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People of Indonesia - Batak

The term Batak designates any one of several groups inhabiting the interior of Sumatera Utara Province, south of Aceh: the Angkola, Karo, Mandailing, Pakpak, Simalungun, Toba, and others. The Batak number around 6 million and are mostly Christian, with some Muslim groups in the south and east. Historically isolated from Hindu-Buddhist and Muslim influence, they bear closer resemblance culturally to highland swidden cultivators elsewhere in Southeast Asia, even though most practice wet-rice farming.

In Asahan, on the East Coast of Sumatra, the population is predominantly Batak. The chiefs trace their descent remotely from Toba, and the Asahan dialect is but slightly different from that of Toba. The majority of the people have been converted to Islam, and therefore under the Dutch called themselves Malays, for in the Batak lands, as elsewhere in the East Indies, the term Malay was more frequently used by the natives to denote religious than racial affiliation. All of the more prosperous and sophisticated people were actual or nominal Mohammedans, but from the poorest to the richest, all, even the Sultan of Asahan, were of Batak blood. This statement disregards, of course, the thousands of contract coolies, Javanese and Chinese, who were employed on the great plantations.

Northwest of Asahan, on the coast, is the small district of Batoe Bara, where the inhabitants were undoubtedly of mixed Malayan and Batak origin. The chiefs, however, trace their descent from Menangkabau, and the social structure, with non-Batak division into four soekoe1, or marriage groups, is like that of Southern Sumatra. Inland from this small Menangkabau colony, the contact of the Asahan Batak along their northwestern border was with the Simeloengoen Batak of Tanah Djawa. On the southwest they pass into the Toba Batak of Habinsaran, and on the southeast into the so-called Malays of Koewaloe, who, like the Malays of Asahan, are of Toba descent.

Unlike the Balinese, who had several different traditional group affiliations at once, or the Javanese, who affiliate with their village or neighborhood, the Batak traditionally orient themselves primarily to the marga, a landowning patrilineal descent group. Traditionally, each marga is a wife-giving and wife-taking unit. Whereas a young man takes a wife from his mothers clan (men must seek wives outside their own marga), a young woman marries into a clan within which her paternal aunts live.

The marga has proved to be a flexible social unit in contemporary Indonesian society. Batak who resettle in urban areas, such as Medan or Jakarta, draw on marga affiliations for financial support and political alliances. While many of the corporate aspects of the marga have undergone major changes, Batak migrants to other areas of Indonesia retain pride in their ethnic identity. Batak have shown themselves to be creative in drawing on modern media to codify, express, and preserve their traditional adat. Anthropologist Susan Rodgers has shown how audiotaped cassette dramas with some soap-opera elements circulated widely in the 1980s and 1990s in the Batak region to dramatize the moral and cultural dilemmas of ones kinship obligations in a rapidly changing world. In addition, Batak have been prodigious producers of written handbooks designed to show young, urbanized, and secular lineage members how to navigate the complexities of their marriage and funeral customs.

Dainty, small feet have long been presumed the ideal for females across much of the world, but a tribe living in northern Sumatra in Indonesia beg to differ. Research in 2013 revealed that the Karo Batak people, who live in rural villages in the northern part of the Indonesian Island of Sumatra, consider women with big feet more appealing. The finding runs contrary to the idea that beauty is a "one-size fits all" scenario for humans, the researchers say, and that notions of attractiveness are somehow hard-wired into human DNA.

The Karo are 1 of 6 so-called "Batak" groups with a cultural heartland in the periequatorial highlands of North Sumatra, Indonesia. The others are Angkola, Mandailing, Pakpak, Simalungun, and Toba. The Karo Batak are primarily cash-crop and subsistence agriculturalists who have thrived economically relative to other Indonesian minority groups as a result of Dutch colonial rule. Although traditional attire is still worn for ceremonial functions, such as weddings and funerals, their everyday attire is many ways undifferentiated from that of Indonesians living on any of the country's approximately 6,000 inhabited islands. The Karo themselves can identify unfamiliar folks as Karo only on those rare occasions that traditional attire is worn, or when they are heard using Karo-specific terms.

While many aspects of Karo tradition persist in the face of significant cultural change, others are practiced less frequently or not at all. For instance, many Karo have converted to Christianity from animism, only a small minority of families still dwell in traditional houses (rumah adat), and intervillage warfare and cannibalism have dissappeared.

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