Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/November 1882/Life Among the Battas of Sumatra

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ALTHOUGH the Battas have a writing and a very limited literature, it has never occurred to any one among them to compile and preserve their historical traditions. Consequently their history, as we know it, reaches back for only a short distance in time, and gives no clew by the aid of which we can learn when and whence they came to Sumatra. They are not able to trace their origin to any greater distance than the highlands of Toba, where the greater part of their people now dwell. The tradition of their derivation from Toba prevails, so far as I know, among all of their tribes, on every side of the highlands. We are not well enough acquainted with the interior of Northern Sumatra to be able to state how far they may have pressed toward the southwest; but they are found in the south to the equator and on the west and east in single spots to points immediately on the sea. They seem to have conquered their settlements in the southern districts a considerable time ago, and to have subjected or destroyed the Malayan aborigines.

We will go into a Batta town early in the morning. The night-mists have not yet disappeared from the woods around, but we already hear a bustle, as we are approaching the edge of the village, of women pounding rice. The rice, which is the principal food of the people, is always kept in the hull, and is thrashed out day by day as it is needed. The thrashing is done with hard-wood pestles eight or ten feet long in wooden mortars made from a stump or a log. It is hard work, yet the women are frequently accustomed to perform it with their babies strapped to their backs, where the infant is exposed to all the abrupt and awkward oscillations of the mother's head. The rice must be carefully cleaned after it is thrashed, for the lord of the house will not be trifled with, and, if he finds a husk in his breakfast, it may turn out a bad day for the woman.

The town is composed of a street about fifty feet wide, with a row of respectable-looking houses, all built on piles, on either side. We are, in fact, in a land of pile-houses, and nothing more than a glance around is needed to convince the visitor of the fallacy of the notion that all the pile-houses were built in lakes. The Batta houses are some eight or ten feet high, frequently set up on still higher poles. The poles are not very large, but are made of wood selected for its lasting qualities, and often of heart-wood. They are planted in the ground in rows, and so connected by cross-bars that, shake as much as it may in time of storm or earthquake, the house will not fall down. The house is reached by stairs which are connected in some cases with the gable-front, in others with a trap-door in the middle of the floor. The buildings are of two distinct types. The dwelling houses proper consist of a tightly inclosed story, having a few small windows, and covered with an overhanging roof, the high gables of which permit the garret-space to be left open for the free circulation of the outer air. Another class of houses, which are evidently pavilions of luxury and indicate wealth, are built on larger posts than the others, and have no inclosure whatever. They have a fire-place in the middle of the floor, seats and lounges, and perhaps a balustrade around the edge. The roof-space is separated from the rest by a flooring and used as a granary. The lower open story of these sopos serves for a variety of uses. Strangers and guests coming to the town are received in them; the men sit in them mornings and evenings, chatting and smoking; justice is administered and public business transacted in them; they are occupied during the day by women weaving; and at night strangers, widowers, and unmarried young men sleep in them.

The Batta does not make his morning toilet in the house, but at the special bathing-places, or pantjurs, with which every village is provided. These places are arranged at a running stream or a canal made for the purpose, by fixing a water-pipe of bamboo in such a manner that a man standing or sitting under it can have the water run all over his body. Such baths are taken morning and evening. Separate pantjurs are provided for the women. It is one of the morning duties of the women and girls, even down to children of four and five years old, to bring drinking-water in the gargitis, a water-vessel made of a thick stalk of bamboo. The size and strength of growing girls are generally measured by the number of gargitis they can carry.

Let us follow a woman into one of the inclosed dwelling-houses. The floor is made of round bamboo beams about as large as one's arm, across which are laid split bamboos far enough apart to let the water and dirt through, and make sweeping unnecessary. Broad, raised seats and lounges, covered with mats of various patterns and styles, are arranged on either side. In the corners are fire-places of a primeval simplicity, flat, square boxes filled with earth, and upon these some thick stones, between which the fire burns quite briskly, while the rice is cooked in home-made earthen vessels set upon them. The number of families living in the house can generally be calculated from the number of fire-places to be seen., No division is made in the day-time between the parts of the house occupied by the different families, but a separation is made between the sleeping-places at night by hanging up mats. Ordinarily, only blood relations live together in the same house. The children of both sexes, after they have grown up, sleep outside of the house and not with their parents, the young men in the sopos, the girls in parties of several with some old widow; but the children, till they have households of their own, take their meals with their parents. At meals the whole family sit around the rice-pots. They formerly used leaves for plates, but they now generally have European plates. As a rule, they eat immediately from the hand, which is previously washed in a vessel of water kept ready for the purpose. The nice point in eating consists in not allowing the fingertips to touch the lips, but in letting the rice drop from the fingers into the hollow of the hand just before it is given to the mouth.

The Batta men do not always begin their day with breakfast. In the busy season of rice-culture they often have a couple of hours' work to do in the rice-field. If the man is wealthy enough to have a buffalo, he has to drive him all around and over the field between the rows, so as to destroy the weeds by treading them down into the soft mud. It is most convenient to do this early in the morning, as the buffaloes are driven from the yard to the pasture. If the man has no buffalo, he has to dig at the weeds laboriously with his hoe. The buffalo is the principal domestic animal of the Battas, and is kept chiefly for treading out the rice-fields. The value of the animal is regulated by the length of his horns, and this is measured by comparison of the length of his owner's arm from the forefinger. If the horns are long enough to reach to the arm-pits on the other side, the animal corresponds with the Batta equivalent for "thorough-bred."

The sugar-palm affords the common drink of the people, which they call tunak, and of which a single tree, if properly taken care of, will furnish a considerable daily supply for months at a time. Flavored and made stronger by the addition of bitter roots, it is greatly enjoyed by the many, though despised by a few, and may be indulged in to a considerable excess without making drunk. It has become a burning question, among those who have been converted to Mohammedanism, whether the drinking of tunak is allowable under their law, and the favorite beverage may yet become the occasion of a religious schism.

The Battas attribute all serious sickness to the work of evil spirits, begu; and, as they know by experience that persons who go down from the highlands and remain for a considerable length of time on the coast or in the flat country are liable to be attacked by a virulent fever after their return, they have come to consider the begu of the sea, the begu laut, a particularly malignant and dangerous spirit.

A woman who had been visiting her relatives in the flat country was attacked and brought low with one of these fevers. Her husband did not hesitate long, for she was a valuable help and had cost half his estate in purchase-fees, but sent immediately for the most famous datu, or medicine-man, in the region. An honorarium regulated by the value at which the wife was held was paid the doctor, and an equal sum was promised him in case of recovery. Incantations and external means were tried for a few days with no beneficial results, and then the doctor decided that he must make a parsili: this was a figure of the sick person, of about her size, cut out of the soft stem of a banana tree, and clothed with a few rags. It is dedicated to the particular object it is designed to serve, with a certain set of magic forms, and is laid in the road outside of the town, with the expectation that the wicked spirit will come out of the sick person and go into it. As another means of making sure that this should happen, the sick woman was "stolen," or secretly taken in the night to another house. When all this proved to be of no avail, the medicine-man declared that he had an extremely perverse spirit to deal with, and must use the most energetic means to drive it out. He pounded up a double handful of the terribly sharp red and green Spanish peppers, and sprinkled the juice into the mouth, nose, eyes, and ears of the poor sick woman, in order to bring the spirit to terms by means of the fearful pain the operation excited. When this did not help, the medicine-man lost confidence, notwithstanding a hen was sacrificed in his honor every day, and would not stay any longer. He did not say so, however, but went off secretly; for he foresaw that he would inevitably suffer great shame and reproach if the patient should die on his hands. Of course—for that is understood there—he would have to go away empty-handed if the case proved fatal.

An expedient sometimes resorted to in desperate cases is to consult the begu itself for advice. For this purpose all the sick person's family connections living in the town, men, women, and children, assemble at the house. The room having been cleared for the occasion, is dimly illuminated by means of torches made by rolling up a leaf and pouring melted pitch into it. The spectators take their places in a circle around the room, while the actors in the drama are seated in the middle. On one side are the musicians, two, four, six, or eight young fellows, armed with drums of bamboo and deer-skin, and cymbals and gongs, bought from the Chinese, which are kept with the greatest care, in cases specially made for them, among the most precious heirlooms of the family. Of course no melody can be brought out from such instruments, but the musical effect produced by them consists in a variety of rhythms, some of which are quite complicated and characteristic. Opposite the orchestra sit two men, one of whom is the sibaro or haroem ni begu, or medium. Among the Battas who are still heathen, each family or each town has two of these mediums, generally a man and a woman. No one devotes himself to the office of medium of his own free-will, and it requires the learning of no art; but, when the sibaro dies or goes away, the begu itself chooses a new one by taking possession of him; and, waiting this, the obligato music is kept up in the presence of the whole family till the desired event takes place. The sibaro is dressed in his ceremonial robes; from his head hangs a strip of cloth reaching to the floor, under which is a vessel of burning incense, the smoke of which rises to his head. After the music has sounded for a short time, the body of the sibaro begins to tremble. He throws off the cloth and rises, and begins, with outstretched arm and a fixed look at the distance, slowly to turn to the rhythm of the music. At the same time a time-keeping convulsion, beginning in his fingers, extends from limb to limb, finally engaging the whole body, till at last the man dances in spasmodic leaps, which continue till he collapses in exhaustion. The music now ceases, and the time has come for the head of the family to question the begu which has taken possession of the medium, first asking its name. The begu, having given its name, then asks why it has been called; and in response to this overture the whole occasion of the trouble is related, and the spirit's good advice is requested. The most important question is, whether there is any hope of the recovery of the patient, and what must be done to secure that desirable result. If the family are not satisfied, as they are not likely to be with the unfavorable answer that is generally given, the music and the dancing are repeated, or the process is applied to the second sibaro. It sometimes happens that the two mediums do not agree in their revelations, and then the drumming and the dancing and the questioning are kept up till they are of accord. If the final answer is that there is no hope for the sick man, he is left to his fate, which has most probably been made more certain by his having had to endure the prolonged torture of witnessing these ceremonies; if a more favorable answer is given, all that the spirit requires as a condition of recovery is performed in good faith.

If the ceremonies are interrupted by the death of the patient during their performance, the music ceases and lamentations take its place; the company go away, leaving only the nearest relatives of the deceased at the house; a few shots are fired, either to drive away evil spirits, or to give notice of the death, and preparations are begun for the funeral.

The existence of cannibalism among the Battas and some peculiarities connected with it suggest some questions respecting its origin. The principal question is whether it is a survival from the original barbarism of the people, or is an offense of later beginning. All the evidence I have met in my investigations points to the latter conclusion as more probable. Among the evidences is the fact that the practice occurs, not among the more degraded tribes, but among those which are most distinguished from their neighbors by intelligence and culture. Other facts, favoring the same view, are: 1. The Battas have traditions of a primitive time when man-eating was unknown among them. They say that it originated during a long civil war, in the course of which the hostility of the opposite factions became so embittered that they went to the extremity of eating captured enemies. 2. Cannibalism is unknown among other people evidently related to the Battas—the inhabitants of the Island of Nias, for instance, whose language is nearly the same, and who are of a lower degree of civilization. 3. The fact that cannibalism is practiced, not to satisfy hunger or gratify the taste, but only in cases regulated by law.

Accepting the theory of a comparatively modern origin of cannibalism, the question still remains, of the immediate occasion of its introduction. Aside from the tradition already mentioned, we can imagine but three grounds on which it could have been based. Human flesh may have been first eaten under stress of necessity, and found so palatable that the practice was continued; superstition may have suggested the idea that the eating of the flesh would secure the eater against the bad influence of the spirit of the eaten one; or, the ignominious extirpation of an offender may have been considered a good method of showing the general abhorrence of him. This last view, advocated by Marsden, seems to me most improbable, for it is unthinkable that cannibalism could have come to prevail in this way among a people who had not previously known it. The second view, that of a superstitious origin, appears more probable; and it is no real objection to it that the Battas now do not know anything of such superstition, for there are many other customs of which the people who practice them can not give a satisfactory account. The former view seems, however, still more probable, for it is most reconcilable with psychological laws, and agrees with the traditions.

The region within which cannibalism prevails has been considerably contracted within the last three years, in consequence of the extension of Dutch authority over Silindung and Toba; for man-eating is, of course, extinguished wherever Dutch influence prevails. The heathenism of the Battas is, moreover, fast declining before the persistent attacks of Christianity; and Mohammedanism, with its most repulsive traits, must also pass away.

  1. Abridged from articles in "Das Ausland."