where humans dwell. The space for animals below the living level represents the lower world, believed to be the home of a mythological dragon. The main decorative elements of communal houses are large, carved animal heads (1988.143.68). These sculptures, positioned at the ends of side beams, function as protective devices that have the ability to release positive energy as well as protect the inhabitants from disease or evil.


The most powerful members of a Batak community are ritual specialists, known as datu. They are experts in religion, and are most often members of the village's founding family. These specialists, who are exclusively male, are able to cure the sick, contact the spirits of the dead, and predict auspicious days for particular events.


A datu's most important possession is his ritual staff, made of special wood that symbolizes the tree of life. Since a specialist is required to create his own staff, they vary widely in style and form. The simplest type of ritual staff, tungkot malehat ("smooth staff"), has a single wooden or metal figure (1988.143.141) attached to the top end of the shaft. Specialists "animate" or activate the power of the figures by filling them with a magical potion, known as pupuk. This substance is considered to be extremely powerful and can be stored only in certain types of containers such as the hollow horns of water buffalo (1987.453.1), wooden vessels, or Chinese trade ceramics (1988.124.2ab).


The Toba Batak, located in the center of the region, are known for their hand-woven textiles. Made exclusively by women, these cloths are used as traditional clothing and ritual gifts of exchange. One important type of cloth, the ulos ragidup (1988.104.25), is traditionally used at wedding ceremonies. On the day of the wedding, the father of the bride presents this cloth to the mother of the bridegroom. This symbolic act unites the two families and ensures the fertility of the couple. It is then passed down from one generation to the next as an heirloom, along with jewelry and other household objects.


The Toba Batak also create carved wooden puppets known as si galegale. These puppets (1987.453.6) are used during funerary ceremonies for wealthy men who have no male descendants to perform their mortuary rites. The puppets are carved in the likeness of the deceased individual, dressed in clothing, and given a complex system of internal strings that are controlled by a puppeteer. After dancing amidst the mourners, the puppets are stripped of their clothing and thrown over the village walls, marking the conclusion of the ceremony.

Emily Caglayan, Ph.D.
Department of Art History, The Graduate Center, City University of New York


Map of island Southeast Asia showing the homeland of the Batak people.