Batak civilization in Northern Sumatra extends outward from the ancestral center point of Danau Toba, a vast lake formed in the caldera of a supervolcano.

 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

'Batak' is the name employed to refer collectively to the Toba, Simalungun, Pakpak, Karo, Angkola, and Mandailing peoples of Sumatra who are loosely related to each other by customs and language. Presently numbering more than 8 million souls, the Bataks are a large and influential group in contemporary Indonesia, well represented in military, government, intellectual and cultural spheres.

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

The first known Westerner to attempt to visit the interior Batak territories was Marco Polo, who in 1292 was denied entry into Batak lands. A purveyor of the gossip of the times, Marco Polo described the Bataks’ practice of occasional ritual cannibalism and in scurrilous terms wrote that Bataks ate the "rump to stump" of other people, including their own grandparents. This profoundly controversial statement set the stage, subsequently extending through the European colonial era, for the elaborate framing of Bataks as ‘man-eaters.'

Halting the purported 'cannibalistic' tendencies of the Bataks as well as ritual practices involving human sacrifice was employed as a pretext for the extension of European dominion and its frame of 'rust en orde' (peace and order) into the Batak realm during the 19th century. It has been suggested that alien commentators, at different times, have fallen victim to Batak propaganda efforts to erect a fearsome facade to preserve control of their own world and to strike fear into the hearts of interlopers. Bataks, while long renowned as fierce warriors, are often extremely gracious people with a deep history and an enviably rich culture.

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Bataks are renowned for their literary skills and developed their own form of writing, related to Sanskritic Old Javanese, before contact with the West. Batak craft literacy was the preserve of the datu, shamanic healers, and mystics who composed ritual books or pustaha. In some instances, they were specialist artists who fashioned ritual accouterments and regalia.

Some beautiful and emblematic works of Batak artistry demonstrate the capacity to carve varied types of material in minutiae with extraordinary precision and skill. This high artistry is evident on the most beautiful shamanic staffs, Tunggal Panaluan, on the magical horn containers known as Naga Morsarang and on other paraphernalia associated with protective functions, auguries, inscriptions, or charms relating to magic.

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

 
 
 

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Elegant and bold ornamentation can be found on and within traditional dwellings, on carved wooden apotropaic figures, including diverse representations of the totemic Batak Singa (a mythical animal), and on massive carved ancestral stone tombs and monuments, as well as on myriad ritual and personal items for daily use and adornment.

Batak women are highly skilled weavers and have long produced fine and stately textiles in somber and dignified designs and colors. The metallurgical expertise of smiths and jewelers within the Batak diaspora is also highly accomplished and diverse as evidenced in a lavish treasury of weapons and ornaments. 

The sublime creations displayed below derive from global museum collections including Museum Nasional Indonesia, Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Yale University Art Gallery, The Dallas Museum of Art, Weltmuseum Wien, Musée du Quai-Branly, The British Museum, De Young Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Asian Civilisations Museum.

The writings of cultural commentators such as Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller and Achim Sibeth provide an illuminating basis for additional study and appreciation of the attainments and complexities of Batak artistic traditions.

 
 

Mourning Mask | Topeng
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Horn for Magical and Medicinal Substances | Buli Buli
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Priest's Staff | Tunggal Panaluan
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Priest’s Container for Magical and Medicinal Paraphernalia | Naga Morsarang
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Mourning Mask | Topeng
© Museum Nasional Indonesia

Priest’s Container for Magical and Medicinal Paraphernalia | Naga Morsarang
© The British Museum | United Kingdom

Priest's Staff | Tunggal Panaluan
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Gun Powder Flask | Parpanggahan
© Asian Civilisations Museum | Singapore

Priest's Staff | Tunggal Panaluan
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Mourning Mask | Topeng
© The British Museum | United Kingdom

Priest’s Container for Magical and Medicinal Paraphernalia | Naga Morsarang
© Weltmuseum Wien | Austria

Puppet | Si Gale Gale
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Puppet | Si Gale Gale
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Male and Female Protective Figures | Pagar
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Priest’s Sacred Book in Batak Script (surat Batak) | Pustaha
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Guardian Sentinel
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Bullet Holder | Paru-Paru or Baba Ni Onggang
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Protective Statue | Pagar
© de Young Museum FAMSF | California, USA

Fetish Figure
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Male Protective Figure | Pagar
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Man’s Bracelet
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Priest’s Knife Hilt
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Sword with a Janus-faced Hilt | Piso
© The Dallas Museum of Art | Texas, USA

Priest's Staff | Tunggal Panaluan
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

One of a Pair of Pagar Figures
© Musée du Quai-Branly | France

Male Protective Figure | Pangulubalang
© Musée du Quai-Branly | France

Container for Magical Substances | Guri-Guri
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art | New York, USA

Priest's Carrying Case for Magical Paraphernalia
© de Young Museum FAMSF | California, USA

Priest’s Container for Magical and Medicinal Paraphernalia | Naga Morsarang
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Priest's Staff | Tunggal Panaluan
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Female Protective Figure | Pagar
© Yale University Art Gallery | Connecticut, USA

Priest’s Container
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands

Gun Powder Flask | Parpanggahan
© Asian Civilisations Museum | Singapore

Detail of Priest’s Sacred Book | Pustaha
© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | The Netherlands