The island of Sumatra is one of 13, 000 islands that make up the country of Indonesia. In the northern-central part of Sumatra live the Batak peoples, who collectively comprise around four million people, making them one of the largest ethnic groups in that country which hosts over three hundred distinct ethnolinguistic minorities.
The term Batak was first used by Malay settlers to describe any non-Muslim in this part of Sumatra. (In fact a Batak, upon conversion to Islam, was no longer considered a Batak by the Malay, but, instead, ethnically Malay.) There are actually six distinct Batak tribes in this area: Angkola/Sipirok, Karo, Mandailing, Pakpak/Dairi, Simalungun and Toba. Although these six groups have many things in common, there are differences in their languages, histories and traditions. While some of the observations on this page apply equally to the other tribes, it reflects time I have spent to date among the Karo only. Of the Batak tribes, the Karo have resisted change from external influences and retained their traditions more than any of the others. This has not been easy though — forces of change have historically been brought to bear by contact with Indian-based trading cultures, Dutch colonialists, Christian missionaries, war-time Japanese military occupants and, most recently, by Indonesian government policies. One effect of these influences is that most Karo today practice either Christianity or Islam — many of them alongside their traditional beliefs. Thus, despite their religious conversion, one still sees many remnants of their Animist heritage.
The Batak are well known for the richness of their architecture. Some of their huge, communal longhouses, none of which are built any more, have stood erect for up to three hundred years. Most of the ones still standing, though literally on their last legs, are still inhabited today. As many as twelve families may live in one of these houses, although eight is the norm. They were built from natural materials — mainly wood and bamboo — using no nails, spikes or screws, but simply held together with fiber from ijuk palm, which is also the principle source of their thatched roof.
When I first entered one of these houses I measured its orientation against a compass: Its length ran precisely north to south. I was unable to get a definitive answer on the significance of this. Presumably they are built along this orientation to afford maximum protection from the heat of the sun, which is intense all year round, since the Karo live just a few degrees north of the Equator. The Karo also built meeting houses and rice stores in the same style. When the building was complete, the handing over from builder to owner was accompanied by an elaborate ceremony. The current generation is likely the last that will live in houses like this, as they will be too unsafe for inhabitation in the near future. Modern housing construction shows a very stark contrast to the old traditional houses. Concrete, metal alloys and tile are used in their construction. Even TV satellite dishes can be seen affixed to the roof!
The Batak are organized socio-politically into clans — large family groups, called margas. There are five main Karo clans: Ginting, Karo-Karo, Perangin-Angin, Sembiring and Tarigan. Each main clan also has a number of sub-groups. The Karo believe that these five clans were the origin of their people. In fact they call themselves "people of the five clans." The clan to which one belongs is very important in Karo society. Their traditional law, called adat, spells out what kinds of conduct one must follow, particularly obligations to their clan and to other relatives. (Adat is actually a Malay term, the Karonese language calls it bicara, but that term is hardly used any more.) These obligations are just as important for in-law relatives as they are for blood relatives. For example, the adat does not allow two people of the same clan to marry — even if there is no traceable blood relation between them. This taboo is strictly enforced to this day.
Kinship terms themselves have no real equivalent in English — or in western societies. For example when a woman is married, she transfers into the clan of her husband, which instantly gains her many new relatives. The woman's relatives from before her marriage are called kalimbubu or bride givers. After marriage, the relatives of her new husband's sisters are called anak beru, or bride receivers. The adat describes kalimbubu as "visible gods." They are believed to influence the new couple's fertility, health and economic prosperity. The anak beru are required to treat the kalimbubu in high regard. Many other terms are used and fully understanding Karo kinship structure is a project in itself!
In former times the adat was even broader in scope than the social conduct it covers today. It used to define all manner of conduct in regard to social, political, spiritual, ceremonial and economic affairs. Besides the living, it defined conduct toward the spirits of the dead. As Christianity and Islam have swept through Karo society, adat has been largely adapted and now focuses less on religious rules and more on kinship obligations and Karo social tradition. One important part of that tradition is music. It is said that every Karo can play the guitar! While that may not be quite the case, it is these days mainly the younger generation who keep the musical traditions alive. As I walked around their village one evening, I found these young boys gathered to sing traditional Karo songs, which they were singing in their Karonese language. (All Karo these days are able to speak Bahasa Indonesian, the country's national language.) The songs tell stories from their folk history and legend, as well as of the spirits of the mountains and forests. In former times it was believed that singers held mystical powers.
Spirits figure prominently in the traditional world of the Karo and remain a prominent and important part of life for those who still practice the old religious belief system based in Animism. They conceive of the soul as having two parts: the life force, which can leave a person's body and enter another person's or an animal's body, and the spirit (begu), which, upon death, is all that remains of a person. The begu must be exalted to become one with the "essential spirit". So, although they bury their dead, the Karo later exhume the bones of especially important ancestors and carefully wash them before decorating them in silver and gold, then displaying them in skull houses (geriten) made especially for the purpose.
Ritual and ceremony are very important to these believers. Rituals involving contact with the spirit world are led by a male guru who is trained in the techniques of magic, while a female spirit medium may be also present, and through whom the spirits communicate their wishes to the living. Some of these spirits are also non-human — those of the land, the mountains and the harvest. Spirits of dead ancestors are especially important. A man's immediate ancestors are believed to guard his household. In the planting and harvest season the Guro-Guro Aron ceremony is observed to ensure a plentiful harvest. Singers and dancers from all five major Karo clans are present at these ceremonies.
A very elaborate Karo ceremony is the wedding reception. Depending on the wealth of the groom's family (who pay for the reception), as many as five hundred guests may be invited. The photos here were taken at one of the larger receptions, with about that number of guests. The formal, legal side of the marriage is a much smaller affair. It lasts much shorter and involves far fewer guests. Once that is over, though, the reception continues for hours. The ladies, in particular, are very colorful in their traditional clothing. The bride herself may be wearing as much as 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) of solid gold! She is almost equally matched in splendor by the groom, whose attire is a hybrid of traditional Karo and western clothing. Although the male members of his close family are also dressed very formally, I found very few others among the male guests who came close to how well dressed the women had turned out for the occasion.
At the beginning of the reception the wedding party procession enters the venue (in this case it was a very large and modern meeting hall). This party consists of the bride and groom's close family. Once the entrance is made, an important part of the ceremony involves the payment of the dowry. In Karo tradition a man agrees to pay the bride's family a (usually small) dowry at the time he asks for permission to marry her.
The payment of the dowry takes place at the reception, where members of the groom's family give money to members of the bride's. The money is carefully counted because the reception cannot proceed and, more importantly, the bride cannot be formally admitted to the groom's family until her family have deemed the dowry to have been paid.
With the dowry paid, the festivities can begin. Throughout the reception members of both families partake in traditional Karonese dancing. This is very much a laissez-faire style of dancing, with most of the movement done with the hands. The men and the women dance separately — except of course for the newlyweds themselves. The dancing continues throughout the ceremony, being interrupted only for the giving of speeches, wedding gifts and eating.
Speech giving is also quite long and drawn out. As their families encircle the couple, one-by-one different members take center stage to offer them advice on married life. Anyone, it seems, so long as they are of adult age, is free to put in their two cents worth! In practice though, it is usually the senior members of their close families who feel the urge to set them off on the right path. Even so, the wedding I attended contained about two hours of speech giving!
Once the speeches are over, and the guests have danced some more, the gift giving can begin. While some of the gifts are more practical than others, each is a gift based on tradition and each has its own symbolic meaning.
As in western weddings, practical household items, like bedding, for the couple's new home are a common gift. A gift you're unlikely to find at a western wedding is a live hen! Yet this is an important gift to give as it symbolizes fertility and is thought to have great impact on childbearing.
Another gift with a lot of symbolic meaning is the traditional Batak cloth (ulos). The person giving one of these as a gift wraps it around the bride and groom and then ties the ends into a knot. This act means that the giver is hoping for a long and happy bonding for the couple.
As you might imagine, all this dancing, speech giving and gift giving makes the guests hungry. With some five hundred guests to feed I had been wondering when the caterers would arrive. I didn't have to go far to find them. Around back of the meeting hall were a host of anak beru who had been busy all day peeling and chopping vegetables. These were being cooked — along with rice and chicken — by male members of the groom's family. The cooking was done on wood-fired stoves in some of the biggest pots I'd ever seen! Somehow the timing was perfect — I suppose they'd done this before — and about ten minutes after the gift giving was over, all five hundred (and one) of the guests were eating a wonderful meal, washed down with cold tea. It's probably a good thing the Karo still eat food with their hands because I think the food would have been cold if they'd had to hand out eating utensils to everyone.
After the meal I wrapped the ulos I had brought around the bride and groom, tied it into a knot and said good-bye. I've attended some very elaborate weddings but none quite on this scale!
Photography copyright © 1999 -
Ray Waddington. All rights reserved.
Text copyright © 1999 - 2020, The Peoples of the World Foundation. All rights reserved.
Rae, S., (1996) Breath Becomes the Wind: Old and New in Karo Religion. Dunedin, New Zealand: Otago University Press.
Schnitger, F. M., (1989) Forgotten Kingdoms in Sumatra. 3rd Edition. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
R. Carle, ed. (1986) Cultures and Societies of North Sumatra. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag.
Singarimbun, M., (1975) Kinship, Descent, and Alliance Among the Karo Batak. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
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