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About the Collection: Batak Texts

Bark Books (pustaha)

The bark books are made from a strip of the smooth inner bark of the alim tree (Aquilaria malaccensis), which is folded accordion-like to form a number of equal sized leaves. Wooden covers are attached to the first and last leaves; fine specimens may have carved covers and elaborate illustrations in the text, sometimes enlivened by red ink.

For the most part, the texts of the bark books address either the art of preserving life or of destroying life. They were written by a datu (sorcerer or priest), for his own use and for transmission to pupils. Thus, the texts usually contain the phrase poda ni, which has been translated as “instructions for” or “relating to the theory of” by Petrus Voorhoeve. Because they contain specialist knowledge, the content of the bark books is often difficult for non-specialists to understand. They are written in a standardized language (called poda language by Voorhoeve) using an archaic Toba Batak dialect which retained many ancient words that were no longer used in spoken language.

Bamboo Texts

In addition to providing instructions to ritual specialists, Batak texts also served as divinatory charts used to help predict the future and used in the context of ritual sacrifices or calendrical predictions. These texts were usually inscribed on short sections of bamboo – trimmed to a foot or less in length and inscribed with sharp metal tools.

Calendars are typically inscribed as a table consisting of 30 columns (the days) and 12-13 lines (the month). Each square thus represents a single day, and each contains a symbol that denotes the day’s propitious significance, much as a daily horoscope seeks to summarize what each day will bring. Of all the textual forms, calendars are probably the only Batak manuscript form that remains in use today.

Texts of non-religious nature are also sometimes inscribed on bamboo. Subject matters range from love poems to lament songs, threatening letters to enemies known as musuh berngi, genealogies, and lesson plans (Kozok 1991:107).

Some bamboo manuscripts may also describe the care and use of the tunggal panaluan, the famous magic staff of the Batak datu. Several of these manuscripts have also contained texts of the myth of the origin of this staff and the method of its making. In his diaries, Bartlett mentioned collecting bamboo manuscripts that deal with the “songs” and magic of the tunggal panaluan.

Amulets (pagars)

A third source of textual inscriptions is found on pagars (literal meaning is "fence"). These are amulets in the shape of a figure that can either be consumed as medicine or hung up in the front of a house. The pagars protect the owner, whether an individual or an entire village, from the harmful intentions of hostile persons or spiritual beings. Pagars can be made from bamboo, wood, or bone, the latter being fashioned from the scapula or rib bone of a large mammal. The surface of these pagars is inscribed with an illustration of a figure and a textual spell. A drilled hole for suspending the pagar is usually found at the tip.