Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Batak Religion (1)

Who are these people and what do they believe in?

About a thousand years ago the very best bits of Sumatra were governed by the Srivijaya Empire which was Indian in its origin and Hindu in its following.

In the 1300's the Javanese threw the Srivjayans out and set up their very own empire with the predictable name of the Javanese Empire, but neither of them found the Bataks.

That was because The Bataks had wisely left the best bits of Sumatra to the empire builders and wreckers, and kept themselves hidden in the unexplored north of the island. They had a basic religion of their own, they were happy with it, they understood it and got on with it in their own way.

Although they avoided detection for as long as possible the good times could not last forever. The next conquest of Sumatra was by the Europeans in the 1500's and this proved to be the beginning of the end for the Bataks.

At the time the Europeans were cheerfully running their own invasion business under the name of professional exploration. They found Sumatra, threw out the Javanese and set up business, eventually, as The Dutch East India Company, and not content with just the good bits of the island, the Dutch went off into the hills to look for someone else to conquer. Where they found the Bataks.

The invaders were only truly happy when every member of the newly discovered indigenous population was either killed, raped, enslaved or at the very least converted from their unknown and misunderstood heathen idolatry to the new western idolatry.

It was useless for The Bataks to try to explain their own view of the-true-meaning-of-life because the good Christian missionaries had God (and an invading army) on their side, and saw the destruction of an established culture as a perfectly legitimate way of carrying on. Provided of course, it was the missionaries and the invading army that were doing the destroying.

Before the Batak culture was completely wiped out, someone managed to jot down what the Bataks themselves believed in. The universe according to the Bataks is made up of three distinct parts: Starting at the top they have The Gods. In the middle are men, women and life-as-we-know-it. And in the Underworld lives Naga Padoha, The Dragon!

The power of creation is given to Mula Djadi. He is right at the top of the top world and to keep him company on dull days he has three sons: Batara Guru, Soripada and Mangalabulan.

And the fact that Creation happened at all was the result of a huge, violent and as it turned out, one-sided battle between The Gods and The Dragon.

Gods and Dragons have never really got on together and after much finger and claw pointing from this particular quartet the flaming rows inevitably came to a real stand-up fight.

Batak legend has it that there could never be a fair contest if one or other of the combatants were on his home ground and as there was no convenient battle ground around at the time, and being fair minded sort of chaps, the gods created The World for the purpose of the battle.

The contest was long, noisy and for the newly created world concerned, both creative and destructive. It was also unfair as the dragon was, after all only a dragon and the gods outnumbered and outsmarted it four to one.

Naga Padoha put up a brave fight but as the loser the unhappy dragon was ignominiously chained up in the Underworld. Forever. The Gods, content with their work, moved back to the Upper World to consider their next move. The newly created middle-world was now populated with men, women and enough life to make things both interesting and scary while Naga Padoha was left in his sunless cave to ponder on unfair gods and rigged fights.

Mula Djadi, like any self respecting God, felt he had to do something for all these people that he had so casually created and so he came up with the idea of giving them a Tree. And when Mula Djadi decided to make a tree he was certainly not going to be content with any old pealing bark or leaves that fall off when the weather turns a bit breezy. This was going top be a tree to remember.

This was a tree with a name, Jambubarus. Every leaf on it carried a message in the form of a cryptic clue and every man's soul had to pick one and, with a godly eye to fairness, what a soul picked, the man had to keep.

Not all messages were the sort that brought health, wealth and happiness and with godly fairness there was a fair chance that someone would pick up something very nasty indeed.

Fortunately if that did happen, there was a way out. The destiny of one soul could be changed by simply eating the soul of someone else.

From the moral point of view cannibalism was just their way of transferring souls around and from the nutritional point of view, it was a lot better than chewing on some skinny bird or rodent. For the Bataks the practice of eating the rich (of soul) was seen as being perfectly acceptable and definitely not something to get so upset about.

Unfortunately for the Bataks, this was not a point of view held by the new wave of explorers and missionaries who enthusiastically got to work on the bodies and souls of their new conquests. Especially the bodies.

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