The north central region of Sumatra encompassing the Karo highlands have been occupied for thousands of years by six distinct ethnic groups, collectively referred to as Batak, a term first applied by Malay settlers to describe any non-Muslim. These days the term generally distinguishes someone of indigenous ethnic origins rather than religious affiliation.
Contact with Indian traders, Malay settlers, Dutch colonialists, Christian missionaries, Japanese soldiers during WWII occupation and Indonesian government policies placed extreme pressure on the Batak traditional culture but of the six Batak tribes, the Karo highlanders have resisted change more than any other.
Most Batak Karo have adopted either Islam or Christianity but they many, particularly among the older members of the tribe, practise their traditional animist beliefs in parallel and core elements of Karo society remain strong, such as the clan-based tribal structure. Large family groups, called margas, form five main clans which in turn are divided into several sub-clans. Traditional law, called adat, is still widely followed and dictates individual and social conduct, obligations to their clan and interactions with other clans. For instance, marriage within a clan is strictly forbidden.
The Batak are known for their distinctive traditional communal houses; large stilted buildings with high, steeply pitched roofs built from wood and bamboo held together with fibre from the ijuk palm, which is also used a roof thatching. Despite being constructed of entirely natural materials, without nails, pegs or spikes, some houses have been continually occupied for between 200-300 years, preserved by smoke and heat from indoor fires which keeps the wood and roof thatching dry. The peak roofs are usually adorned with a carved bulls head, the official Karo symbol of strength.
With the adoption of contemporary lifestyles, most Karo have moved out of communal housing into modern, single family dwellings. Few traditional communal houses remain and of those that do, many are in poor conditional due to lack of maintenance. However, there are still some fine examples of these traditional dwellings in scattered villages around the Karo highlands and tourists are generally welcome. Many of the older villagers are pleased to share their culture and as more and more tourists drop in to admire these last vestiges of Kara architecture, it’s creating a growing awareness among both the young and old about the need to preserve what remains.
Of the traditional villages around Berastagi, Lingga village (Desa Lingga) is the most well known. It has three traditional houses including one occupied and in fairly good condition, one in the process of being restored (funded by the small entrance fee to the village) and smaller single men’s house. The village also has a small but very interesting museum an English speaking “host” who welcomes visitors and will guide you around the village. His services are free but a small donation is appropriate. This village is 6km northwest of Kabanjahe or 12km southwest of Berastagi.
Despite Lingga’s “fame” the small village of Dokan (Desa Dokan), 25km south of Berastagi is arguably the best of the Karo villages as it has five well preserved and occupied traditional houses and ancient graveyard. A little further east you’ll find Barusjahe village which has several traditional houses including some of the oldest (though decaying) found in the Karo highlands. If you’re pushed for time, Peceren village on the western outskirts of Berastagi has a single traditional house and graveyard.
These are just a few of the Karo traditional villages within easy reach of Berastagi. Depending on your level of interest and the amount of effort you’re willing to put in, there are many that you can visit with the help of a local guide. To reach some of the more remote villages you may have to walk in from the nearest road. The advantage is these villages see far fewer visitors and are generally more traditional. Be aware that many of the older villagers only speak the Batak Karo dialect so engaging a local guide who speaks the language and understands the traditional culture will go a long way to enhancing your traditional village experience.