Away from the smoky, grid-locked streets of Medan lies the rolling emerald hills of the Karo Batak.
Driving through these rolling emerald hills and market towns where people seem so happily alive, you wonder why the city of Medan exists at all.
The capital and main port of Northern Sumatra is – let`s face it – the pits. At least the bits I`ve seen. Its main thoroughfare – Jalan Ahmad Yani – is a smoky, howling, grid-locked, half-sealed track. And it`s where the hotels are, and most of the amenities and shops. The city`s greener parts are all discreetly tucked away, for only those who live there to enjoy. Visitors get the rough end of the stick.
But they can also get away, just like I have done. My driver is one of those self-styled guides who speaks a smattering of English and hangs around the lobbies of guesthouses and hotels. But it turns out he`s OK, happy to accommodate and interpret as required.
My objective is a simple one – to see the Karo Batak homes.
The Karo are one of six “Batak” tribes who migrated to this part of Sumatra from as far away as Myanmar some 1,500 years ago. They followed rivers inland from the coast, and settled in the fertile hinterland. Several of their villages are just southwest of Medan.
It`s amazing what a few kilometres can do. The first village we come to is Lingga. It`s the one closest to the city, and as such, gets all the tourists. It shows. Sure, the houses I am looking for are there, but I`m not exactly made to feel at home. Even the kids spiel out some nasty Western slang. Never mind. I just take some happy snaps and leave.
Half an hour onwards is Dokan. And it`s a very different world. Few tourists ever come here. And it shows. It`s got that peaceful, easy feeling (just like in the song), and I`m soon befriending locals who are proud to show off to me their ancient tribal artifacts and weaves. They invite me inside one of their homes.
Seen first hand, the Karo Batak rumah adat (traditional house) is a marvel, and hugely more spectacular than I ever had imagined. It`s a far cry from your humble native hut. And it`s not the kind of place that could be slapped up in a day, or a month. Nor has it built-in obsolescence. It`s way too grand for that. For a start, it is some 18m long, and around 14m high. Its timbers are enormous. Yet not one piece of metal is used in its construction, only wood and natural twine.
The house`s most distinctive feature is its roof. It`s a highly complex affair, steeply pitched then elegantly gabled at the top, with the gables slanting down. It is entirely thatched with sugar palm. The house frame itself stands a good way off the ground, its enormous bulk resting on a veritable forest of tree trunk piles. These have all been pre-soaked in a special kind of mud for several years, to ensure they never rot. And they don`t.
Dokan`s dozen or so rumah adat are said to be around 250 years old, although some say just 100. Each house has been occupied by countless Karo families, up to eight at any one time. But all this is bound to change. For no more are being built. What you see today is the last in the line.
So I feel privileged to be entering this massive ancient house – or should I say, apartment block. It`s as dark as a mine. But in time my eyes adjust. I can now make out the massive cross beams and supports, the finely mortised joints and the family sleeping quarters set in rows along the walls. They are divided from each other by hanging rattan mats.
In the ceiling, there`s an attic used for storage. The broad central corridor is communal, used for cooking, entertainment and work – all in the dark. I am left to conclude that the Karo Batak people have especially keen eyes.
They have other famous attributes as well. They have proven through the centuries to be staunchly independent, a trait that maybe springs from their warlike ways of old. Villages like Dokan were originally surrounded by booby-trapped mounds and palisades, with armed guards on lookout day and night. No mercy was shown to captive foe. They were eaten.
For the Batak were once cannibals – the infamous “headhunters of Sumatra” of literary fame. They have stubbornly resisted all attempts to change their ways. Many have tried – the colonial Dutch, Christian missionaries, the wartime Japanese and the Indonesian Government. Some concessions have been made. Most Karo are now practising Christians. But this in no way means they have abandoned their old animist beliefs. It`s just that they no longer eat their enemies, or their guests!
For clear evidence of the Karo Batak`s traditional belief system, you have to look no further than the houses. The gables and lower walls are elaborately adorned with numerous animistic symbols – lizards, magic spirals, snail trails and monstrous singa heads. Many gables are crowned with carved buffalo horn finials, a symbol of fertility.
My interior explorations complete, I re-emerge blinking to be greeted by so many beaming smiles. But storm clouds now have gathered, and it`s time to head back to Medan. So I`m now left to ponder. Upon whom are the Karo gods smiling on today – these friendly Dokan villagers or me?
Well, I have to say my guesthouse room is fine – with air-con, hot water, a comfy bed and light. But in the morning, I`ll walk out into that hellish traffic roar, and not the blissful stillness of these rolling emerald Karo Batak hills.
Source: www.thestar.com (28 Juni 2007)