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Come and Meet the Batak

Come and Meet the Batak

 Come and Meet the Batak

When 13th-century Italian explorer Marco Polo visited the island of Sumatra, in Indonesia, he described a certain “hill-people” who, he said, “live . . . like beasts . . . and eat human flesh.” It is believed that the people he spoke of were the Batak. My wife and I, though, have a completely different view of them. Meet the people we have come to know and love.

 “HORAS!” With this hearty greeting, our new Batak friends welcomed us to North Sumatra, Indonesia, when we arrived at our new missionary assignment near Lake Toba. One of Sumatra’s most spectacular natural landmarks and the largest volcanic lake in the world, Lake Toba marks the heartland of the Batak people.​—See the  box below.

The Batak are one of Indonesia’s largest indigenous groups. Numbering an estimated eight million people, they comprise perhaps six independent, but closely-related, ethnic groups​—the Toba, the Simalungun, the Karo, the Dairi, the Angkola, and the Mandailing. Each group is made up of large family clans. When Batak meet one another, their first question usually is, “Which clan do you belong to?” They then quickly work out just how closely they are related.

Rules for Marriage

Traditional Batak marriages generally unite not only two people but also two clans. Maternal cousins are considered an ideal match. But marrying a paternal cousin, or someone from the same clan, is strictly taboo. Otherwise, traditional marriages follow the rule: Men from clan A take wives from clan B, men from clan B take wives from clan C, and men from clan C take wives from clan A. These circular alliances greatly reinforce Batak bonds of kinship and link newlyweds to a vast network of relatives.

Even if Batak couples are legally married and have children, their union is not recognized by their clans until a traditional clan wedding is held. These elaborate ceremonies can involve hundreds of relatives and can last several hours.

At Karo weddings, for example, the bride-price and the dowry are carefully counted and distributed among specific groups in each clan. Only then can the proceedings continue. Clan members deliver long speeches on married life. The groom and his bride listen respectfully. Feasting and dancing complete the festivities.

A Farmer’s Paradise

In the past many Batak families lived in large, communal longhouses with distinctive twin-peaked roofs resembling buffalo horns.  Some of these ornate buildings​—made of wood, bamboo, and sugar-palm fiber—​were built on stilts, and some were large enough for 12 families. No nails were used. A number of 300-year-old structures are still occupied. Underneath the elevated floor of the houses are the domestic animals​—cattle, chickens, dogs, pigs, and water buffalo.

The local economy is based largely on farming, fishing, and the raising of livestock, as well as tourism. Indeed, the vast natural amphitheater around Lake Toba is a farmer’s paradise. Terraces of emerald-green rice paddies rise high above the lake. Coffee, fruit, and spices thrive alongside lush vegetable gardens growing in the rich, dark volcanic soil. Fishermen in their wooden canoes harvest their bounty from the cool, clear waters of the lake.

At day’s end, happy children splash and swim in the lake, men mingle in the cafés, and music echoes through the cool night air. Indeed, the Batak are well-known locally for their powerful and emotive singing. They also love to dance​—men and women apart—​gracefully moving their arms and hands.

A Checkered Past

From the time of Marco Polo until the 19th century, reports indicated that the Batak were fierce cannibals who ritually ate enemy warriors and criminals. However, certain “lurid details of cannibalistic practices may have been provided by the Batak themselves in an effort to prevent outsiders from penetrating into their lands,” says Leonard Y. Andaya, a professor of history. Whatever the case, “in the 19th century the Dutch colonial government banned cannibalism in the regions under their control,” states the book The Batak​—Peoples of the Island of Sumatra.

The Batak were animists and embraced a number of gods and spirits. They also practiced sacrificial rituals, séances, divination,  and sorcery. Occult spells, divination tables, and healing formulas were recorded on bark strips up to 50 feet [15 m] long and folded accordion-style, resulting in a book of sorts. And ornate sacred cloths were woven to ward off evil and to divine the future.

Records indicate that the first Western missionaries to the Batak were Baptists R. Burton and N. Ward, who arrived in 1824. Ten years later, while the Dutch military were trying to occupy parts of the land, two other missionaries, Americans H. Lyman and S. Munson, ventured into Batak territory but were soon killed. Two Catholic missionaries, who disregarded warnings to stay away from potentially dangerous areas, may have met the same fate.

However, German missionary Ludwig Nommensen, who began working among the Batak in 1862, survived and enjoyed considerable success. In fact, he is still held in honor by many of the local people. Today most Batak are professed Christians, the remainder being mostly Muslims or animists. Nevertheless, many still cling to aspects of their traditional beliefs.

Genuine Good News Arrives

About the year 1936, Jehovah’s Witnesses arrived in the Batak homelands, bearing the good news of God’s Kingdom, which Jesus foretold would be preached “in all the inhabited earth.” (Matthew 24:14) Many Batak responded to the Bible-based message and abandoned their superstitious ways. As a result, the region now has about 30 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses.​—See the  accompanying box.

As my wife and I share the good news with people in the area, we often meet tourists who marvel at Lake Toba’s spectacular scenery and idyllic climate. We heartily agree with them. But we add that the real beauty here is the people​—the warm and friendly Batak.

[Box on page 17]


Lake Toba is 54 miles [87 km] long and 17 miles [27 km] wide, and it is easily the world’s largest crater lake. It holds enough fresh water to cover the entire United Kingdom to a depth of about three feet. Set in the midst of green volcanic peaks that form part of the Barisan Mountains, this spectacular body of water is, from any angle, a photographer’s dream.

The lake was born in one or more massive volcanic eruptions, which scientists believe may have been among the most violent in earth’s history. In time, the gigantic caldera filled with water, creating what is now known as Lake Toba. Subsequent upheavals in the lake bottom formed beautiful Samosir Island, which has an area of 250 square miles [647 sq km], about as big as the Republic of Singapore.

[Box on page 18]


Lake Toba is about 180 miles [300 km] from the equator, yet its climate is surprisingly cool. This is because the lake is situated 3,000 feet [900 m] above sea level. Palm trees and pine trees flourish side by side in this temperate paradise.

The lake marks an ecological dividing line for a number of animals. For example, orangutans, white-handed gibbons, and Thomas’ leaf monkeys are found north of the lake, while tapirs, tarsiers, and banded leaf monkeys are found to the south.

[Box/​Picture on page 19]


Nursiah was a Batak ḍukun, or witch doctor. She used magical arts to cure ailments, expel evil spirits, and communicate with the “dead.” * She had a thriving business and​—despite her occult activities—​was a respected member of her local Protestant church.

When Nursiah met Jehovah’s Witnesses, she was surprised to learn that God’s name is Jehovah. (Psalm 83:18) Later she read in the Bible that many who had become believers in the first century abandoned their magical arts and burned their spiritistic books in order to serve God acceptably. (Acts 19:18, 19) Despite strong opposition, she decided to do the same, having full confidence in Jesus’ words: “The truth will set you free.”​—John 8:32.

Today, Nursiah and her son, Besli, are baptized Witnesses, and her husband, Nengku, regularly attends Christian meetings. “Now that I am serving Jehovah,” she says, “my life is so much better! When I was a ḍukun, I yearned to know the truth. Now I am truly satisfied.”



Nursiah, with her husband and son

[Maps on page 16]

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Lake Toba

[Credit Line]

Based on NASA/​Visible Earth imagery

[Picture on page 16, 17]

Lake Toba as seen from the slopes of Mount Pusuk Buhit on the mainland

[Picture on page 18]

Sipisopiso waterfall, located at the north end of Lake Toba, drops 360 feet [110 m]