Batak Culture and Religion

Giant sarcophagus of the legendary Raja (King) Sidabutar

Batak religion was originally heavily steeped in animism, marked by some rather gruesome ingredients. Cannibalism was an infrequent pastime, recorded through secondhand sources only until the first European gave a grizzly account in the 19th century. The story of Franz Junghun, a German geographer, left no doubt about the savagery he witnessed on three occasions during his stay with the Batak. While cannibalism may not have survived in the 20th century, the reburial ceremonies of the Karo Batak, are still practiced. The bones of deceased are exhumed and cleansed every few years during ceremonies that can go on for days on end ! Islam had only a modest success in the early 19th century. The Paderi movement managed to convert most Batak in the Tapanuli region, but was unsuccessful with large swaths of Batak area in the rest of North Sumatra. Surprisingly, where Islam failed, Christian efforts led by Dutch missionaries soon after converted Toba, Karo, Pakpak and Simalungin tribes to Protestantism. While it is debatable to which extend the Batak succumbed to cannibalism, there are several locations on Samosir dotted with stone artifacts testifying to older, more powerful currents even in today’s Batak world. Curious collections of stone chairs in one village illustrate the rather radical way of punishing wrongdoers, while the next one houses the giant sarcophagus of the legendary Raja (King) Sidabutar.