Introducing the fascinating Batak people of North Sumatra and Lake Toba

A word you will hear often around Lake Toba is HORAS  It is the traditional catch-all Batak word of greeting loosely meaning ‘hello and welcome.’ But it is also used to toast ‘good health’ when having a drink with a friend, or ‘goodbye’ (and ‘bless you’ after you sneeze). And for much more.

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USING SUCH A WORD so freely and frequently to express niceties is a big stretch from the fearsome reputation once cultivated by this distinctive ethnic group from the highlands of North Sumatra.

Samosir Island in Lake Tobas is the ancestral home and present heartland of the Toba Batak people.

They are descendants of once fierce and feared warriors with a history of defending their clans and lands, and even indulging in ritual cannibalism. 

One of their most famous kings died in battle with Dutch colonial forces as recently as 1907.

Today the combative and bloodthirsty reputations of earlier times have faded into memory. But proud traditions and strong clan identification continue,.

When you meet the laughing and fun loving Batak people of today you may wonder whether some of their fearsome reputation might have been a creation to warn off or psyche out enemies before trouble started.

It is not an unusual tactic, as opponents who face the  champion All Blacks Rugby team of New Zealand  will attest. A quick look at the team’s famous Maori haka (warcry) will give you the idea – Here’s the  link.

Around 8 million Batak people from six extended family clans

The estimated 8 million Batak people of North Sumatra represent about 3% of the Indonesian population.

They fall into six closely related sub-groups made up of extended family clans, namely the Toba (the biggest), Karo, Pakpak, Simalungun, Angkola and Mandailing.

Two Batak subgroups have converted to Islam, while the others have mostly converted to Christianity, mainly through the efforts of German Lutheran and Dutch Calvinist missionaries during colonial times.

“Which clan are you from?” is usually the first question Batak people ask when they meet.

Bataks are expected to know their antecedents back for as many as seven generations. They can then quickly determine how closely they may be related.

The relationships matter because when boy meets girl traditional marriage rules come into play.

Maternal cousins are considered an ideal match, but relationships or marriage between paternal cousin, or someone from the same clan, is taboo.

Batak weddings - famous for being big, and often boisterous

No Batak marriage is considered complete until an elaborate traditional clan wedding celebration is held.

All those generations of extended family mean weddings can involve hundreds of relatives, and can continue for many hours with singing, dancing, and carousing.

Batak wedding party wit many guests

ABOVE – Just a few close friends and family … wedding parties are a big event in Batak society with hundreds of guests present to congratulate and offer best wishes (RIGHT).

But wedding parties will often be held in less sedate circumstances. They be long, loud and happy – see for yourself in this video  by Jannen Marsada

Batak newly-weds receive congratulations and best wishes

Batak people are expected to marry Bataks. Should they wish to marry a non-Batak then the ‘foreigner’ must first be ‘adopted’ by a Batak family to become an eligible marriage partner.

Bataks are highly successful in Indonesian professions and government

Bataks are strongly committed to education and a large proportion go on to professional careers, working throughout Indonesia as teachers, academics, engineers, civil servants, military officers, in business and, especially as lawyers.

This is not surprising given the long-held cultural cohesion, order, independence, and self-confidence of this regional society.

Bataks are recognised as intelligent and clever people. They had their own Sanskrit-based writing system and international trading relationships hundreds of years before European colonization.

Famous Batak figures include the last priest-king, Si Singamangaraja XII, who was declared a National Hero of Indonesia in 1961 for his resistance to Dutch colonialism.

Born in 1849, he led a lengthy guerrilla campaign against Dutch rule from 1878 and died, along with his daughter and two sons, in a skirmish with Dutch troops in 1907.

In recent times Adam Malik Batubara won respect around the world in his roles as a diplomat. He served  as Indonesian Foreign Minister for 11 years from 1966, and as vice president of Indonesia under President Suharto for five years from 1978.

A Mandailing Muslim Batak, he is credited with being an intellectual force in the Indonesian independence movement and a major figure in third world politics.

He served as President of the 26th United Nations General Assembly and helped to establish the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Si Singamangaraja XII, the last priest-king of the Batak

Si Singamangaraja XII, the last priest-king of the Batak peoples of North Sumatra.


Adam Malik, highly regarded diplomat, Foreign Minister and Deputy President of Indonesia

Bataks are a people who love food, music, and conviviality

The Batak are social people who love food, music, and conviviality. They seize any opportunity to play music and sing.

They do it well, with high close harmonies ringing into the night. And they are equally adept at traditional music forms through to covers of modern standards, contemporary pop, country, and gospel.

Below are some video samples of  Batak performances.

High energy, heartfelt lyrics, harmonies and fusions of the traditional and contemporary are features of Batak music. Traditional sounds and dancing feature in the Daniel Steven videos ABOVE LEFT and BELOW. In the video  ABOVE RIGHT by Serli Napitu the ARGHADO TRIO perform in a popular more contemporary Batak vocal trio style. BELOW RIGHT is the kind of live music you will find being played by Batak bands in clubs, bars and resorts across Indonesia and Southeast Asia This video by the Batak’s Band.

If you have in interest in music, it will seem that half the Batak population has been born to sing and play guitars, keyboards, percussion, and traditional instruments like bamboo flutes. And to do so effortlessly and with great skill. 

You will find small groups of singers and musicians are commonplace around Lake Toba, especially in the cafes and bars of the Tuk Tuk Peninsular on Samosir Island.

Watch out for the Hasapi, a uniquely Batak small lute or mandolin-like instrument, usually with only two strings, played together with tuned drums and bamboo flutes.

Batak bands and musicians are popular throughout Indonesia and most countries of South-east Asia. Some receive tens of thousands and even millions of online hits on their YouTube and Spotify recordings. 

If you happen to be on Samosir on a Sunday, you can hear some enthusiastic and heavenly harmony singing by simply donning some smart and conservative attire and going to church.

No need to be shy. You will be welcomed and will have a chance to meet, speak and make friends with some of the local people.

Batak chefs are in demand around the world

Batak chefs sail the world on cruise ships and hold key positions in the kitchens of many of the great restaurants, resorts and hotels of Indonesia and the wider world.

Most of Toba’s Batak people are Christian and therefore, unlike Muslim Indonesians, can prepare, cook, eat, and enjoy pork (babi) dishes. But they also eat dog!

Beware the dog sign

Many Batak people eat dog and consider it a delicacy

Babi_Panggang_Batak pork dish

Babi Panggang is a famous Batak pork dish – it’s BBQ pork, not dog. 

Dog will seldom be offered to Western visitors, but some local menus will list Babi Satu (pork 1) or Babi Dua (pork 2). 

So, when you dine out on Samosir Island remember that the Babi Satu (Pork 1) refers to dog meat.

Local brews to warm the soul and encourage friendships

When it comes to beverages, if you are feeling emboldened, you might sample Tuak, the local ‘palm wine’ or ‘toddy’ made from lightly fermenting the milky sap of palm trees.

It is really nothing like a wine. It has a tangy taste and  an alcohol content of about 4% when fresh (about the same as many beers).

To the Toba Batak it’s a drink of celebration and life, served at weddings, funerals, festivals, parties and even after church on Sunday.

You can try it in local, sometimes open-air, eating places cum bars. Often there will be live music with guitars, bamboo flutes, keyboards, improvised percussion and much singing.

Tuak –  bottles of happiness ?

Perhaps you can trot out your party piece – it’s a guaranteed opportunity to get to know the locals, regardless of the quality of your performance.


With so much diversity and such wide geographical spread, Indonesia has many fascinating ethnic groups and the Batak people, and their traditions and culture, are high on the list.

You will meet Batak people across the Indonesia archipelago, but the beautiful Karo highlands and Lake Toba are where you will be able to see and experience their unique society were it all began. And you will be warmly welcomed.

You can read more about Lake Toba and the Batak presence there and in the Karo Highlands in my related articles  Special places and experiences at magnificent Lake Toba and Retreat to BERASTAGI – then take the slow road to Toba