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Who are the Batak?

Map of Sumatra

Batak of Sumatra. © UMMA

The term "Batak" has been applied to a group of six distinct ethnic communities who have maintained chiefly polities in northern Sumatra, Indonesia. These six distinct ethnic groups – Pakpak, Karo, Simalungun, Toba, Angkola and Mandailing – inhabit a contiguous region around the Bukit Barisan mountain range and Lake Toba (Sibeth 1991:10-11).

Belonging to the Austronesian language family, the Batak languages are divided into three main linguistic groups:

  1. Southern Batak, consisting of Mandailing, Angkola and Toba
  2. Northern Batak consisting of the Pakpak/Dairi and Karo
  3. Central Batak consisting of the Simalungun group in the northeast

Batak Script

While the groups themselves speak distinct languages, they share (with some local variants) a common script, which is ultimately derived from South Indian scripts of the first millennium AD (Kozok 1991:34). Batak writing is one of the few examples of indigenous written languages that has been documented in Southeast Asia following European colonization.

Among the Batak, writing was largely restricted to religious specialists known as datu, or priests. Writing on bark paper books, bamboo strips and stalks, and animal bones, the datu recorded spells, laments, calendars, amulets, and divination instructions. Other documents served as teaching tools, recording lessons. Of the known Batak texts, approximately three-quarters are religious in nature.

Batak alphabet

Karo-Batak alphabet. Courtesy of Uli Kozok.

Batak script consists of 19 to 22 signs, and is written from left to right and from top to bottom. The literary form lacks punctuation, and an ornament is often used to separate the beginning of a new section.

While Batak writing likely has considerable antiquity, the tradition is rapidly disappearing and, today, few Bataks can read the script. Instead, this ancient tradition is largely preserved in approximately 2000 manuscripts stored in Museum collections in Europe and America. The Museum of Anthropology Bartlett Collection includes bark books, bamboos, and amulets – along with other objects made by the Batak people.