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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Inside a Traditional Batak House

Entrance gate to the village
We entered the small, enclosed village through a narrow arch, wide enough for one buffalo – a defense measure, our petite guide informed us. We reached the village after a 15-minute drive along the quiet road, passing folks dressed up in their Sunday best, proceeding to church. Yes, Samosir Island, geographically the size of Singapore, in the middle of North Sumatra’s ancient Lake Toba, is predominantly Christian – one of few such enclaves in this country where more than 85% of the population is Muslim.

Traditional Batak houses
   But Ted and I were here to learn about the local culture before the arrival of the Christian missionaries. The three traditional homes, positioned in a row, resembling A-frame houses on short stilts, provided some clues. The style of homes became popular in the 16th century here, but the ones we visited were constructed in the 1950s, following a fire, rebuilt to about half their normal size.

   Construction of these wooden homes was no mean feat. There were no nails used. And though a house could be built in just one year, the process normally took at least five years, because of local superstition. Work could begin and proceed only on good days, even if it meant waiting another week or month in between good days.

Sinewy connections
   The symbols on the façade of the houses have particular meaning. The four bulbs symbolize fertility. The sinewy lines illustrate the connections among Batak families. Daughters cannot marry men with whom they share a last name. But first cousins can marry, if they have different last names.

   Three to six families lived in each house. And families weren’t so small then. Normally, couples had 10 to 20 children. The ideal was to have 33: 17 sons and 16 daughters.

   A traditional Batak house has one of three types of entrances – inset wooden stairs, wooden stairs positioned outside of the house, or stone stairs leading up to the house from the outside. There are three levels – the ground floor, where the livestock were kept; the middle floor, where the families slept and ate; and the top floor, which were really shelves around the inside perimeter, where the families stored items. The roofs have the typical Minangkabau, or parabolic slope, which our guide thought resembled a canoe. The rear is higher by a hand’s length, as a nod to the younger generation, a wish for more success to them.

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