Batak Writer

The Batak divination book, the so-called pustaha has been known to the western world for at least two hundred years. lts contents were first subjected to systematic study when Van der Tuuk entered the Batak region in 1851. However, we still do not know much about the way these books were produced. This article represents an attempt to reconstruct this process of production on the basis of a study of the literature; some of the writing materials and writing implements involved are also discussed. The Batak are usually divided into six different groups; they are not considered a homogeneous people. One might assume then that the Batak would differ in their way of producing a pustaha. So far not enough evidence has been found to confirm this. Thus in this article I assume a uniform production process, despite the different ethnic backgrounds of the Batak people.

2. What is a pustaha?
There are at least one thousand pustaha in public and private collections. The earliest dated pustaha is found in the British Library (Add. 4726); it was donated in 1764 by Alexander Hall.

Most manuscripts in other Indonesian traditions are of a legal, historical, or literary nature. The pustaha however mainly deal with magie, divination and medicine. Only a few of the books are about historical affairs or legends, and most frequently one recognizes a European in the background of such texts (Voorhoeve 1977:300). Pustaha are compiled by datu (medicine men/priests), who use them mainly as reference works. But they can also serve as books of instruction, copied out by aspiring datu to complement their oral instruction (Braasem 1951:48). That is why the pustaha consist of so many short notes elucidated by magical illustrations and divination tables (porhalaan).

Except for rare copies on paper from the second half of the last century, all pustaha are written on tree bark. The bark is folded concertina fashion and sometimes furnished with boards. What distinguishes the pustaha from other book forms in Asia is that it is written on folded tree bark and that it is extensively illustrated.

The Batak language encompasses several dialects, but the language of the pustaha is, in general, uniform though local differences never disappear completely. This language of instruction, or magical language of education, is called poda (Kozok 1990a: 103). The obscure character of this language makes it extremely difficult to transcribe and translate these manuscripts.


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