The Batak ethnic group inhabiting the intererior of North Sumatra is devided into six sub-groups. They are the Toba, Karo, Pakpak, Simalungun, Angkola and Mandailing Batak. While two subgroups have converted to Islam, the others have mostly converted to Christianity, primarily through efforts of the German missionary.
Nonetheless, ancient beliefs and traditions, customs and rituals still persist and are adhered to until this very day even by communities who have moved out and resettled in many parts of the Indonesian archipelago.
Most striking when visiting Lake Toba are the Toba villages and their interesting traditional houses, where best examples are at Tomok and Simanindo on the island of Samosir. With modernization, however, hardly any new traditional houses are built, making it, therefore, a special opportunity to visit these before they are completely abandoned and fall in disrepair.
To protect the village from outside raids, barriers of earthen ramparts are built surrounding the village, with bamboo fencing and trees.
The Batak Toba village itself, such as the village of Tomok, consists of a row of separate massive wooden houses with striking saddle-shaped thatch roofs made of sugar palm fibre (called ijuk), although many roofs have now been replaced by the more durable but unromantic corrugated sheets. Houses are raised and supported on large piles of one to two meters height, meant to avoid floods and wild beasts. The houses at Tomok stand with their backs to the lake.
On Samosir Island, the Toba Batak traditional house is called “jabu” or “rumah bolon”. While, opposite each house, across an open paved area are corresponding rice barns, called “sopo”, which are almost equal in size as the house itself, where rice used to be stored, but can also serve as extra dormitory. The paved village area between them is the “alaman” where village ceremonies take place or rice is spread out to dry.
The largest and most prominent house is the communal meeting hall called the “bale” and that of the chief, distinguished by the intricrate decorative floral and foliage drawings in red, white and black on its gable. The three colors represent the 3 spheres of the cosmos, namely red symbolizing the human world, white, made of chalk, for the good spirits, and black made of charcoal, representing the underworld.
An excellent example is the chieftain’s house of Raja Sidauruk at Simanindo , now a museum, where the sigalegale puppet performances are held.
Many houses on Toba are also decorated with symbolic carvings of breasts and geckos (called cicak). The breasts are for fertility and the geckos are for protection of the house, while at the top gable is invariably placed the head of a water buffalo, denoting prosperity for the inhabitants.
The Batak Toba house has, therefore, three distinct zones. The lower zone beneath the house among the piles is a working area and often used as a pen for animals. The floor area, the zone above this, is the actual home of the extended family, accessed by a ladder or stairs. The interior of the house has no division and is therefore one long, dimly lit hall. At night, cloths are drawn down to separate the sleeping areas between each family.
While the highest storey or the attic is the most important part of the building where family heirlooms and ancestral shrines are placed.
A house used to be inhabited by between four to six families, but nowadays sometimes only one family lives in one house.
To observe and study the varied architectural designs and construction of houses belonging to Batak clans, visit the TB Silalahi Center and Batak museum in the town of Balige located on the southernmost shore of Lake Toba.