Tales from Karo Highlands

Lingga, Sumatra, Indonesia
Aug 1, 2017

The small villages dotting the highlands around the town of Berastagi in northern Sumatra, have been home to the Karonese people through the ages and still are. Word is, some old traditions are still alive in some of them. A minibus ride got me easily to a village called Lingga and there, peeking over the tops of other houses are the sloping traditional roofs. Rubbish-strewn dirt lanes wind through the village and laundry hangs on crooked posts. Some children smile shyly and adults answer my greetings cheerily. Most houses have corrugated tin roofs, planked walls and stand on cement blocks. The roofs of the oldest ones are covered in moss, with a healthy crop of ferns trailing down the edges. Only three traditional houses grace this village and only one is still lived in.

Chatting with some of the residents, I met the local English teacher.
“Dari mana?” he asked and promptly fell into conversation.
“I know a lot of history” he told me, offering himself as guide.
“What about your classes? Don’t you have to teach?” I asked.
“Oh no” he waved it aside, “I have no schedule today”.
A weekday and no classes? It seemed a tad far-fetched but I thought it prudent not to probe too deeply. James, as I shall call him, shepherded me around, graciously explaining many features.

The traditional houses are massive in size, the heavy wooden posts that form the stilts, placed on stones with shallow indentations. The posts are wedged into the stone with the same natural fibers that form the roofs. This, James tells me, provides enough flexibility to prevent collapse during earthquakes. A meter or so off the ground is a bamboo platform, reachable via a short ladder and above it is the house. A unique feature of these houses are the outward-leaning side walls. The brightly painted walls depict stylized lizards, among other motifs.
“Lizards are small, they have no horns or big claws” said James. “But they manage to crawl in and out of tight places; they are quick and clever” he said. Being wily is a desired trait, hence the motif.

A short door leads into an open space that spans most of the house, the floor made of wide wooden planks. There are several open hearths, each with tiered racks hung above it. It is startling to see the same hearth with racks that I saw in the houses in the Ziro valley of Arunachal Pradesh in India. The racks are used to smoke and cure meats there and no doubt were used for the same purpose here. Then again, perhaps it is not so surprising, given the similarity in climate and geography that must dictate the way of life. Doors lead off to rooms along the sides, each room meant for a family. It used to be, that the entire extended family lived under one roof.

Above the soaring rafters is the steeply sloping roof, the outside covered with fibers from the forest. The fiber bundles are rolled, the rolls laid side by side in a couple of layers. On top of these, are placed several more layers, the entire thickness enough to keep out the heaviest downpour. At each end of the pitched roof is a peaked eave, with beautiful colored patterns woven from palm. The figurehead at each end is that of a buffalo, the head made of cement but the horns are real buffalo horns.
“We have no elephant” says James, “Buffalo is the biggest, strongest animal”.
I saw a new house under construction. And here too lay the buffalo-heads, waiting to be mounted. The horns on these are real buffalo horns as well.

A man sat outside his house, busy carving a hasapi, the Karonese two-stringed instrument. Stopping to chat, we were treated to a snippet of a song. Come to Kabanjahe on the nineteenth, he told me. We will do traditional dances and songs then.

Near the large central community hall lay a couple of cane baskets with enormous pigs grunting inside them. Not for long though, as they were slaughtered in short order. Some women sat nearby busily preparing vegetables. “For a funeral ceremony, tomorrow” said James.

Our meanderings led through the village and we stopped at a house of the storyteller. I had wanted to hear Karo tales and he was only too happy to oblige. We sat on the mat inside his house and he told us tales, pausing only to shoo out the chickens who wandered in from time to time. James translated from Karonese to English as I listened to tales of the gods who created the world. Tales of magicians and sorcerers merged into those of the god who shrugs sometimes, causing earthquakes. There are tales too, of the reason volcanoes erupt, but they take too long, said our storyteller. You have to come back to hear those tales.

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