February 4 Lake Toba and Batak Culture

We spent our day at Lake Toba touring Samosir Island and learning about Batak history and culture. I suppose that we could have just hung out at the resort, swimming, kayaking, and relaxing, as most (90 percent?) of the other tourists were doing, pretending that they were in a lower cost version of Bali. But that is just not the way that we travel! I am always curious and interested in learning about other cultures and meeting people in the places that I visit.

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Batak Toba Buhit village on Samosir Island in Lake Toba

Lake Toba is a lake and super volcano. The lake is 100 kilometers long, 30 kilometers wide, and up to 505 meters (1,666 feet) deep. It is located in the middle of the northern part of Sumatra, with a surface elevation of about 900 meters (2,953 feet). It is the largest lake in Indonesia, and the largest volcanic lake in the world.

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A view of Lake Toba from near our resort on Samosir Island

Lake Toba is the site of a massive super volcanic eruption that occurred 69,000 to 77,000 years ago. It is the largest known explosive eruption on Earth in the last 25 million years. The subsequent collapse after the eruption formed a caldera that, after filling with water, created Lake Toba. Samosir Island in the center of the lake was formed by a resurgent dome.

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Houses near the shore of Lake Toba on Samosir Island

A resurgent dome is a dome formed by the swelling or rising of a caldera floor due to movement in the magma chamber beneath it. Unlike a lava dome, a resurgent dome is not formed by the extrusion of lava onto the surface. It is formed by the uplift and deformation of the surface itself by magma movement underground. Resurgent domes are typically found near the center of very large open calderas such as the Yellowstone Caldera or Valles Caldera,  and such calderas are often referred to as “resurgent-type” calderas to distinguish them from the more common (but much smaller) calderas found on shield volcanoes and stratovolcanoes.

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Stone monument at the entrance of Ambarita village

The ruins of an ancient Batak village along with stone chairs and a head-chopping stone block can be found in the Batak village village of Ambarita on Samosir Island. This was our first stop on the tour of Samosir Island.

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Harmony and Ann sit on a stone bench in the Ambarita village

The stone chairs were used for meetings by the local king, and both a torture stone and chopping block were once used for brutal executions.

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Ann, Jeff, and Harmony pose in the stone courtyard of Ambarita village

Our guide, Hans, told us that the stone ruins were about 400 years old.

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Jeff is holding a medicine man’s pole, which would be used to determine answers to questions posed by the village to the gods

We got a watch a performance of an ancient execution ritual in the stone courtyard.

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Ann and Hans are standing outside of a traditional house in Ambarita village

One of the houses in the village was a Batak Toba museum. This one was set up as a museum inside, with display cases of traditional music instruments and other items of Batak culture (no volcano evacuees here!) This made is easier for Hans to tell us about the Batak culture, and explain the purposes of the things that were on display in the museum.

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Batak items on display in the museum in Ambarita village

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Batak jars on display in the center cooking pit in the museum house in Ambarita village

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Hans demonstrates a blow tube used to heat up a fire under a pot in the cooking pit

.We stopped  to look at some cocoa trees and coffee bushes on our way to the next Batak Toba village on our tour.

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Harmony and Ann are posing next to a cocoa tree with red seed pods growing from its trunk

These trees and bushes were growing in the front yard of a house alongside the road.. The pods containing the cocoa beans grow from the trunks of the cocoa trees. There were two types of cocoa trees growing in this yard. One type had small red pods and the other one had larger yellow pods growing from its trunk.

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Harmony pretends “to eat” a yellow cocoa bean pod

There were also coffee bushes in the yard. These looked much healthier than the ones that were covered in volcanic ash near Berastagi.

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Ann is standing next to a coffee bush in a yard near a house on Samosir Island

The next place that we stopped was the Batak Toba village of Simanido. This turned out to be the home village of Hans’ ancestors. He showed us a framed drawing of a circular family tree, and pointed out the wedge that contained his family.

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Circular family tree drawing in Simanido Batak Toba village museum

Traditional dancing is performed here at 10:30 a.m. each morning – if any tourists have shown up. We were the only tourists there, but they did perform their dance program for us. We also ended up participating in one of the dances! The water buffalo tied to the tree is also part of this traditional dance, but all he has to do is quietly stand there and behave. It is considered a very bad omen if the buffalo misbehaves! Fortunately, ours was a very calm and well behaved buffalo!

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Jeff and Ann take part in a traditional Batak dance in Simanido village

The dancing done at the museum is far more authentic than the tourist-oriented variety sometimes performed at the resorts. The wooden mannequin dressed in traditional Batak clothing was originally made for a chief how had lost his only son. A performer makes the mannequin’s arms move so it appears to be dancing. This made the chief happy, so these wooden “dancing arm” mannequins are still made and displayed in some of the traditional Batak Toba villages.

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A performer makes the wooden mannequin’s arms move so it appears to be dancing during a traditional Batak Toba dance performance

In the photo below are some of the traditional graves of the chiefs from Simanido village. The small stone one on the left is the oldest. The brick and stone ones shaped like Batak houses are more recent. Hans said that Batak houses were built with these “boat shaped” roofs to resemble Noah’s Ark.

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Traditional Batak graves in Simanido village

This above ground burial sarcophaguses might seem elaborate, but they were simple compared with many of the elaborate ones that we saw in the fields when we were driving around Samosir Island! It seems like many of the island residents are trying to compete with each other to give their family members the most elaborate final resting places! The one pictured below is a more modern Christian family sarcophagus alongside of the road.

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Batak Toba family sarcophagus in a field alongside of the road on Samosir Island

Some of these “death monuments” were so big and elaborate, that they were bigger than the houses sitting near them! So I think that I can say that many Batak Toba people get to live in more elaborate “houses” after they die than the houses that they live in while they are alive! This bothered Harmony tremendously; that so much good growing space in the farm fields on the island was occupied by these enormous family sarcophaguses! Below is a photo with two of them in a field, and Lake Toba in the background.

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Photo with two sarcophaguses in a field with Lake Toba in the background.

Our final stop before lunch was the small Batak Toba village of Buhit. Although many people on the island live in modern style houses, some of them still live in the traditional Batak Toba houses. One way to quickly  see if a traditional style house was inhabited was to look for laundry drying outside.

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A traditional Batak Toba house in Buhit village on Samosir Island

This village also had lots of cocoa beans our drying in front of the houses.

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Cocoa beans drying in front of a house in Buhit village

Buhit Village is home to many weavers of the traditional Batak blankets used in dances and rituals. These young women are traditional weavers, working under a traditional house on traditional Batak Toba wedding blankets. (Lots of tradition here!) And apparently, a very good income. These hand-woven, traditional wedding blankets sell for 500,000 rupiah (about $40) each. It takes a skilled weaver about three weeks to make one blanket. So they can earn more than 9,000,000 rupiah (about $720) per year.

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Batak traditional weavers making traditional wedding blankets sitting under a traditional Batak Toba house in Buhit village on Samosir Island

Most of their blankets are commissioned by Batak Toba families who want to give them to sons and daughters who are getting married. I could not resist, and so I also bought a blanket from one of the weavers. There were other weavers in the village selling many types of beautiful hand woven Batak blankets, but these young women were the only ones weaving the traditional Batak marriage blankets.

There were many vendors selling Batak handicrafts in other places on the island. Often their items for sale would be cheaper, such as a Batak blanket for 50,000 rupiahs. But lots of those items were made elsewhere in factories, and were not made by the local Batak artists. To get the authentic items, you need to go into a traditional village and purchase them there.  (You will also pay more, but your money is likely going to the person or family that made the item.)

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Ann is kneeling next to a Batak waver who made her traditional Batak wedding blanket

We ate lunch in a small local restaurant in Pangururan, the capital of Samosir Island. This was notable because we were finally offered meat that was not chicken or fish. Both barbecued pork and pork curry were part of the lunch menu, along with chicken curry, fish curry, and cassava leaves.

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Jeff and Harmony eating lunch in a restaurant in Pangururan

We saw something interesting when we drove out of Pangururan after lunch. We were passed by a political parade in support of a local candidate. The candidate rode in a real car, but most of his supporters were driving rikchas. As if bumpy, potholed roads weren’t enough to slow us down, we also had to wait on the side in our car for all of these parade rikchas to go by us!

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Political parade outside of Pangururan on Samosir Island

We stopped at another beautiful Catholic church, built in the traditional Batak Toba style.

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Gereja Katolik Inkulturatif Paroki St Mikhael Pangururan church on Samosir Island

This one was not as ornate inside, so it really felt enormous with the high ceiling!

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Inside of Gereja Katolik Inkulturatif Paroki St Mikhael Pangururan church

There was an interesting statue outside of St. Michael and a wolf. According to Hans, the wolf is seen as a symbol of evil in the traditional Batak culture. So this statue of a man patting a wolf symbolizes the saint subduing evil.

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A statue of St. Michael patting a wolf outside of Gereja Katolik Inkulturatif Paroki St Mikhael Pangururan church

I don’t want to give the impression that there were only Catholic churches on Samosir Island. There were also lots and lots of Protestant churches. There were so many churches in fact, that Jeff said he seldom went from more than two minutes without seeing a church! Protestant churches did outnumber Catholic churches. Every village or small group of houses seemed to have a church near it, and they all looked well maintained.

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Protestant church on Samosir Island

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Protestant church on Samosir Island

I noticed that Christmas decorations were still up inside of this church!

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Inside of a Protestant church on Samosir Island

The island seemed mostly Christian, but we did drive by one mosque, and also one traditional Batak religion worship building alongside of Lake Toba.

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Traditional Batak religious worship site on the shore of Lake Toba

The Dutch, who colonized Indonesia in the 19th century, dug a canal throught the narrow strip of land that connected Samosir Island to the mainland. This completely separated the island from the surrounding lake shore, and made boat transport around the island easier. This was good, because of the high mountains in the center of the island. They are difficult to cross, with only a few steep trails and no roads, according to Hans. So the fastest way to the other side of the island is to go around it by boat. (Roads take awhile because of their poor conditions in most places!)

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Boys walking along the road that runs next to the canal dug by the Dutch to separate Samosir Island from the mainland

We made one more stop in the village of Tomok. There are more stone remains and ancient tombs in this village. Most people find the carved man on the front of the largest sarcophagus here strangely out of place! It looks more Egyptian than Indonesian!

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Carved stone sarcophagus in Tomok village

We got back to our resort in the late afternoon, because we had done a full day of touring most of Samosir Island. But we had about an hour before we needed to leave for dinner, so we all went swimming in the pool at the resort (even Jeff!) You can see Lake Toba in the background behind him.

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Jeff is in the pool at our resort on Samosir Island

Harmony and I swam in the pool, but we also swam for a bit in Lake Toba. The water in the pool and the water in the lake were both the same relatively warm temperature. The water was much deeper in Lake Toba;we could not touch bottom in the lake, even near the dock. You can see the local ferry that takes passengers across the lake to Pak-Pak behind us. We took this ferry when we left on the next day.

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Ann and Harmony swimming in Lake Toba with the Pak-Pak passenger ferry coming into the dock behind them on Lake Toba

That night we went for dinner to a local restaurant in Tuk Tuk, the village where our resort was located on Samosir Island. we had grilled fish that was delicious!

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Harmony and Ann at dinner in a local restaurant in Tuk Tuk on Samosir Island

When all of the other local diners had left after dinner, (we were the only tourists in the restaurant!), the restaurant owner/cook and her waiter/busboy/guitar player entertained us by singing traditional Batak songs. It was a wonderful way to end our day on the island!

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The cook/owner and Waiter/busboy/guitar player of a local Tuk Tuk restaurant entertain us by singing some local Batak songs

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