About Indonesia

Indonesia, officially the Republic of Indonesia, is a country in Southeast Asia and Oceania. Indonesia is an archipelago comprising approximately 17,508 islands.[5] It has 34 provinces with over 238 million people, and is the world's fourth most populous country. Indonesia is a republic, with an elected legislature and president. The nation's capital city is Jakarta. The country shares land borders with Papua New Guinea, East Timor, and Malaysia. Other neighboring countries include Singapore, Philippines, Australia, Palau, and the Indian territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Indonesia is a founding member of ASEAN and a member of the G-20 major economies. The Indonesian economy is the world's sixteenth largest by nominal GDP and fifteenth largest by purchasing power parity.

The Indonesian archipelago has been an important trade region since at least the 7th century, when Srivijaya and then later Majapahit traded with China and India. Local rulers gradually absorbed foreign cultural, religious and political models from the early centuries CE, and Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms flourished. Indonesian history has been influenced by foreign powers drawn to its natural resources. Muslim traders brought Islam, and European powers brought Christianity and fought one another to monopolize trade in the Spice Islands of Maluku during the Age of Discovery. Following three and a half centuries of Dutch colonialism, Indonesia secured its independence after World War II. Indonesia's history has since been turbulent, with challenges posed by natural disasters, corruption, separatism, a democratization process, and periods of rapid economic change.

Across its many islands, Indonesia consists of hundreds of distinct native ethnic and linguistic groups. The largest—and politically dominant—ethnic group are the Javanese. A shared identity has developed, defined by a national language, ethnic diversity, religious pluralism within a majority Muslim population, and a history of colonialism and rebellion against it. Indonesia's national motto, "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika" ("Unity in Diversity" literally, "many, yet one"), articulates the diversity that shapes the country. Despite its large population and densely populated regions, Indonesia has vast areas of wilderness that support the world's second highest level of biodiversity. The country has abundant natural resources, yet poverty remains widespread.[6][7]

Indonesian provinces and their capitals, listed by region


Ethnic groups in Indonesia

There are over 300 ethnic groups in Indonesia.[1] 95% of those are of Native Indonesians ancestry.[2]

The largest ethnic group in Indonesia is the Javanese who make up 41% of the total population. The Javanese are concentrated on the island of Java but millions have migrated to other islands throughout the archipelago because of the transmigration program.[3] The Sundanese, Malay, and Madurese are the next largest groups in the country.[3] Many ethnic groups, particularly in Kalimantan and Papua, have only hundreds of members. Most of the local languages belong to Austronesian language family, although a significant number, particularly in Papua, speak Papuan languages. The Chinese Indonesian population makes up a little less than 1% of the total Indonesian population according to the 2000 census.[3] Some of these Indonesians of Chinese descent speak various Chinese dialects, most notably Hokkien and Hakka.

The classification of ethnic groups in Indonesia is not rigid and in some cases unclear due to migrations, cultural and linguistic influences; for example some may consider Bantenese and Cirebonese to be members of Javanese people, however some others argue that they are different ethnic groups altogether since they have their own distinct dialects. This is the same case with Baduy people that share many cultural similarities with the Sundanese people. An example of hybrid ethnicity is the Betawi people, descended not only from marriages between different peoples in Indonesia but also with Arab and Chinese migrants since the era of colonial Batavia (Jakarta).

The proportions of Indonesian ethnic groups according to the (2000 census) are as follows:[4]

Ethnic groupsPopulation (million)PercentageMain Regions
Javanese 83.866 41.71 Central Java, East Java, Yogyakarta, Jakarta, Lampung
Sundanese 30.978 15.41 West Java, Banten, Jakarta, Lampung
Malay 6.946 3.45 Sumatra eastern coast (North Sumatra, Riau, Riau Islands, Jambi, South Sumatra) and West Kalimantan
Madurese 6.772 3.37 Madura island, East Java
Batak 6.076 3.02 North Sumatra
Minangkabau 5.475 2.72 West Sumatra, Riau
Betawi 5.042 2.51 Jakarta, Banten, West Java
Bugis 5.010 2.49 South Sulawesi, East Kalimantan
Bantenese 4.113 2.05 Banten
Banjarese 3.496 1.74 South Kalimantan, East Kalimantan
Balinese 3.028 1.51 Bali
Sasak 2.611 1.3 West Nusa Tenggara
Makassarese 1.982 0.99 South Sulawesi
Cirebonese 1.890 0.94 West Java, Central Java
The map of native ethnic groups in Indonesia, foreign origin ethnic groups such as Chinese, Arab and Indian are not shown, but usually inhabit urban areas.

Indigenous ethnicities

The regions of Indonesia have some of their indigenous ethnic groups. Due to migration within Indonesia (as part of government transmigration programs or otherwise), there are significant populations of ethic groups who reside outside of their traditional regions.


Foreign ethnicities

Throughout Indonesian history, waves of migration of foreign origin ethnicites were spread throughout Indonesia, usually inhabit urban centers and seldom reach rural parts of Indonesia.

  • Chinese: The most significant foreign origin ethnic minority in Indonesia. Chinese began inhabiting Indonesia since 15th century with significant waves in 18th and 19th century. Mostly concentrated in pecinan (chinatowns) in urban Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan, with significant numbers in Jakarta, Medan, Semarang, Surabaya, Cirebon, Pekanbaru, Batam, Bangka island and Pontianak in West Kalimantan.
  • Arabs: Historically Arab traders were credited for the spread of Islam in Indonesian archipelago. Many have assimilated into local ethnicities such as Betawi, Malay, Javanese, and Sundanese; however several cities in Indonesia have significant Arabs that preserve their culture, identity, and their links to Arabia. Spread throughout Indonesian cities, yet significant numbers can be found in Surabaya, Gresik, Jakarta, Medan and many coastal cities in Indonesia.
  • Indian: Indian people also had settled the Indonesian archipelago, however their number is not as large as that of Chinese Indonesians. Concentrated in urban centers with significant numbers around Pasar Baru in Jakarta, and Kampung Keling in Medan.
  • Indos: Indos or Eurasians, of mixed ancestry between the Indonesian native ethnic group and European/Dutch ancestry, they emerge during the Dutch East Indies. Around one million Indonesians with various degree of mixed ancestry today can trace their ancestry to the Europeans. During the colonial time their number where more, but since the Indonesian independence some chose to return to the Netherlands. Eurasian Indonesians dwindle as an ethnic group since major emigration from Indonesia after World War II.
  • Japanese: Japanese has migrated to Indonesia since the Dutch East Indies colonial era; however, after their defeat in World War II their number decreased, leaving small numbers of ex-Japanese soldiers that still stayed in Indonesia and became Indonesian citizens. The recent development of Japanese residents in Indonesia was driven by the increase of Japanese business and investment in Indonesia since 1970s, and mostly are expatriates that still maintain their Japanese citizenship. Significant numbers of Japanese expatriates stay in Indonesia, especially in Jakarta and Bali.
  • Korean: They are the recent addition of Indonesian foreign origin ethnicities, dated back only several decades ago. Mostly driven by the increase of Korean business and investment in Indonesia, and mostly are expatriates that still maintain their Korean citizenship





The name Indonesia derives from the Latin and Greek Indus, and the Greek nèsos, meaning "island".[8] The name dates to the 18th century, far predating the formation of independent Indonesia.[9] In 1850, George Windsor Earl, an English ethnologist, proposed the terms Indunesians — and, his preference, Malayunesians — for the inhabitants of the "Indian Archipelago or Malayan Archipelago".[10] In the same publication, a student of Earl's, James Richardson Logan, used Indonesia as a synonym for Indian Archipelago.[11][12] However, Dutch academics writing in East Indies publications were reluctant to use Indonesia. Instead, they used the terms Malay Archipelago (Maleische Archipel); the Netherlands East Indies (Nederlandsch Oost Indië), popularly Indië; the East (de Oost); and Insulinde.[13]

After 1900, the name Indonesia became more common in academic circles outside the Netherlands, and Indonesian nationalist groups adopted it for political expression.[13] Adolf Bastian, of the University of Berlin, popularized the name through his book Indonesien oder die Inseln des Malayischen Archipels, 1884–1894. The first Indonesian scholar to use the name was Suwardi Suryaningrat (Ki Hajar Dewantara), when he established a press bureau in the Netherlands with the name Indonesisch Pers-bureau in 1913.[9]


Fossils and the remains of tools show that the Indonesian archipelago was inhabited by Homo erectus, popularly known as the "Java Man", between 1.5 million years ago and as recently as 35,000 years ago.[15][16][17] Homo sapiens reached the region by around 45,000 years ago.[18] In 2011 evidence was uncovered in neighbouring East Timor, showing that 42,000 years ago these early settlers had high-level maritime skills, and by implication the technology needed to make ocean crossings to reach Australia and other islands, as they were catching and consuming large numbers of big deep sea fish such as tuna.[19]

Austronesian peoples, who form the majority of the modern population, migrated to South East Asia from Taiwan. They arrived in Indonesia around 2000 BCE, and as they spread through the archipelago, pushed the indigenous Melanesian peoples to the far eastern regions.[20] Ideal agricultural conditions, and the mastering of wet-field rice cultivation as early as the 8th century BCE,[21] allowed villages, towns, and small kingdoms to flourish by the 1st century CE. Indonesia's strategic sea-lane position fostered inter-island and international trade, including links with Indian kingdoms and China, which were established several centuries BCE.[22] Trade has since fundamentally shaped Indonesian history.[23][24]

The nutmeg plant is native to Indonesia's Banda Islands. Once one of the world's most valuable commodities, it drew the first European colonial powers to Indonesia.

From the 7th century, the powerful Srivijaya naval kingdom flourished as a result of trade and the influences of Hinduism and Buddhism that were imported with it.[25][26] Between the 8th and 10th centuries, the agricultural Buddhist Sailendra and Hindu Mataram dynasties thrived and declined in inland Java, leaving grand religious monuments such as Sailendra's Borobudur and Mataram's Prambanan. The Hindu Majapahit kingdom was founded in eastern Java in the late 13th century, and under Gajah Mada, its influence stretched over much of Indonesia.[27]

Although Muslim traders first traveled through South East Asia early in the Islamic era, the earliest evidence of Islamized populations in Indonesia dates to the 13th century in northern Sumatra.[28] Other Indonesian areas gradually adopted Islam, and it was the dominant religion in Java and Sumatra by the end of the 16th century. For the most part, Islam overlaid and mixed with existing cultural and religious influences, which shaped the predominant form of Islam in Indonesia, particularly in Java.[29] The first regular contact between Europeans and the peoples of Indonesia began in 1512, when Portuguese traders, led by Francisco Serrão, sought to monopolize the sources of nutmeg, cloves, and cubeb pepper in Maluku.[30] Dutch and British traders followed. In 1602 the Dutch established the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and became the dominant European power. Following bankruptcy, the VOC was formally dissolved in 1800, and the government of the Netherlands established the Dutch East Indies as a nationalized colony.[31]

For most of the colonial period, Dutch control over the archipelago was tenuous outside of coastal strongholds; only in the early 20th century did Dutch dominance extend to what was to become Indonesia's current boundaries.[32] Despite major internal political, social and sectarian divisions during the Indonesian National Revolution, Indonesians, on the whole, found unity in their fight for independence. Japanese occupation during World War II ended Dutch rule,[33][34] and encouraged the previously suppressed Indonesian independence movement.[35] A later UN report stated that four million people died in Indonesia as a result of the Japanese occupation.[36] Two days after the surrender of Japan in August 1945, Sukarno, an influential nationalist leader, declared independence and was appointed president.[37][38][39][40] The Netherlands tried to reestablish their rule, and the resulting conflict ended in December 1949, when in the face of international pressure, the Dutch formally recognized Indonesian independence[38][41] (with the exception of the Dutch territory of West New Guinea, which was incorporated into Indonesia following the 1962 New York Agreement, and the UN-mandated Act of Free Choice of 1969).[42]


Map of Indonesia

Indonesia lies between latitudes 11°S and 6°N, and longitudes 95°E and 141°E. It consists of 17,508 islands, about 6,000 of which are inhabited.[86] These are scattered over both sides of the equator. The largest are Java, Sumatra, Borneo (shared with Brunei and Malaysia), New Guinea (shared with Papua New Guinea), and Sulawesi. Indonesia shares land borders with Malaysia on Borneo, Papua New Guinea on the island of New Guinea, and East Timor on the island of Timor. Indonesia shares maritime borders across narrow straits with Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Palau to the north, and with Australia to the south. The capital, Jakarta, is on Java and is the nation's largest city, followed by Surabaya, Bandung, Medan, and Semarang.[87]

At 1,919,440 square kilometers (741,050 sq mi), Indonesia is the world's 16th-largest country in terms of land area.[88] Its average population density is 134 people per square kilometer (347 per sq mi), 79th in the world,[89] although Java, the world's most populous island,[90] has a population density of 940 people per square kilometer (2,435 per sq mi). At 4,884 metres (16,024 ft), Puncak Jaya in Papua is Indonesia's highest peak, and Lake Toba in Sumatra its largest lake, with an area of 1,145 square kilometers (442 sq mi). The country's largest rivers are in Kalimantan, and include the Mahakam and Barito; such rivers are communication and transport links between the island's river settlements.[91]

Mount Semeru and Mount Bromo in East Java. Indonesia's seismic and volcanic activity is among the world's highest.

Indonesia's location on the edges of the Pacific, Eurasian, and Australian tectonic plates makes it the site of numerous volcanoes and frequent earthquakes. Indonesia has at least 150 active volcanoes,[92] including Krakatoa and Tambora, both famous for their devastating eruptions in the 19th century. The eruption of the Toba supervolcano, approximately 70,000 years ago, was one of the largest eruptions ever, and a global catastrophe. Recent disasters due to seismic activity include the 2004 tsunami that killed an estimated 167,736 in northern Sumatra,[93] and the Yogyakarta earthquake in 2006. However, volcanic ash is a major contributor to the high agricultural fertility that has historically sustained the high population densities of Java and Bali.[94]

Lying along the equator, Indonesia has a tropical climate, with two distinct monsoonal wet and dry seasons. Average annual rainfall in the lowlands varies from 1,780–3,175 millimeters (70–125 in), and up to 6,100 millimeters (240 in) in mountainous regions. Mountainous areas—particularly in the west coast of Sumatra, West Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Papua—receive the highest rainfall. Humidity is generally high, averaging about 80%. Temperatures vary little throughout the year; the average daily temperature range of Jakarta is 26–30 °C (79–86 °F).[95]

Biota and environment

The critically endangered Sumatran Orangutan, a great ape endemic to Indonesia.

Indonesia's size, tropical climate, and archipelagic geography, support the world's second highest level of biodiversity (after Brazil),[96] and its flora and fauna is a mixture of Asian and Australasian species.[97] The islands of the Sunda Shelf (Sumatra, Java, Borneo, and Bali) were once linked to the Asian mainland, and have a wealth of Asian fauna. Large species such as the tiger, rhinoceros, orangutan, elephant, and leopard, were once abundant as far east as Bali, but numbers and distribution have dwindled drastically. Forests cover approximately 60% of the country.[98] In Sumatra and Kalimantan, these are predominantly of Asian species. However, the forests of the smaller, and more densely populated Java, have largely been removed for human habitation and agriculture. Sulawesi, Nusa Tenggara, and Maluku—having been long separated from the continental landmasses—have developed their own unique flora and fauna.[99] Papua was part of the Australian landmass, and is home to a unique fauna and flora closely related to that of Australia, including over 600 bird species.[100]

Indonesia is second only to Australia in terms of total endemic species, with 36% of its 1,531 species of bird and 39% of its 515 species of mammal being endemic.[101] Indonesia's 80,000 kilometers (50,000 mi) of coastline are surrounded by tropical seas that contribute to the country's high level of biodiversity. Indonesia has a range of sea and coastal ecosystems, including beaches, sand dunes, estuaries, mangroves, coral reefs, sea grass beds, coastal mudflats, tidal flats, algal beds, and small island ecosystems.[8] Indonesia is one of Coral Triangle countries with the world's greatest diversity of coral reef fish with more than 1,650 species in eastern Indonesia only.[102] The British naturalist, Alfred Wallace, described a dividing line between the distribution and peace of Indonesia's Asian and Australasian species.[103] Known as the Wallace Line, it runs roughly north-south along the edge of the Sunda Shelf, between Kalimantan and Sulawesi, and along the deep Lombok Strait, between Lombok and Bali. West of the line the flora and fauna are more Asian; moving east from Lombok, they are increasingly Australian. In his 1869 book, The Malay Archipelago, Wallace described numerous species unique to the area.[104] The region of islands between his line and New Guinea is now termed Wallacea.[103]

Indonesia's high population and rapid industrialization present serious environmental issues, which are often given a lower priority due to high poverty levels and weak, under-resourced governance.[105] Issues include large-scale deforestation (much of it illegal) and related wildfires causing heavy smog over parts of western Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore; over-exploitation of marine resources; and environmental problems associated with rapid urbanization and economic development, including air pollution, traffic congestion, garbage management, and reliable water and waste water services.[105] Deforestation and the destruction of peatlands make Indonesia the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.[106] Habitat destruction threatens the survival of indigenous and endemic species, including 140 species of mammals identified by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as threatened, and 15 identified as critically endangered, including Bali Starling,[107] Sumatran Orangutan,[108] and Javan Rhinoceros.[107] Much of Indonesia's deforestation is caused by forest clearing for the palm oil Industry, which has cleared 18 million hectares of forest for palm oil expansion. Palm oil expansion requires land reallocation as well as changes to the local and natural ecosystems. Palm oil expansion can generate wealth for local communities if done right. If down wrong it can degrade ecosystems and cause social conflicts.[109]


There are around 300 distinct native ethnic groups in Indonesia, and 742 different languages and dialects.[137][138] Most Indonesians are descended from Austronesian-speaking peoples whose languages can be traced to Proto-Austronesian (PAn), which possibly originated in Taiwan. Another major grouping are Melanesians, who inhabit eastern Indonesia.[87][139] The largest ethnic group is the Javanese, who comprise 42% of the population, and are politically and culturally dominant.[140] The Sundanese, ethnic Malays, and Madurese are the largest non-Javanese groups.[141] A sense of Indonesian nationhood exists alongside strong regional identities.[142] Society is largely harmonious, although social, religious and ethnic tensions have triggered horrendous violence.[143][144][145] Chinese Indonesians are an influential ethnic minority comprising 3–4% of the population.[146] Much of the country's privately owned commerce and wealth is Chinese-Indonesian-controlled,[147][148] which has contributed to considerable resentment, and even anti-Chinese violence.[149][150][151]

The official national language is Indonesian, a form of Malay. It is based on the prestige dialect of Malay, that of the Johor-Riau Sultanate, which for centuries had been the lingua franca of the archipelago, standards of which are the official languages in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. Indonesian is universally taught in schools, consequently it is spoken by nearly every Indonesian. It is the language of business, politics, national media, education, and academia. It was promoted by Indonesian nationalists in the 1920s, and declared the official language under the name Bahasa Indonesia on the proclamation of independence in 1945. Most Indonesians speak at least one of the several hundred local languages and dialects, often as their first language. Of these, Javanese is the most widely spoken as the language of the largest ethnic group.[118] On the other hand, Papua has over 270 indigenous Papuan and Austronesian languages,[152] in a region of about 2.7 million people.

While religious freedom is stipulated in the Indonesian constitution,[153] the government officially recognizes only six religions: Islam, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.[154] Although it is not an Islamic state, Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation, with 87.2% of Indonesians being Muslim according to the 2010 census.[155] On 21 May 2011 the Indonesian Sunni-Shia Council (MUHSIN) was established. The council aims to hold gatherings, dialogues and social activities. It was an answer to violence committed in the name of religion.[156] The majority of Muslims in Indonesia are Sunni. 9% of the population was Christian, 3% Hindu, and 2% Buddhist or other. Most Indonesian Hindus are Balinese,[157] and most Buddhists in modern-day Indonesia are ethnic Chinese.[158] Though now minority religions, Hinduism and Buddhism remain defining influences in Indonesian culture. Islam was first adopted by Indonesians in northern Sumatra in the 13th century, through the influence of traders, and became the country's dominant religion by the 16th century.[159] Roman Catholicism was brought to Indonesia by early Portuguese colonialists and missionaries,[160][161] and the Protestant denominations are largely a result of Dutch Calvinist and Lutheran missionary efforts during the country's colonial period.[162][163][164] A large proportion of Indonesians—such as the Javanese abangan, Balinese Hindus, and Dayak Christians—practice a less orthodox, syncretic form of their religion, which draws on local customs and beliefs.[165]


Wayang Kulit (shadow puppet) in Wayang Purwa type, depicting five Pandava, from left to right: Bhima, Arjuna, Yudhishtira, Nakula, and Sahadeva, Indonesia Museum, Jakarta.

Indonesia has about 300 ethnic groups, each with cultural identities developed over centuries, and influenced by Indian, Arabic, Chinese, and European sources. Traditional Javanese and Balinese dances, for example, contain aspects of Hindu culture and mythology, as do wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performances. Textiles such as batik, ikat, ulos and songket are created across Indonesia in styles that vary by region. The most dominant influences on Indonesian architecture have traditionally been Indian; however, Chinese, Arab, and European architectural influences have been significant.

Sports in Indonesia are generally male-orientated and spectator sports are often associated with illegal gambling.[166] The most popular sports are badminton and football. Indonesian players have won the Thomas Cup (the world team championship of men's badminton) thirteen of the twenty-six times that it has been held since 1949, as well as numerous Olympic medals since the sport gained full Olympic status in 1992. Its women have won the Uber Cup, the female equivalent of the Thomas Cup, twice, in 1994 and 1996. Liga Indonesia is the country's premier football club league. Traditional sports include sepak takraw, and bull racing in Madura. In areas with a history of tribal warfare, mock fighting contests are held, such as, caci in Flores, and pasola in Sumba. Pencak Silat is an Indonesian martial art.



Batak is a collective term used to identify a number of ethnic groups predominantly found in North Sumatra, Indonesia. The term is used to include the Toba, Karo, Pakpak, Simalungun, Angkola and Mandailing, which are distinct but related groups with distinct, albeit related, languages and customs (adat). Occasionally it is also used to include the Alas people of Central/Southern Aceh, but usually only as relates to language groups.

In North Sumatra, Toba people typically assert their identity as 'Batak', while other 'Bataks' may explicitly reject that label, preferring instead to identify as specifically 'Simalungun', 'Karo', etc.[2]


Linguistic and archeological evidence indicates that Austronesian speakers first reached Sumatra from Taiwan and the Philippines through Borneo and/or Java about 2,500 years ago, and the Batak probably evolved from these settlers.[3] While the archaeology of southern Sumatra testifies the existence of neolithic settlers, it seems that the northern part of Sumatra was settled by agriculturalists at a considerably later stage.

A Karo Batak woman in traditional clothes

Although the Batak are often considered to be isolated peoples, largely because they were inland, away from influence by seafaring European colonials, there is evidence that they have been involved with trade and contact with other neighbouring kingdoms for a millennium or more. Reliable historical records of the Batak before 1800 are almost non-existent. The Bata were possibly documented in Zhao Rugua's 13th-century Description of the Barbarous People, which refers to a 'Ba-ta' dependency of Srivijaya. The Suma Oriental, of the 15th century, refers to the kingdom of Bata, bounded by Pasai and the Aru kingdom.[2]

The Bataks were likely involved with trade with Srivijaya for benzoin and camphor, both of which were important commodities for trade with China, and grew in the Batak lands of northwest Sumatra, perhaps from the eighth or ninth centuries,[2] and continuing for the next thousand years, Batak men carrying the products on their backs for sale at ports.

It is suggestedthat the important port of Barus in Tapanuli was populated primarily by Batak people. A Tamil inscription has been found in Barus dated 1088, while contact with Chinese and Tamil traders took place at Kota Cina, a trading town located in what is now northern Medan that was established in the eleventh century, and comprising 10,000 people by the twelfth century. Tamil remains have been found on key trade routes to the Batak lands.

These trading opportunities may have caused migration of Batak from Pakpak and Toba to the present-day Karo and Simalungun 'frontier' lands, where they were exposed to greater influence from visiting Tamil traders, while the migration of Batak to the Angkola-Mandailing lands may have been prompted by eighth-century Srivijayan demand for camphor.

The Karo marga or tribe Sembiring "black one" is believed to originate from their ties with Tamil traders, with specific Sembiring sub-marga, namely Brahmana, Colia, Pandia, Depari, Meliala, Muham, Pelawi, and Tekan all of Indian origin. Tamil influence on Karo religious practices are also noted, with the pekualuh secondary cremation ritual specific to the Karo and Dairi people.

From the sixteenth century onwards, Aceh increased the production of pepper, an important export commodity, and in doing so needed to import rice, which grew well on the Batak wetlands. Batak people in different areas cultivated either sawah "wet rice fields" or ladang "dry rice", and the Toba Batak, most expert in agriculture, would have migrated to meet demand in new areas. The increasing importance of rice had religious significance, increasing the power of the Batak high priests, who had responsibility for ensuring agricultural success.


Batak speak a variety of closely related languages, all members of the Austronesian language family. There are two major branches, a northern branch comprising the Pakpak-Dairi, Alas-Kluet and Karo languages, which are similar to each, and a distinctly different southern branch, comprising three mutually intelligible dialects: Toba, Angkola and Mandailing. Simalungun is an early offspring of the southern branch. Some Simalungun dialects can be understood by speakers of Batak Karo, whereas other dialects of Simalungun can be understood by speakers of Toba. This is due to the existence of a linguistic continuum that often blurs the lines between the Batak dialects. Batak dialect still influences the dialects in Medan city until now.

The Batak possess their own script known as the Surat Batak.[4] The writing has chiefly ceremonial importance within traditional religious ceremonies, and was subject to little change for this reason. It is likely that the Batak people originally received their writing system from southern Sumatra.


A Batak couple (1914–1919)
Pottery making by Batak women in Tarutung, Batak-country; Dutch East Indies era.

Batak societies are patriarchally organized along clans known as Marga. A traditional belief among the Toba Batak is that they originate from one ancestor "Si Raja Batak", with all Margas descended from him. A family tree that defines the father-son relationship among Batak people is called tarombo. In contemporary Indonesia, Batak people have a strong focus on education and a prominent position in the professions, particularly as teachers, engineers, doctors and lawyers. Toba Batak are known traditionally for their weaving, wood carving and especially ornate stone tombs.

Before they became subjects of the colonial Dutch East Indies government, the Batak had a reputation for being fierce warriors. Today the Batak are mostly Christian with a Muslim minority. Presently the largest Christian congregation in Indonesia is the HKBP (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan) Christian church. The dominant Christian theology was brought by Lutheran German missionaries in the 19th century, including the well-known missionary Ludwig Ingwer Nommensen. Christianity was introduced to the Karo by Dutch Calvinist missionaries and their largest church is the GBKP (Gereja Batak Karo Protestan). The Mandailing and Angkola Batak were converted to Islam in the early 19th century. A significant minority of Batak people do not adhere to either Christianity or Islam, however, and follow traditional practices known as the agama si dekah, the old religion, which is also called perbegu or pemena.[5]

Ritual cannibalism

Ritual cannibalism is well documented among Batak people, performed in order to strengthen the eater's tendi.[2] In particular, the blood, heart, palms and soles of the feet were seen as rich in tendi.

In Marco Polo’s memoirs of his stay on the east coast of Sumatra (then called Java Minor) from April to September 1292, he mentions an encounter with hill folk whom he refers to as “man-eaters”.[6] From secondary sources, Marco Polo recorded stories of ritual cannibalism among the "Battas". Marco Polo's stay was restricted to the coastal areas, and he never ventured inland to directly verify such claims. Despite never personally witnessing these events, he was nonetheless willing to pass on descriptions which were provided to him, in which a condemned man was eaten:

"They suffocate him. And when he is dead they have him cooked, and gather together all the dead man's kin, and eat him. And I assure you they do suck the very bones till not a particle of marrow remains in them...And so they eat him up stump and rump. And when they have thus eaten him they collect his bones and put them in fine chests, and carry them away, and place them in caverns among the mountains where no beast nor other creature can get at them. And you must know also that if they take prisoner a man of another country, and he cannot pay a ransom in coin, they kill him and eat him straightway.[7]

The Venetian Niccolò de' Conti (1395–1469) spent most of 1421 in Sumatra in the course of a long trading journey to Southeast Asia (1414–1439), and wrote a brief description of the inhabitants: "In a part of the island called Batech live cannibals who wage continual war on their neighbors.".[8][9]

Judgement Place of Toba Batak
Batak warriors, 1870.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in the 1820s studied the Batak and their rituals and laws regarding the consumption of human flesh, writing in detail about the transgressions that warranted such an act as well as their methods.[10] Raffles stated that "It is usual for the people to eat their parents when too old to work," and that for certain crimes a criminal would be eaten alive: “The flesh is eaten raw or grilled, with lime, salt and a little rice.”.[11]

The German physician and geographer Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn visited the Batak lands in 1840-41. Junghuhn says about cannibalism among the Batak (whom he called "Battaer"):

“People do the honest Battaer an injustice when it is said that they sell human flesh in the markets, and that they slaughter their old people as soon as they are unfit for work...They eat human flesh only in wartime, when they are enraged, and in a few legal instances.”

Junghuhn tells how after a perilous and hungry flight he arrived in a friendly village, and the food that was offered by his hosts was the flesh of two prisoners who had been slaughtered the day before,[12] however he maintains that the Batak exaggerated their love of human flesh in order to frighten off would-be invaders and to gain occasional employment as mercenaries for the coastal tribes who were plagued by pirates .[13]

Oscar von Kessel visited Silindung in the 1840s and in 1844 was probably the first European to observe a Batak cannibalistic ritual in which a convicted adulterer was eaten alive. Interestingly, his description parallels that of Marsden in some important respects, however von Kessel states that cannibalism was regarded by the Batak as a judicial act and its application was restricted to very narrowly defined infringements of the law including theft, adultery, spying or treason. Salt, red pepper and lemons had to be provided by the relatives of the victim as a sign that they accepted the verdict of the community and were not thinking of revenge.[14]

Ida Laura Pfeiffer visited the Batak in August 1852 and although she did not observe any cannibalism, she was told that:

"Prisoners of war are tied to a tree and beheaded at once; but the blood is carefully preserved for drinking, and sometimes made into a kind of pudding with boiled rice. The body is then distributed; the ears, the nose, and the soles of the feet are the exclusive property of the Rajah, who has besides a claim on other portions. The palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, the flesh of the head, and the heart and liver, are reckoned peculiar delicacies, and the flesh in general is roasted and eaten with salt. The Regents assured me, with a certain air of relish, that it was very good food, and that they had not the least objection to eat it. The women are not allowed to take part in these grand public dinners."[15]

Dutch and German missionaries to the Batak in the late 19th century observed a few instances of cannibalism and wrote lurid descriptions to their home parishes in order to raise donations.[16] The growing Dutch influence in northern Sumatra led to increased Malay influence in coastal trade and plantations, pushing the Karo farther inland. Growing ethnics tensions culminated in the 1872 Karo Rebellion where the Karo were suppressed by Dutch and Malay forces. Despite this, Karo resistance to Dutch imperialism lingered into the early twentieth century.[17] In 1890 the Dutch colonial government banned cannibalism in the regions under their control.[18] Rumors of Batak cannibalism survived into the early 20th century but it seems probable that the custom was rare after 1816, due partially to the influence of Islam.[19]


The regencies of North Sumatra, coloured where they have a majority Batak population. The Karo lands extent significantly to the north and east of the area coloured on the map, almost to Medan. Borders with the Minang and Acehnese are noted.

The Batak lands consist of North Sumatra province, excluding Nias island and the historically Malay kingdoms of the East coast. In addition, part of the Karo lands extend into modern-day East Aceh Regency in Aceh province, while parts of the Mandailing lands lie in Rokan Hulu Regency in Riau. Significant numbers of Batak have migrated in recent years to prosperous neighbouring Riau province.

To the south of North Sumatra are the Muslim Minangkabau of West Sumatra, while to the north there are various Muslim Acehnese peoples.

Traditional Batak religion

Batak village on Samosir island

The various Batak cultures differ in their pre-colonial religious ideas as they do in many other aspects of culture. Information about the old religious ideas of the Mandailing and Angkola in southern Batakland is incomplete, and very little is known about the religion of the Pakpak and Simalungun Batak. For the Toba and Karo on the other hand the evidence in the writings of missionaries and colonial administrators is relatively abundant. Information on the traditional forms of Batak religion is derived mainly from the writings of German and Dutch missionaries who became increasingly concerned with Batak beliefs towards the end of the 19th century.[20]

Various influences affected the Batak through their contact with Tamil and Javanese traders and settlers in southern Batakland, and the east and west coast near Barus and Tapanuli, in particular the large Padang Lawas temple complex in Tapanuli. These contacts took place many centuries ago and it is impossible to reconstruct just how far the religious ideas of these foreigners were adopted and reworked by the Batak. It is suggested that the Bataks adopted aspects of these religions, specifically Mahayana Buddhist, Shaivist, and Tantrist practices[2] within their own customs.[21]

The modern Indonesian state is founded on the principles of pancasila, which requires the belief in 'one and only God', the practice of either Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism, one of which must be entered on an individual's KTP. Traditional religions are not officially recognised, and accordingly traditional religions are increasingly marginalised, although aspects of the traditional Batak religion are still practised alongside Christianity, and, to a lesser extent, Islam.

Creation myths

There are many different versions in circulation. These were formerly passed down through oral tradition but have now been written down in the local languages. There are also large collections of Batak tales collected by European scholars since the mid-19th century and recorded in European languages, mostly Dutch.[22]

At the beginning of time there was only the sky with a great sea beneath it. In the sky lived the gods and the sea was the home of a mighty underworld dragon Naga Padoha. The earth did not yet exist and human beings, too, were as yet unknown. All the surviving myths record that at the beginning of creation stands the god Mula Jadi Na Bolon. His origin remains uncertain. A rough translation of the name is the "beginning of becoming". The creation of everything that exists can be traced back to him. Mula Jadi lives in the upper world which is usually thought of as divided into seven levels. His three sons, Batara Guru, Mangalabulan and Soripada were born from eggs laid by a hen fertilized by Mula Jadi. Two swallows act as messengers and helpers to Mula Jadi in his act of creation. Their functions vary in the different versions. Mula Jadi begets three daughters whom he gives as wives for his three sons. Mankind is the result of the union of the three couples. Besides the three sons of Mula Jadi there is another god, Asiasi, whose place and function in the world of the gods remains largely unclear. There is some evidence that Asiasi can be seen as the balance and unity of the trinity of gods.

The ruler of the underworld, i. e. the primeval sea, is the serpent-dragon Naga Padoha. He too existed before the beginning and seems to be the opponent of Mula Jadi. As ruler of the underworld Naga Padoha also has an important function in the creation of the earth.

What all the six gods so far mentioned have in common is that they play a minor role in ritual. They do not receive any sacrificial offerings from the faithful and no places of sacrifice are built for them. They are merely called on in prayers for help and assistance.[23]

The origin of the earth and of mankind is connected mainly with the daughter of Batara Guru, Sideak Parujar, who is the actual creator of the earth. She flees from her intended husband, the lizard-shaped son of Mangalabulan, and lets herself down on a spun thread from the sky to the middle world which at that time was still just a watery waste. She refuses to go back but feels very unhappy. Out of compassion Mula Jadi sends his granddaughter a handful of earth so that she can find somewhere to live. Sideak Parudjar was ordered to spread out this earth and thus the earth became broad and long. But the goddess was not able to enjoy her rest for long. The earth had been spread out on the head of Naga Padoha, the dragon of the underworld who lived in the water. He groaned under the weight and attempted to get rid of it by rolling around. The earth was softened by water and threatened to be utterly destroyed. With the help of Mula Jadi and by her own cunning Sideak Parudjar was able to overcome the dragon. She thrust a sword into the body of Naga Padoha up to the hilt and laid him in an iron block. Whenever Naga Padoha twists in the fetters an earthquake occurs.

After the lizard-shaped son of Mangalabulan, the husband the gods intended for her, had taken another name and another form, Sideak Parujar marries him. Sideak Parujar becomes the mother of twins of different sexes. When the two have grown up their divine parents return to the upper world leaving the couple behind on the earth. Mankind is the result of their incestuous union. The couple settle on Pusuk Buhit, a volcano on the western shore of Lake Toba, and found the village of Si Anjur Mulamula. The mythological ancestor of the Batak, Si Raja Batak is one of their grandchildren.[24]

The tendi cult

Batak Totem pole

In the religious world of the Toba and Karo Batak the gods and the creation of mankind are far less significant than the complex concepts connected with the tendi (Karo) or tondi (Toba) and the begu. Probably the most useful translations of these terms are "life-soul" and "death-soul". A person receives his "life-soul" (tendi) from Mula Jadi Na Bolon before he is born. The destiny of the individual tendi is decided by the tendi itself before birth. Various myths are woven around manner in which the tendi choose their destiny from Mula Jadi. Warneck, a missionary and for a long time superintendent (ephorus) of the Batak Church, recorded two particularly expressive myths in his major work on Batak religion.[25] What is significant is that the tendi themselves are responsible for their destiny:

"Mula Jadi presents him with all kinds of things to choose from. If the tendi asks for ripe pepper, then the person whom he animates will be a poor fellow; if he asks for flowers, then he will live only a short time; if he asks for a hen, the person will be restless; rags indicate poverty; an old mat, lack of fame; a gold piece, wealth; plate, spear, medicine pot indicate that he will become a great chief or understand magic arts."
"With Mula Jadi in the upper world is a mighty tree called Djambubarus. Mula Jadi has written on all its leaves. On one leaf is written 'many children', on others 'wealth' or 'respect' and so on. 'Contemptible life', 'poverty', 'wretchedness' are also written on the leaves. All the possible different fates of the person are entered on the leaves. Every tendi that wishes to descend to the middle world must first ask Mula Jadi for one of the leaves. Whatever is written on the leaf chosen by him will be his destiny in the middle world."

Among the Karo and the Toba there are sometimes widely diverging versions of where the tendi dwells and how many tendi there are. According to the Toba a person has seven tendi. The second tendi is found in the placenta and amniotic fluid of the new-born baby, and accordingly the afterbirth is given special attention after the birth of a child. It is usually buried under the house, is called saudara (brother) and is regarded as the person's guardian spirit. Similar ideas about the afterbirth are also found among the Karo, who also bury the placenta and amniotic fluid under the house and regard them as two guardian spirits (kaka and agi) who always remain close to the person.[26]

All Batak regard the loss of tendi as signifying a great danger for "body and soul". Tendi can be separated from their owners through inattentiveness, or as a result of black magic by a datu with evil intentions. In other words, the tendi is not tied to the body; it can also live for a time outside the body. The final loss of the tendi inevitably results in death. There are a variety of ideas about where exactly in the body the tendi dwells. It is present to a particularly high degree in certain parts of the body, especially the blood, the liver, the head and the heart. Sweat too is described as rich in tendi. It is believed that illnesses are connected with the absence of tendi, and the bringing back of the tendi is a main method of healing. The Karo, for instance, have gifts, called upah tendi (upah = wage, payment, gift), which they give to their tendi so that their tendi stay with them. These gifts may consist of a knife, a gong, a particular piece of clothing, a water buffalo or a small holy place. The gifts are carefully cared for in order to keep the tendi satisfied.[27]

Tendi love the sound of the surdam (a bamboo flute). If a tendi has abandoned the body of a patient, the playing of the surdam in the raleng tendi ritual can contribute to the tendi returning to the body of the sick person. It must be emphasized that only the datuk are in a position to interpret and influence people's tendi correctly. If their endeavors are unsuccessful, then clearly the tendi has chosen another destiny for itself.[28]

Death cult

At death the tendi leaves the human body through the fontanelle and the "death-soul" (begu) is set free. It is thought that the tendi vanishes and after the death of any human being only the begu continues to exist. The Batak believe that the begu continue to live near their previous dwelling (in a village of the dead which is thought to be situated not far from the cemetery) and that they may contact their descendants. Bad dreams, particular misfortune and such like may be signs that the begu of an ancestor is not satisfied with the behavior of its descendants. Any individual can attempt to pacify an enraged begu by means of food and drink offerings and prayers. If this does not work, a datu or a guru must be called in.[29] The begu are not immortal, since death also rules in the land of the dead: a begu dies seven times before it is changed into a straw and finally becomes earth.[30]

The Batak believe that three categories of begu exist.[31] The bicara guru are the begu of stillborn babies or of babies who have died before teething. It is possible to turn bicara guru into guardian spirits if misfortune has befallen the family of the child shortly after its death. With the help of a guru sibaso, the bicara guru can be made the family's guardian spirit for which a shrine is provided and to which sacrifices are regularly made. Once a year the bicara guru is accorded a special feast, preceded by ritual hair washing.

The begu of members of the family who have had a sudden death (mate sada-uari) can also act as guardian spirits for the family. They include the victims of accidents, suicides, murder victims, or people struck by lightning. A shrine is built where they are venerated and where sacrifices are made. A third category consists of the begu of dead virgins (tungkup). Their graves, called bata-bata or ingan tungkup, are maintained for a long time by their relatives.

Burial traditions

Batak burial traditions are very rich and complex. Immediately after death various ritual actions are performed to make the begu understand that from now on its world is separate from that of its kin. Symbolically this is done by reversing the mat on which the corpse is laid out so that the body lies with its head at the foot of the mat. Thumbs and toes respectively are tied together and the body is rubbed all over with camphor and its orifices stopped with camphor, then it is wrapped in a white cotton cloth. During this perumah begu ceremony a guru sibaso declares to the begu of the deceased that it is definitely dead and must take leave of its relatives.

Wealthier families have their coffins (Karo: pelangkah) made of the wood of the kemiri tree (Ateurites rnoluccana), carved in the shape of a boat, its bow decorated with the carved head of a hornbill, or a horse, or a mythical beast known as a singa. The lid is then sealed with resin and the coffin may be placed in a special location near the family's house until a reburial ceremony can take place (see below). Families that are not wealthy use simple wooden coffins or wrap the body in a straw mat.

The corpse is carried a few times round the house, usually by women, and then to the cemetery with musical accompaniment from the gondang orchestra and the continual firing of guns. At any crossroads the corpse is put down and eleven people go around it four times to confuse the begu. It is hoped that the begu will then be unable to find its way back to the village. When the funeral procession arrives at the cemetery the grave is dug and the corpse laid in it, flat on its back. Care is taken that the head lies towards the village so that, in the unexpected event that the body should get up, he or she will not be looking in the direction of the village. The bodies of datuk and those who have died from lightning are buried sitting up with their hands tied together. The palms of the hand are tied together and betel placed between them.[32]


The burial tradition includes a reburial ceremony in which the bones of one's ancestors are reinterred several years after death. This secondary burial is known among the Toba Batak as mangongkal holi, among the Karo as nurun-nurun. In a ceremony lasting several days the bones of a particularly honored ancestor and those of his descendants are exhumed, cleaned, mourned and finally laid to rest again in a bone house known as a tugu or tambak:

"On the morning of the first day of the festival the graves in the cemetery are opened and the bones of the ancestors that are still there are removed. The unearthing of the skulls is presented as especially moving. The bones are collected in baskets lined with white cloth and then ritually cleaned by the women using the juice of various citrus fruits. The exhumation and cleaning of the bones is accompanied by the singing of laments. The bones are kept in the baskets in the tugu until the next morning, when the remains are wrapped in traditional cloths (ulos) and transferred from the baskets to small wooden coffins. After long speeches and a communal prayer the coffins are nailed down and placed in the chambers of the tugu. A feast consisting of meat and rice follows and traditional dances are performed.[33]"

In ancient times these sarcophagi were carved from stone or constructed from wood and later brick. Nowadays they are made of cement or concrete. Large and very ornate tugu can be seen around Lake Toba and on the island of Samosir.

Batak tugu on the island of Samosir, Lake Toba, December 1984.

One motive for the reburial ceremony appears to be to raise the status of the begu of the deceased. Traditional Batak beliefs hold that the dead occupy a hierarchical status similar to the social position they held in life. This means that a rich and powerful individual remains influential after death, and this status can be elevated if the family holds a reburial ceremony. A rich descendant can advance a begu to the status of a sumangot by means of a great ceremony and a horja feast which can last up to seven days. In antiquity a vast number of pigs, cattle or even buffalo were slaughtered at such festivals, and the gondang orchestra provided an accompaniment.

The next level up from the sumangot is the sombaon, who are the spirits of important ancestors who lived ten to twelve generations ago. To raise a sumangot to a sombaon requires another great festival, a santi rea, often lasting several months, during which the inhabitants of the whole district come together. These powerful ancestor spirits offer protection and good fortune to their descendants, but the ceremony also serves to establish new kinship groups descended from the ancestor thus honored.[34]

Traditional Batak medicine

Madame Sitorus, a well-known Toba guru sibaso who practiced in Laguboti in 1984. She is consulting a paperback edition of the New Testament in lieu of a pustaha. On the shelf are components of herbal remedies. In front of her is a kaffir lime in a bowl of water, a form of divination used to locate lost items or people.

In traditional Batak society datuk (animist priests) as well as gurus practiced traditional medicine, although the former were exclusively male. Both professions were attributed with supernatural powers and the ability to predict the future. Treatments and healing rituals bear some resemblance to those practiced by dukuns in other parts of Indonesia. Following the Christianization of the Toba and Karo Batak in the late 19th century, missionaries discouraged traditional healing and divination and they became largely clandestine activities.[35]

Both datu and guru healers also practiced divination by consulting a pustaha, a handwritten book made of wood and bark in which were inscribed recipes for healing remedies, incantations and songs, predictive calendars, and other notes on magic, healing and divination written in poda, an archaic Batak shorthand. According to Winkler,[36] there were three categories of Pustaha based on the purpose of their usage:

1. Protective Magic, which includes diagnosis, therapy, medicinal mixes which have magical properties, such as amulets, parmanisan (love charms), etc.
2. Destructive Magic, which encompasses the art of making poison, the art of controlling or utilizing the power of certain spirits, calling the pangulubalang, and the art of making dorma (magical formulas for causing a person to fall in love).
3. Divination, which involves oracles (words of the gods), the wishes of the spirits, commands from the gods and from the spirits of the ancestors, and an almanac or calendrical system (porhalaan), and astrology to determine auspicious days and months to accomplish certain actions or goals.[37]

The datu or guru consulted the pustaha when presented with a difficult problem, and in time this became in itself a ritual. When missionaries began to discourage traditional healing and augury the Bible may have been adopted by some gurus in place of the pustaha.[37]

Among the most important healing ceremonies performed in Toba and Karo communities is that of recalling the jinujung, or personal guardian spirit. According to Toba and Karo cosmology, each person receives a jinujung in childhood or at puberty and they keep it for life unless they are unfortunate enough to lose it, in which case they will fall ill. In order to call the jinujung back, a female guru (guru sibaso in Karo) goes into a trance and the jinujung will enter into her and speak through her mouth. At this time the sick person or the family can negotiate ritual payment to entice it to return.[38]

Traditional healers are not powerful enough to cure illness due to the loss of a person's tendi (this falls under the jurisdiction of the datuk), however they do play a role in communicating with begu and influencing their behavior.[39]


Malim is the modern form of the Batak Toba religion. Practitioners of Malim are called Parmalim.[40]

Non-Malim Batak peoples (those following Christian or Muslim faith) often continue to believe certain aspects of traditional Batak spiritual belief.

The 'Perodak-odak' movement among the Karo people in the 1960s was a reassertion of the traditional Karo religion, but has largely faded; a subsequent Karo movement to identify as Hindu was noted starting from the late 1970s in order to adopt, if only in name, one of the recognised religions of Indonesia, while in practice still following traditional beliefs.[41]

Abrahamic religions


At the time of Marco Polo's visit in 1292 the people were described as "wild idolaters" who had not been influenced by outside religions, however by Ibn Battuta's visit in 1345 Arab traders had established river-ports along the northern coasts of Sumatra and Sultan Al-Malik Al-Dhahir had recently converted to Islam.

Sir Stamford Raffles perceived the Batak lands as a buffer between the Islamic Aceh and Minang kingdoms, and encouraged Christian missionary work to preserve this.[42] This policy was continued by the Dutch, who deemed the non-Muslim lands the 'Bataklanden'.

In 1824 two British Baptist missionaries, Richard Burton and Nathaniel Ward, set off on foot from Sibolga and traveled through the Batak lands.[43] After three days' journey they reached the high valley of Silindung and spent about two weeks in the Batak region. Considering the shortness of their stay their account reveals very intensive first-hand observation. This was followed in 1834 by Henry Lyman (missionary) and Samuel Munson from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions who met with a more hostile reception.[44] According to Ida Pfeiffer:

"Some time before the arrival of the missionaries some Mohammedan priests had made their appearance in the country, accompanied by a band of armed men, and had forced them by fire and sword to accept their religion...When, therefore, the unfortunate Americans presented themselves as religious teachers, the Battakers imagined they were going to have a repetition of the same scenes, and resolving to be beforehand with their tormentors, they killed them and ate them up."[45]

Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk was employed by the Nederlands Bijbel Genootschap (Netherlands Bible Society) in the 1850s to produce a Batak–Dutch grammar-book and a dictionary, which enabled future Dutch and German missionaries to undertake the conversion of the Toba and Simalungan Batak.[46]

The first German missionaries to the Lake Toba region arrived in 1861, and a mission was established in 1881 by Dr. Ludwig Ingwer Nommensen of the German Rhenish Missionary Society. The New Testament was first translated into Toba Batak by Dr. Nommensen in 1869 and a translation of the Old Testament was completed by P. H. Johannsen in 1891. The complete text was printed in Latin script in Medan in 1893, although H. O. Voorma describes the translation as “not easy to read, it is rigid and not fluent, and sounds strange to the Batak…[with] a number of errors in the translation.” [47]

The Toba and Karo Bataks accepted Christianity rapidly and by the early 20th century it had become part of their cultural identity.[48]

This period was characterized by the arrival of Dutch colonists and while most Bataks did not oppose the Dutch, the Toba Batak fought a guerrilla war that lasted into the early 20th century and ended only with the death in 1907 of their charismatic priest-warrior-king Si Singamangaraja XII, who had battled the Dutch during the First Toba War with both magic and weaponry.[49]

Batak churches

HKBP Church in Balige, North Sumatra, built ca. 1917.

The Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) Church was established in Balige in September, 1917. By the late 1920s a nursing school was training nurse midwives there. In 1941, the Gereja Batak Karo Protestan (GBKP) was established.[50] Although missionaries ceded much power to Batak converts in the first decades of the 20th century, Bataks never pressured the missionaries to leave and only took control of church activities as a result of thousands of foreign missionaries being interned or forced to leave[51] after the 1942 invasion of Sumatra by the Japanese.[52]

The Gereja Kristen Protestan Simalungun, originally part of the HKBP and preaching in Batak Toba language, eventually became a distinctively Simalungun church, adopting Simalungun customs and language, before finally incorporating as GKPS in 1963.


The Mandailing and Angkola people, occupying the southern Batak lands, came under the influence of the neighbouring Islamic Minangkabau people as a result of the Padri War (1821–1837).[42] Some Mandailing had previously converted to Islam, but the Padri war was a watershed event, with the Padri Wahabbis suppressing traditional adat and promoting 'pure' Islamic faith. Over time Mandailing Islam, has been brought closer to the predominant Southeastern Shafi`i school of Islam as a result of Mandailing discourse with other Islamic practitioners and the practice of hajj, although traditional elements remain, such as dividing inheritance among all children, a Mandailing rather than Islamic practice. Islam caused the decline in importance of marga, with many Mandailing abandoning their marga in favour of Muslim names, much less so among the Angkola to their North.

The advent of Islam also caused the relegation of the datuk to a medicine man, with traditional rice-planting ceremonies and other such remnants of traditional culture deemed incompatbile with Islam. The 'pasusur begu', a ceremony invoking ancestors to aid the community, was also suppressed. Other aspects of adat were however tolerated, with the Mandailing Islamic ideology placing adat on the same level as Islamic law, as in contrast with the Minang practice of placing Islamic law above adat. In more recent times, learned Islamic scholars (ulama) studying abroad, have suggested that many traditional Mandailing practices, such as the 'Raja' hereditary leaders, were in conflict with Islam, being indicative of 'pele begu'. The Islamist ulama were in conflict for authority with the Namora-Natora, the traditional village legal practitioners, who were influenced by adat as much as Islam.

Christian missionaries had been active among the northern Mandailing from 1834 onwards, but their progress was restricted by the Dutch government, who feared conflict between newly converted Christians and Muslims. In addition, the lingua franca of the government was Malay, associated with Muslims, as were government civil servants, creating the perception that Islam was the religion of modernity and progress. Missionaries determined that resistance among the Muslim Mandailing to Christianity was strong, and the missionaries abandoned them as 'unreachable people', moving north to evangelize the Toba.

At the turn of the 20th century, nearly all Mandailing and Angkola were Muslims. Despite this, the Dutch administration them as part of the Bataklanden, and therefore heathen or Christian. This perception was an inaccurate one, and many Mandailing strongly rejected the 'Batak' label.[53] Abdullah Lubis, writing in the 1920s, claimed that while the Mandailing followed Batak marga practice, they had never followed the Batak religion, and that the Mandailing people pre-dated the Toba, having acquired marga directly from 'Hindu' visitors. In the Dutch census, the Mandailing objected strongly to being listed in the census as 'Batak Mandailing'. Mandailing in Malaysia (who migrated in the years following the Padri war), had no such objection to their being deemed 'Malays', and indeed Malaysian Mandailing retain little of their distinct identity, partly due to a British colonial policy of rice-land ownership restrictions for all but Malay-speaking Muslims, and the disapproval of 'Batak' Muslim practices by the existing Malay Muslim population.

Other influences

Modern Batak people are subject to religious influences through marriage and migration. Formerly Christian villages may, through migration of Muslim outsiders, lose their explicitly Christian identity, with pork excluded from wedding feasts in favour of meats acceptable to Islam.