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|The Island of the Dead|
From simple gravestones to elaborate sarcophagi, tombs are everywhere on Pulau Samosir
PULAU Samosir is not called the Island of the Dead for nothing. This island the size of Singapore, situated in the middle of Lake Toba, North Sumatra, teems with tombs. Not only in graveyards, but also in gardens, at roadsides, in the middle of villages and every few hundred metres all over the countryside.
They range from simple gravestones with a cross and a picture of the deceased to bigger, more elaborate ones comprising beautiful carvings and sculptures. And among these thousands of tombs are several huge, mysterious sarcophagi with monster heads not unlike the gargoyles on certain buildings in the West, with a human figure on their backs.
Within these coffins-above-ground are found not one skull but many, comprising the entire family of kings or village chieftains. Each skull appears to have been deposited into the sarcophagus when the person died.
Historian-cum-archaeologist F. M. Schnitger visited Samosir in the 1930s during his exploration of Sumatra, and a chapter in his subsequent book published in 1939, Forgotten Kingdoms In Sumatra, provided comprehensive descriptions and pictures of these tombs.
Armed with a copy of the book and a few maps, I rode pillion and directed Peris, a motorcycle-taxi rider, to these unique tombs tucked in remote corners of the island. It took some time to locate most of them, and often he was more amazed by them than I was.
Each of these sarcophagi had fencing and roofs, built by either the Indonesian scientific community or local villagers.
The largest sarcophagus in Samosir is located in the south, within the village of Naingolan. It measures over 3m in length, with a smiling monster wearing a Batak chief's headdress and a small statue of a woman at its rear, cradling a bowl in her hands. It, too, is protected with a roof and fencing, with offerings of flowers placed in front.
Another similar sarcophagus is found within the compound of a house along the main road between Tuktuk and Tomok. It is slightly smaller than the one at Naingolan, and it has the typical monster with a human on its back. But the monster's face, with its large, oval-shaped eyes, very much resembles that of the aliens often depicted in science fiction movies and illustrations.
What was the significance of the monster with a human figure on its back? What purpose did the collection of human skulls serve?
There are countless unanswered questions regarding them which the Bataks, the local people inhabiting Samosir island, could not provide satisfactory explanations for. Though most of them are Christians, having been converted by Lutheran missionaries from the United States during the early part of the 19th century, the Bataks still maintain and practise many of their traditional animist beliefs and rituals inherited over hundreds of years.
They also keep detailed written records of their history and ancestral lineage.
Despite all this, they could tell us only that these tombs were constructed 200 to 400 years ago, though they could also provide the names of the kings and village chieftains and their descendants whose skulls today lie within these sarcophagi.
In the village of Hutaraja, located in front of the chief's house is another sarcophagus with a simple fence encircling it. But the main attraction at this village is what lies beside this tomb - a dolmen: a big, flat stone slab placed atop several stones at its base, like a table.
It is said that this stone monument marks the spot where a young girl was sacrificed when the chief's house was built, apparently to capture and convert the victim's soul into a powerful spirit protector.
In addition to having a colourful legend for the dolmen at Hutaraja, the Bataks also have myths and stories for many other unusual sites on the island. But they also have a remarkable legend about the origin of mankind: They believe that their ancestors and the entire human race descended from the heavens onto Mount Pusuk Buhit via a bamboo pole.
I could not resist visiting this mountain located on mainland Sumatra, close to Samosir island. It is accessible by crossing a small bridge over the narrowest separation of water at the edge of Pangururan, a town at the western corner of Samosir.
At 1,981m, Mount Pusuk Buhit is a relatively small mountain with a hot spring at its base, whose so-called curative waters are channelled into pools specially built for visitors to bathe in.
I travelled beyond this site, riding along the steep and rocky winding mountain road to Limbong village. Nearby, on the southern slopes of the mountain, lies a stack of large stones arranged in the form of a dolmen. It, too, has a shelter.
No one knows what rituals were practised on or around these stones. The Bataks' records do not mention anything. Experts can only estimate that they were constructed and used between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago.
In recent years, there have been virtually no tour groups on Samosir. The only foreign visitors are independent, solo travellers who stay in a hotel or losmen in Tuktuk village and explore the island, either on a rented motorbike or by riding pillion on one with a local guide.
Apart from going off the beaten track to visit sites of lost civilisations and unknown practices, I also visited places most tourists flock to, including Tomok, a village 5km south of Tuktuk where the 200-year-old stone sarcophagus of King Sidabutar, the Batak king who adopted Christianity, is located.
Not far from it stands a huge, traditional Batak house converted into a museum, with displays of tools and artefacts used by the Bataks in the past, some of which are still used today.
The witer is a clerical officer with a passion for solo travel.
Photos by Andy Gwee.
This article was first published in Life!, The Straits Times on April 15, 2008.
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