Culture and Nature Collide in North SumatraArchipelago Diaries
One of the richest provinces of Indonesia, both culturally and scenically, North Sumatera has it all: from the native Batak tribe with its extraordinary culture and traditional customs to the vibrant multi-ethnical provincial capital Medan, North Sumatera should be on everyone’s bucket list when traveling in Indonesia.
Berastagi district, situated on crossroads on the main route linking the Karo highlands of Northern Sumatra to the city of Medan, is home to a wide array of vegetables and fruits such as carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, eggplants and strawberries and also known for its excellent dairy products. In fact, they are of such high quality that they are exported out of North Sumatera and even Indonesia.
Thanks to its altitude, dense tropical forests, huge rocks and boulders, and frequent heavy rainfalls, you will see dozens of waterfalls gushing down the sides of the hills on your way to Samosir Island, a petite island in the middle of the world-famous Lake Toba. Here, the most iconic one is the 120-metres-high Sipiso-piso Waterfall in Tongging Village, Karo Regency.
“In the local language of the Batak Karo, piso means knife or blade and if you stand under the waterfall, you’ll feel like being stabbed with a thousand knives. And, when you look at it from above, you can actually see that its shape is similar to a blade,” local guide Tommy Sembiring explained.
There is also a smaller waterfall right on the side of the street in the neighbouring regency Dairi called Lae Pandaroh. Daroh means darah in Indonesian or blood in English – the water turns reddish brown when it rains because a certain chemical reaction is created when the rain falls on the leaves, trees, and other plants close to the waterfall, resulting in this red tint.
After traveling from Medan to Dairi on a serpentine-shaped, potholed highway for four hours (which at times was a rather scary experience), you have only braved half of the journey as it takes an additional five hours to get to Samosir. Note that you don’t need to cross Lake Toba by ferry, but can also go through Jalan Tele-Pangururan, which connects Samosir to Sumatera – it is easier on the wallet as well.
Don’t skip Menara Pandang Tele in Turpuk Limbong, Samosir Regency, to get a 360-degree view of both the lake and the island in lush surroundings. The best time to visit is before the break of dawn to witness the sunrise - and you will quickly understand why Toba and Samosir, Tobasa, is often referred to as a piece of heaven that has fallen down to earth.
As the sun slowly rises in the east, the lake’s dark turquoise surface shimmers in golden shades of yellow. Blankets of thick fog and mist roll down the hills to the green forests below, making you feel like hovering above the clouds. Yes, it is that beautiful.
The Batak tribe believes that their ancestors descended from the sky and landed on the sacred mountain Pusuk Buhit in Sianjur Mula-Mula Village, Samosir. As a form of respect, in 1995 a local organisation erected a monument that consists of statues of the ancient Batak Kings, alongside the royal family and some mythological creatures to protect them.
The monument, Sopo Guru Tatea Bulan, is built on Sulatti Hill near Pusuk Buhit. The roof is modelled after the native house Rumah Bolon and decorated with the distinctive Batak carving gorga. A Batak flag of red, white, and black is attached to the lower side of the roof. Several offerings including kaffir limes, bananas and incense are put under some statues as Parmalim (traditional Batak religion) believers still come here regularly to pray.
Another 30-minute drive away awaits another unique point of interest, Aek Sipitu Dai or Seven-Flavoured Water in Sipitu Dai Village, Samosir. Legend has it that the village didn’t have any water sources and one of the royal family members roamed the area in search of water. He prayed to the gods and stabbed his wooden stick on the ground seven times creating seven holes, but to no avail. Only after he prayed again, water came bursting out out of the holes.
Each of the seven holes has a function. The water of the first hole, Aek Poso, for instance, is believed to be a cure for sick babies. Mothers often bring their children here to shower them in the sacred water, hoping they will be healed. Another one, Aek Sibaso, is used by local midwifes to help them with imminent deliveries.
“Each water source has its own taste too, like soda. But, you have to ask politely and say, ‘Excuse me, Opung [Batak for grandparents],’ before you take the water,” Tommy said.
Surprisingly, the water does taste like soda. The locals channel the water with bamboo and everyone is welcome to drink it or take a shower, and even do their laundry and wash their dishes there. People with diseases come from all over the region and beyond to take advantage of the water’s alleged healing powers.
The Batak have myths and legends for almost everything, including death. A long time ago, a Samosir king named Raja Rahat lost his only son Raja Manggale in war. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find Raja Manggale’s body. The king’s trusted advisors then carved a human-sized wooden doll, shaped like his deceased son, and summoned his spirit into the doll.
The “possessed” doll then moved its hands and even danced a bit – and the king was delighted to have such a vivid keepsake of his son. Since it was modeled after Raja Manggale, the doll was named Sigale-gale. You still can see dancing dolls today in Tomok Village, Samosir, but they don’t involve any ghosts or spirits – nowadays, the dolls are moved and controlled by machines.
The Batak Kings used to have total control over everything, including the law. Take a short drive to Batu Kursi Raja Siallagan, the Stone Chairs of King Siallagan, where you will gain a better understanding on how the king dealt with the village’s rapists, murderers or enemy’s spies.
First, the king sat down together with his royal advisor, a local shaman known as Datu, some of the village’s respected men on a set of stone chairs before summoning the suspect and witnesses to join them and find out if they were guilty as charged. If so, the suspect was locked up in a prison next to a livestock barn because his crime had deprived him of his human dignity and lowered his status to those of animals. One of his feet was chained so he couldn’t escape.
The prisoner didnt’ receive any food or water for a maximum of seven days to weaken him significantly (back in the day, nobody dared to commit to any big crime unless they had a superpower or a magic talisman to keep them strong and safe from harm). Outside, the King and his council discussed when would be the appropriate time for the execution, and the Datu would refer to the traditional Batak calendar to find the “right” day. The Datu then prayed under a sacred tree asking the gods to show him the weaknesses of the felon.
On execution day, the executor took the culprit, whose eyes were covered with the traditional ulos cloth, to the execution arena. Beforehand, the Datu had already prepared his last meal – containing poison to make him even weaker. Starving, the prisoner usually finished the food, or if he refused, the executor forced him to eat, not allowing him to use his hands, but only his mouth.
He was stripped naked so the Datu could see if there was any talisman attached to his body. If so, the Datu got rid of it and the man had to lie down on a rock, and the executor beat him hundreds of times with a wooden staff until he screamed. The executor then slit his body from top to toe with a little knife until he bled and sprinkled some drops of kaffir lime on him in order to eliminate any magical power.
Lastly, the prisoner was moved to the “chopping” stone where the executor cut off his head in a single blow. The Datu took out his heart and liver and served them to the king and his army as it was believed that the felon’s magic power would be transfered to them that way. The rest of his body was disposed miles away, and nobody was allowed to near that area for at least a week to avoid bad spirits.
This rather gruesome practice was stopped when Christianity entered North Sumatera, brought by German missionary Ludwig Ingwer Nommensen in the 19th century.
However, Batak people still maintain their local wisdom and life philosophy, as evident in the traditional house Rumah Bolon at Museum Batak, one of the museums at the historical and cultural centre T.B. Silalahi Center in Balige. Established and managed by one of Batak’s most influential politicians T.B. Silalahi, this centre was officially opened in 2011 and has been a one-stop-destination to learn everything about the Batak. Original artefacts as well as replicas complete the museum’s display.
Rumah Bolon stands roughly 1.75 metres above the ground, supported by sturdy wooden logs. The vacant area below the house is used to store crops and livestock. Meanwhile, to reach the entrance, one has to climb up the stairs. The only entrance is quite short and narrow, forcing one to bow down to enter the house, which automatically shows respect to the people inside.
The house consists of only one big shared room inside and thanks to its grand size, it can contain up to three or four families or 15 people in total. An indoor kitchen and fireplace are placed in the middle. Every piece of wood is joint together like a puzzle and securely tied with ropes – the Batak don’t use any nails at all when building their houses.
Gorga patterns decorate the outside part of the house along with other symbols, such as a house lizard, representing the idea that Batak people can live anywhere but regardless of the distance, they will always survive and stick to their own culture.
The roof at the front of the house is high and pointy, whereas it is higher at the back as it symbolises the parents’ wish that their children and next generations will fare better in life than them.
After spending some time in Tobasa, it feels almost surreal get back to city life in Medan, but if you feel the need to pamper yourself, stay at the four-star hotel Santika Dyandra, located at Jalan Kapten Maulana Lubis. Featuring 324 luxurious rooms and suites, a rejuvenating spa, gym and swimming pool, as well as the 24-hour Benteng Restaurant that serves both Western and Asian cuisine, the hotel is the perfect place to recharge body and soul.
The hotel, owned by the country’s biggest media company Kompas Gramedia, also caters to business travelers with ten meeeting rooms of different sizes, all equipped with standard meeting facilities. The hotel’s Club Premiere Sky Lounge, Vintage Lounge and Kafe Ulos provide additional options for gatherings or sit downs with colleagues or family over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.
And what would a vacation be without culinary adventures? Popular for its diverse cuisine, Medan boasts lots of locals’ favourite eateries specializing in Batak, Arabic, Indian and even Peranakan food. One of the most popular spots serving delicious, yet affordable Chinese seafood is Wajir Restaurant, located at Jalan Kol. Sugiono. All the dishes are halal.
The menu can be quite overwhelming, seeing that there are so many tempting items to choose from. But one can hardly go wrong with the recommended ones, like the steamed fish soup Ikan Tio Ciu (IDR 12,000 per one gram), sweet and savoury vegetable and tofu soup Claypot Tahu (IDR 15,000), soft-shell crab in special sauce Kepiting Lunak (IDR 44,000), and squids smothered with salty egg-based sauce Cumi Telur Asin (IDR 25,000). It is no wonder that this place is frequented by both locals and tourists as it is almost too tasty to be true!
Lose those extra calories by taking a stroll around Medan’s bird park in the heart of the housing complex Cemara Asri. Here, you can see thousands of mostly white cranes with yellow feathers on their heads as well as several dark brown cranes sharing the same living area with other species of birds. They can be seen flocking together in groups on the small islands floating in the middle of the park’s pond, while some gather in the trees surrounding the park or flying high, looking down from above.
Big and plump goldfish, catfish, and other kinds of freshwater fish are populating the pond. Many of them are as big and long as the arm of a grown man – probably mostly owned to the visitors who enjoy feeding the fish with pellets that are sold in the park. Hunting the birds and the fish is, of course, strongly prohibited.
It remains a bit of a mystery how these birds ended up in the park. Locals say that the site used to be a swamp for decades. When it was transformed into a housing complex in 1995, part of the swamp was intended to be a liquid waste disposal area. Suddenly, a few cranes flew in and stayed there, followed by hundreds more – today’s number has reached thousands. However, nobody pays that much attention to the history of the park. As long as everyone can enjoy a stunning view and watching birds for free, why not?