Saturday, July 23, 2011

Traditional Batak religion

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

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 within their own customs.

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.

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.

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.

The tendi cult

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. 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.

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.

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.

Death cult
Batak Totem Pole

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. 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.

The Batak believe that three categories of begu exist. 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.

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"

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.


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