The World’s Largest Volcanic Lake
Words and photography by Chris Alexander
Country roads wriggle uphill, occasionally coiling back on themselves in jutting elbow joints, where goats munch the undergrowth and other, less rugged mountaineers take a break to catch their breath.
We peddle our pushbikes onwards and upwards, muscles raging against gravity. Eventually, mercifully, the path levels out along a ridge, then a clearing, and then the trees of the roadside give way to the fresh open air of Tarabunga, where Toba draws back its curtain and the landscape suddenly ripples out like an applause in all directions.
To the left, lizard-green rice fields spiral down to a crescent bay in the distance. Black and muddied buffalo freckle the fields, wallowing next to busy little columns of schoolboys that fan out in search of bullfrogs and cockleshells in the shallows; treasures to be uncovered in the flood. To the right, a concrete sky cracks open and sunlight washes over the valley. Lake Toba takes a bow in the spotlight; an epic drama of fields, hills and silver mirrors of sky bouncing off water as far as the eye can see.
“Toba sits in a 75,000 year-old crater; the scar of a gigantic prehistoric eruption that pockmarks the land”
Nestled in Indonesia’s westernmost mountain range, along the undulating volcanic spine of Sumatra, Lake Toba sits in a 75,000 year-old crater; the scar of a gigantic prehistoric eruption that pockmarks the land. In places Toba plunges to depths of 450 metres and, at 1,145 square kilometres, is Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. The island of Samosir, marooned in its centre, is a chunk of land the size of Singapore.
At 900 metres above sea level, Toba offers cooler climes and a refreshing break from the heat, humidity and pollution of the cities in Sumatra’s tropical lowlands. The surrounding area is also home to some awe-inspiring scenery, winding mountain roads, historical treasures and a rich tapestry of ancient cultural traditions.
The tribes of the surrounding area are known as Batak – a culturally distinctive people with an identity all their own. Born from centuries of clan-based communities, Bataks are predominantly Christian, though with some ancient influences of animism in their practices. Music and ceremony form an integral part of their culture, with weddings and funerals especially elaborate occasions. Cycling or motor biking through the lanes that hug the shores of the lake is a great way to see the wonders of Toba unfold, and witness the unique culture of the region’s Batak communities up close.
The word Batak is a collective term used to identify a group of six ethnic groups found in North Sumatra; the Karo, Pakpak, Simalungun, Toba, Angkola, and Mandailing; related tribes with distinct languages and customs (Adat). Toba Batak are known traditionally for their ornate stone tombs, intricate wood carvings and especially their ulos weaving. The villages surrounding Lake Toba are the setting for ancient rituals relating to birth, marriage and death, along with performances of dance and theatre that continue to play out on the modern stage.
Batak culture and society is governed by a clear and complex set of guidelines. Also referred to as the Kinship System, Marga is a term in Batak society that refers to a clan, or a ‘people of one origin.’ The word itself is thought to be derived from Sanskrit, meaning 'road, way or path.’ In the day-to-day life of Sumatra’s Toba region, Marga ostensibly means family, although the true societal importance of the term runs as deep as the lake itself.
“Batak family groups are patrilineal, identified by a roll call of lyrical surnames”
There are more than 450 clans in North Sumatra, each with their own Marga. Batak family groups are patrilineal, identified by a roll call of lyrical surnames such as Pasaribu, Nainggolan, Sihombing and Simamora. Marriage within the same Marga is strictly forbidden by tribal law (adat) though is sometimes permitted between cousins of the maternal line (boru). After marriage, Batak women do not change their family name, but add "boru" to their birth name. Since Batak Marga are patrilineal, the children will inherit the name from their father.
Batak weddings are an extravaganza. Usually lasting for several days, they feature generous helpings of feasting, drinking and celebration. During the ceremony, all people under the same Marga with the groom are referred to as “Paranak” and those with the bride are called “Parboru”. The attendees’ respective positions, kinship and family allegiances determine the role they play in the ceremony and how they each will behave in terms of the language they use, the gifts they give, their seating arrangements and the duties performed. Outsiders are welcomed to join wedding celebrations and festivities with all the warmth and humour for which the Bataknese are famous.
Samosir Island is a great place to see first-hand the Batak beliefs and ceremonial offerings relating to death and the afterlife. Between the villages of Simanindo and Pangururan, the road curls along an island shoreline framed by the lake, the neighbouring mainland and dramatic cloudy skies like a renaissance painting up above.
Here, in the midst of the rice fields, multi-story graves are decorated with distinctive miniature Batak-style houses and a topped by a simple white cross. Batak graves reflect the animistic attitudes of sheltering the dead, whilst also depicting more familiar Christian iconography. In certain places, one can track the steady metamorphosis in the gravesites and architecture, from stone-based and ancient animist tombs, through generations of steady missionary influence, through to modern sites, which are unmistakably Christian in their appearance.
“A fabric that’s emblematic of modern Batak culture.”
In places such as Samosir, you will see women in villages weaving quietly at their looms from sunrise to sunset, stopping only for sleep or for church on Sundays. One single piece of ulos fabric takes up to three weeks of painstaking work in a near-permanent state of stoic focus and concentration.
Each woman’s hands move with smooth, unconscious rhythm; the speed of muscle memory in every mechanical swipe of the colourful yarn hinting at countless hours dedicated to their craft. Another clue is the constellation of little red splatters at their feet - ballistic rings of betel nut juice, drying in the dust and sun.
Hand-woven ulos textiles are an integral part of North Sumatra’s cultural heritage. Derived from a word simply meaning ‘cloth’, ulos is much more than just a fabric. Used to commemorate births, deaths, marriages and religious occasions, ulos adds a distinctive splash of colour to important events; but its true significance goes much deeper, rooted in ancient traditions and emblematic of the many adat in modern Batak culture.
According to Bataknese customs, human life is characterized by three essential elements: blood, breath and warmth. The sacred warmth of life can only come from three sources: sun, fire and ulos. The cloth thereby assumes both a practical and metaphysical significance in Batak culture.
Ulos cloth is usually made into a long strip of fabric like a sash or scarf, then worn draped over a shoulder (Sihadanghononhon), although headbands (Sitalitalihononhon), sarongs (Siabithonon) and scarves (Talitali) also bear the same name and significance. The shape symbolizes family ties and the connection that exists between generations. This bond is expressed in the Bataknese saying "panghot ni holong," meaning ‘everlasting love.’
High-quality ulos fabrics are priceless family heirlooms, handed down from one generation to the next, or given as gifts to new family members joined by marriage. The giver, the recipient and their respective positions in the family determine the choice of fabric; for example, ulos ragihotang are given only by a mother to her son-in-law, and he in turn reciprocates with a gift of ulos uis nipis to the father of his would-be bride.
“Ulos’ shape symbolizes family ties and the connection that exists between generations”
The cloth is given to expectant mothers to protect them from complications during labour, whilst children receive a special fabric to mark their baptism. Ulos are considered sacred and believed to have special powers that protect the wearer from harm; they are never washed, as it is believed this will purge the fabric of its mystical power.
Designs incorporated in the ulos cover a vivid spectrum of hues; the dominant colours – red, black and white – are intertwined with threads of gold and silver to make intricate and colourful patterns. Each combination of colour, fabric and motif has its own cultural resonance and connotations; they serve as indicators of the wearer’s tribe, family and social standing.
In a traditional process known locally as martonun, ulos are made by hand, using age-old weaving techniques and materials. The loom is a simple wooden structure through which yarn is passed, after being dyed by a combination of bark, grass, roots, mud and foliage. Individual strands are weaved together into patterns and blocks of colour using a mesmerizing and dexterous control of several wooden poles that act as needles, separating the strands and allowing them to be intertwined with spools of colourful thread.
The formidable women of the Toba region weave their ulos as their ancestors have done for centuries, creating textiles that are unique to Batak culture and interwoven with the very fabric of their society. Philosophy, morality, social stratification and the importance of both family and religion; all are common threads of what it means to be Batak, stitched together as one in the unique and incomparable ulos.
On a sunny day in September, the quiet little town of Balige on the shores of Lake Toba came to life in a pulsating carnival of colour, music and traditional costumes. Lake Toba Charm Festival draws together the many customs, tribes and traditions of the Toba region, for a parade that personifies the vibrancy and variety of North Sumatra. A grand total of 2,227 people took part in the event in Toba Samosir regency. 55 delegations participated, each consisting of 30 to 200 people from the surrounding provinces. Participants were made up of community members, artists and representatives from the eight regencies in Lake Toba; marching bands, dancers, parade floats, singers, celebrities and local villagers, all dressed up in the distinctive and colourful dress of their respective tribes and community groups.
“Marching bands, dancers, parade floats, singers, celebrities and local villagers, all clad in the colours of their tribes”
The parade itself boasted 41 decorative floats, eleven rickshaws decked in colourful designs, dancers, musicians and marching bands. 200 Bataknese women led the procession; a colourful column in their Sunday best, all wearing traditional Manghunti Tandok - a tall woven sack filled with rice – perched on their heads and carried for three kilometres with poise, elegance and the indomitable spirit that personifies the Batak tribes.
The march began at the village of Soposurong, then winded down the hillside to Balige, bursting into life on the main road in a colourful cacophony of Ulos fabrics, shimmering golden headdresses and Sortali headbands bearing the local exultation – “Horas!”
Bapak Ultri Sonlahir Simangunsong is the Head of Toba Samosir Tourism and Culture Agency, responsible for organizing the carnival. Together with his team, he has drawn together the many divergent tribes of the Toba region for this celebration of their common culture:
“From Dairi, Karo, Simalungun and Samosir, to North Tapanuli, Humbang Hasundutan, Toba Samosir and Pakpak Bharat regencies, all are taking part,” said Pak Ultri. “The multiethnic parade features people from eight regencies around Lake Toba as well as from Nias, Javanese, Malay, Indian and Chinese ethnicities,” he added.
To discover the vibrant and multiethnic magic of North Sumatra for yourself, check out Panorama Destination’s Wonderful Toba package.
"There has never been a better time to visit Toba”
Lake Toba is currently the focal point of development in the Indonesian tourism sector, including a new 360km ring road around the lake, as well as a new bridge to the island of Samosir and direct international flights arriving at the recently expanded Silangit Airport. Building work on numerous projects is already underway, enhancing the infrastructure of the area and making travel to Lake Toba more convenient than ever before. Thanks to improved infrastructure, a greater awareness of local tourism and a calendar that’s stacked with unforgettable festivities, there has never been a better time to visit Toba.
To discover Lake Toba for yourself, check out Panorama Destination’s Wonderful Toba package by clicking here.