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Sunday, March 26, 2023

The Magic Of Lake Toba Region

A large natural lake in North Sumatra, Indonesia, occupying the caldera of a supervolcano

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

INDONESIA. Sumatra: The enormous crater lake of Lake Toba in North Sumatra must surely count as one of the natural wonders of the world. Holding an island almost the size of Singapore in its cradle, the lake is over 1200 sq km and 400 meters in depth. As the largest lake in Southeast Asia and one of the deepest in the world, one cannot fault the tourist for mistaking it for an ocean.  

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Located about 90 km from Medan city, Lake Toba can be reached through a combination of toll road, winding highland paths and a ferry ride (with the car). The drive away from Medan city itself could be exhilarating as one is transported through a breathtaking experience of the highland country scenery where the air got cooler and fresher and surrounded by lush green landscapes and pretty, quaint looking towns.

View of Lake Toba. Photo credit: Raghu Gururaj

The immensity of Lake Toba, located in the Parapat region, is simply overwhelming. Surrounded by cool blue waters on all sides, its volcanic origins have endowed the lake with enviable foliage. Narrow roads flanked by rows of traditional houses, roadside eateries and shops wind up and down right through to the city center. Looking at such unbelievable surroundings, one is consumed by a strange liberating feeling, as if nothing more really mattered in life! Not just for its expanse, also for its purity, colour, tranquility and the pleasure it gives to the viewer. 

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Born out of the caldera of a supervolcano several years ago, at first sight, it looks like a sea, though without the currents and waves. As the largest lake in Southeast Asia, Lake Toba snakes all around the region touching several land points including Parapet and Samosir Island. Don’t worry about getting a room with a lake-view – all hotels, inns and motels are a stone-throw distance from this great lake. Most unlikely that one will not able to see part of the lake from your room.

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Most travellers visiting Lake Toba as part of their Indonesian vacation look forward to beautiful sights and visual delights, but very few are prepared for the cultural feast that awaits them. Lake Toba region is not just an aesthetic marvel, but also a treasure hove of cultural delights. 

Samosir is the largest island on the lake. Aside of its advantages of natural beauty, Samosir has an intriguing culture. It is populated by the Batak people, who are predominantly Christian (as contrasted with majority Muslim populace in North Sumatra and Indonesia in general), though there are practicing Batak Muslims as well, with a tiny minority being agnostic. 

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European missionaries in the late 19th century introduced Christianity. As the largest indigenous tribal groups in North Sumatra, Bataks are believed to have their descendants from ancient Burma. Some say there is an Indian connection, though nowhere corroborated.

Batak Houses. Photo credit: Raghu Gururaj

Batak architecture is a sight to behold and gives you a surreal feeling. A traditional Batak house (‘jabu”or rumah bolon’) is a wooden construct made of special palm fiber. Made entirely without nails and anywhere between 40 to 60 feet tall, it has no doors and can only be entered using a ladder via a trapdoor through a raised floor or stilts. And No windows! With sharp jutting rooftops, it is decorated with colorful mosaics and carvings of animals and birds (to denote fertility or protection of the house). There is a water buffalo head looking down from the roof, signifying blessings to visitors with prosperity.

Traditional Batak House (notice the buffalo head on top). Photo credit: Google Images

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Their unique culture is also manifested in the ‘Ulos’, a typical traditional woven fabric symbolizing filial bonds. Worn usually during traditional rituals and occasions, it is a signature status symbol of Batak culture and used as gifts on ceremonial occasions. A highly signature textile product of this region, it comes in a variety of colors and designs and the preparation of the fabric is a painstaking affair. Some of the cotton yarn is imported from India.

A visit to Samosir is incomplete without witnessing ‘Tor Tor’ traditional dance at Tomok Village. The cultural village comprises a line of huge traditional wooden houses with thatched roofs in the shape of a boat, made of sugar palm fiber (‘ijuk’). Huge stilts on strong wooden planks support it, apparently to guard against floods and wild animals in those days.

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The dance is performed by a group of people, characterized by the sounds of pounding of feet and accompanied by ceremonial music using instruments such as the gondang. There is a large open courtyard in the middle of the cultural village for the dance. At festive events, the rhythm of music is more upbeat and cheerful compared to the more solemn ceremonies such as funerals. An Ulos is worn by each dancer.

The Tombs of Sidabutar Kings: An interesting tourist spot

History indicates that King Sidabutar was the first to set foot on Samosir Island. The place where he and subsequent Kings lived is what is today known as Tomok, which is where most of the ‘must-see places’ are located. Before the Europeans arrived, the Sidabutar Kingdom practiced an indigenous belief known as ‘Parmalim”, basically a form of animism.

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The Huta Bolon Simanindo Museum is the traditional house inherited by Raja Sidauruk, since converted into a museum. It showcases all elements of fascinating Batak culture –rituals, artifacts, traditional house dwellings, puppets etc. An hour inside the museum will take you back several years back in history. 

Bukit Holbung Hill, somewhat reminiscent of the ‘Telebully Hills” and in fact, locals love to call it so. Covered by healthy green grass all over, one can get a bird’s eye view of the geological contours and features of Lake Toba. 

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The Tomok Market is a world in itself. A couple of long winding lanes, it comprises hundreds of shops selling decoratives, curios, ethnic products, local textiles (including Ulos) and souvenirs. 

Street view near Tomok Village, Samosir. Photo credit: Raghu Gururaj

The local crafts are truly reflective of the Batak culture, exquisitely made, especially the miniature Batak houses, wall masks, wall hanging holders, etc. Though their initial prices would be steep, the shopkeepers are not averse to bargaining and in the end, become amenable to work with the tourists.


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