Travel to Indonesia to experience its macabre past

An ancient village in Indonesia, which is home to the Batak ethnic group, has preserved its unique traditions of life and death.

Published: 12th January 2020 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th January 2020 03:44 PM   |  A+A-

What strikes us upon entering the village are the pointed, tall, rubiginous house roofs.

What strikes us upon entering the village are the pointed, tall, rubiginous house roofs.

Walking into Hatu  (settlement) Siallagan in Samosir Island, Indonesia, from the pier, the calm does strike you as a bit otherworldly. That you cross the Lake Toba, the world’s largest crater lake (nearly the size of Singapore), to reach here gives the place an extra edge. The serenading of tourists by our guide Mama Myrna singing old Hindi songs doesn’t do much to shake things up. Siallagan, which forms a part of the heritage-rich Ambarita village, has preserved its traditions and culture of the ethnic Batak tribe of Indonesia. The people who live here are believed to be the direct descendants of the King of Batak.

The ‘hatu’ itself was built during the reign of the first king, Laga Siallagan. The remains today cover an area of 2,400 sq metres and are surrounded by a stone wall topped with bamboo spears for protection from wild animals and thieving, marauding enemies. Most residents are direct descendants of the first Siallagan king and the tombs of their ancestors can be found around the village. Ancestors are not just a matter of pride in Indonesia but prayed to for blessings and miracles. 

What strikes us upon entering the village are the pointed, tall, rubiginous house roofs. These are well-preserved residences of the Batak tradition. Most are used for display and demonstration of life in a bygone era. The Lake Toba surrounding the island of Samosir was a caldera, or the crater formed by the eruption of a super volcano 74,000 years ago. 

It was the most explosive eruption known to happen on earth the past 25 million years and is believed to have wiped out most of the humans alive. The biggest draw of Siallagan is the 200-year-old ‘Batu Parsidangan’ (trial stone) which is two sets of large stones carved into chairs around a stone table. It means ‘stones for meetings and trials’ and is located in the village square beneath a patulous Hariara tree considered sacred by the locals. The first set is an arrangement of chairs specifically intended for the king, queen, clan elders, important invitees and the datu or spiritual leader. The second is the same arrangement around a stone table that was used for executions. Next to the table was a longish slab. Each had its own purpose. 

Our guide tells us once a prisoner was sentenced to death, a calendar was consulted for a suitable date to carry out the execution. The site has replicas of every ancillary used—from the ancient scroll calendar to the dagger and the ceremonial sword. On the appointed day, the prisoner would be placed on the big slab at the centre of second stone set and stabbed multiple times to release any black magic powers he or she might possess. The Siallagan execution didn’t end here. Afterward, the executioner would carry out his responsibility on the horizontal stone slab with a distinct groove. The headless prisoner’s heart was torn out and handed to the king. 

The execution area is, understandably, where the tourists get additionally curious and the locals loquacious. There was an incident a few years ago where a Spaniard began talking in the Batak language, capering around the beheading stone. Several Christian missionaries are believed to have lost their heads here. The one missionary who escaped was the German Ludwig Ingwer Nommensen. He had translated the first Batak Bible from German. He not only got to keep his head but was allowed to flourish as well. There are a few timber churches still standing in the region believed to be his legacy. 

A few minutes’ walking distance from Siallagan are Tomok and Tuk Tuk where the more familiar sights of tourism meet you. Hawkers try to ply you with batik shirts and ulos, sacred shawls, wayang and leather puppets and handcrafted gambus and model gamelans. Sprightly tykes beseech you to throw coins into the Toba which will be retrieved by them before you count to 10. History creeps into this little Indonesian settlement on the Toba Lake. 

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