TEXT AND PHOTOS BY EUDEN VALDEZ
GADING SIALLAGAN is an old man, probably in his 70s or even 80s, who sports silver hair that is neatly parted sideways. His facial features are refined but what strikes are his eyes, deep set with wisdom as a Batak of Northern Sumatra in Indonesia.
In his prime years, Siallagan was an aerospace flight control engineer, which made him see the world from Asia to America to Europe. He also became an educator in a top Indonesian university.
Today, the well-traveled Batak is settled in his hometown, particularly in Huta Siallagan in Samosir Island at the heart of Lake Toba. At 1,145-square kilometer and 450-meter deep, it is the largest volcanic lake in Southeast Asia, as well as one of the deepest in the world.
In his namesake settlement—huta literally translates to village—Siallagan now heads a tour guide association. Such a humble job he accepted after his retirement but with it came a bigger responsibility.
Siallagan is actually royalty. He is the last direct descendant of his village’s royal family. When his brother passed, he became the new chieftain in 2010.
On busy days, Siallagan personally greets and tours guests inside the settlement, just like the one this author recently joined. It included fellow media representatives from the Philippines invited to a familiarization trip at Lake Toba, which is being promoted as one of the “10 New Balis” by the Indonesian government.
“I am training our tour guides here, not just how to share our Batak culture but also how to entertain. I love entertaining our visitors, I can make them happy,” said Siallagan who clearly had a penchant for jokes.
If you would also be lucky on your first time to Samosir Island in Lake Toba, expect an interesting and fun immersion into the lives and culture of the Batak, Indonesia’s largest indigenous people, with Siallagan at the lead.
For now, here’s a glimpse inside Huta Siallagan:
Huta Siallagan is one of the last traditional settlements that remain in Samosir Island. There is Tomok Village, which is the best place for shopping souvenir and Batak clothing and items. Then there is Tuk Tuk Village, which is the center of tourism that caters to both Western and Asian tourists.
What makes Siallagan unique is that it remains to be enclosed in low walls, and that seven families, including the Siallagans, still reside inside. Each family is represented by a traditional Batak house. An eight house is reserved as a museum.
Although reproductions, these houses are built in Batak architecture and are adorned with symbolic wooden carvings. A lizard on the entrance beam portrays the wanderlust of Bataks. A juxtaposition is seen in the adjacent cylindrical carvings. Symbolizing breasts, this means that the Batak will always return to their mothers and their homeland.
A house is divided into three levels, the lower level, an enclosure for animals, the middle level, the main dwelling space, and the upper level, a storage for harvests, explains chieftain Siallagan.
The rear end of the roof is also always higher than the front in the belief and hope that the children will have better lives than their parents. Doors of the houses are low, making one stoop upon entry, so that visitors already pay their respects to the owner.
In the front yard is a hundred-year-old tree where stone figures mimic a Batak justice court led by the king and his council of elders. Siallagan lively recalls the olden day’s justice system characterized by crimes and brutal punishments.
In fact, the Bataks were once cannibals. For the worst crimes, death is the sentence. And it’s not an easy one. A criminal is tortured and decapitated by the king, who later offers the organs to his soldiers. They are not obliged but they will out of loyalty to their king and out of belief that it will make them stronger.
This practice stopped when the Dutch brought Christianity to Indonesia some hundreds of years ago.
All this Siallagan explains, while throwing jokes here and there. Aside from making tours entertainment, he also pioneered interactive tours inside the settlement. This includes the Sigale-gale can dance, which the chieftain led after his brief introduction of Batak way of life.
Another side of Batak is showcased by Huta Siallagan’s group of Inang-Inang, or mature ladies. They are who we call the Titas. They are dressed in colorful, beaded and handwoven textile called the “ulos” worn as skirt and as headdress.
Bubbly and lively, about 10 of these Huta Siallagan women are more than happy to cook for tourists, even showing the food preparation passed on by the Inang-Inangs before them.
They present two dishes featuring fresh catch from Lake Toba, a golden carp. Naniarsik is a fish stew cooked over coal and seasoned with a handmade paste of chili, candlenut, onion, salt, andaliman (pepper endemic in Toba) and galangal. Naniura, on the other hand, is preserved and flavored fish using the same fiery chili paste.
“Everyone is welcome here at Huta Siallagan,” says one. Her fellow Inang-Inangs agree with big smiles. Their motherly warmth and genuine joy are absorbed by the food they later on serve.
BTS photos of the author (in blue) with friends and fellow media representatives during our visit at Huta Siallagan in Samosir Island at Lake Toba. Everyone were seriously on the job as we document our would be lunch being prepared and cooked by the Inang-Inangs.