Architectural ornament

Toba Batak artist

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 202

This architectural ornament depicts the head of a mythical creature called the singa. It is decorated with sinuous foliate forms and upward curving horns, which are attached at the bottom by a rectangular nose carved in relief. The horns, one of the singa’s defining traits, are based on those of the powerful domestic water buffalo, valued both as a draught animal and as a ritual sacrifice. Two circles near the bottom form the creature’s eyes, and a crescent shape carved in low relief at the bottom forms the mouth. Commanding singa such as this would have been placed on the façades of houses for those of high status in Batak villages. Elevated on wooden piles measuring more than six feet high, the upper structure of the house was supported by broad beams called pandingdingan that were exposed along the sides of the building. The separately carved singa heads were then tenoned to the ends. Together, the beams (forming the reptilian, snake-like body) and the singa were identified with Naga Padoha, the mythical snake of the underworld. Singa are sometimes given the form of a buffalo whose body is covered with scales, further reinforcing its affinity with the snake. Such visual devices effectively convey the enigmatic character of these mythical creatures and their metaphorical associations with fertility, abundance, and protection.

The Toba Batak, one of six groups among the Batak peoples of northern Sumatra, live in the mountainous highlands surrounding Lake Toba (the birthplace of the Batak, according to oral histories and myths). The Batak maintained trade relations with their Malay neighbors living on the coast but otherwise remained relatively isolated until the 18th and 19th centuries when Dutch and British traders, along with German missionaries, established operations in Sumatra. Although nearly all Batak today are Christian or Muslim, they formerly recognized diverse supernatural beings, including the singa, and other deities, ancestors, and malevolent spirits. The primary religious figures in Batak society were male ritual specialists, called datu by the Toba Batak, who acted as intermediaries between the human and spiritual worlds. Much of Toba Batak sacred art centered on the creation and adornment of objects that would be used by the datu for divination, curing ceremonies, malevolent magic, and other rituals. Among the most important were ceremonial staffs, books of ritual knowledge, and a variety of containers used to hold magical substances.



Capistrano-Baker, Florina H. Art of Island Southeast Asia. The Fred and Rita Richman Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994, pp. 39

Kjellgren, Eric. How to Read Oceanic Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014, pp. 105-107

Sibeth, Achim. The Batak. London; New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991

Sibeth, Achim and Bruce W. Carpenter. Batak Sculpture. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2007, pp. 184-203

Architectural ornament, Toba Batak artist, Wood, Toba Batak

Due to rights restrictions, this image cannot be enlarged, viewed at full screen, or downloaded.

Open Access

As part of the Met's Open Access policy, you can freely copy, modify and distribute this image, even for commercial purposes.


Public domain data for this object can also be accessed using the Met's Open Access API.