INDONESIA: On the origins of Lake Toba

D anu Toba is a special place, a lake in a super volcano, the biggest volcanic caldera worldwide:

“It was the incredible beauty of an ancient, volcanic world, which through her cataclysms stayed a paradise of giants and gods. There is something gigantic in this nature and herin lies Lake Toba as a blue jewel, luminescent between the pearl white, straight rocks.”

The Dutch writer Louis Couperus, writes in the style of the time, in his travel journal “Eastward” from 1923.

Europeans got knowledge about this sacred lake reasonably late. Marsden, which spend eight years in Bengkulu wrote in his “History of Sumatra” from 1811:

“It is said that there is a huge lake in North Sumatra, where exactly is not known.”

Two British missionaries, Burton and Ward, spend a week in the Silidung valley in 1824, but were probably kept out of the way of the lake on purpose, which is considered sacred by the population.

The Toba Batak were highly resistant to any foreign intrusion on their lands, seeking to remain in a kind of protective isolation. Anyway Lake Toba was officially put on the map around 1850.

The first European to see Danau Toba was the Dutch linguist H.N. van der Tuuk, in 1853. The American missionaries Henry Lyman and Samuel Munson were less fortunate. Travelling from Sibolga to the Silindung Valley in 1834, they were attacked and killed by Toba Batak because they killed a Batak woman during hunting- they were simply eaten.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/28/COLLECTIE_TROPENMUSEUM_Batak_krijgers_met_speren_TMnr_60025550.jpg
Batak warriors with spears- Batak krijgers met speren COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM

The legend of their death includes details suggesting they were cannibalized by those who killed them. However, the eating of their flesh was not intended for nourishment but was merely a symbolic, ritualized gesture intended to communicate emphatically to the outside that the Toba Batak would not tolerate intrusion by those from the outside. Shocking reports from the early literature tell that they are fierce headhunters, cannibals and warriors. This image is kind of misleading. The Toba Batak didn’t only have their own writing and a higly developed culture, but also seemed to have early and long lasting trade contacts with each others and the outside world, but the impact of Islam upon the Batak was minimal.

The Batak, now one of the biggest populations in Indonesia, arrived in the highlands about 3 to 4 thousand years ago from the Phillippines and Borneo. Following Toba legends Si Raja Batak was the mythical ancestor of all Batak people, he descended on Gunung Pusuk Buhit (1981 metres), a vulcano on the western banks of Danau Toba. Nowadays there are six groups of Batak living around Danau Toba, which are distinct but have related languages and customs.

From the memories of Sitor Situmorang we get an impression of the Batak country in the thirties. In 1931 he went to Balige, on the southern tip of Lake Toba:

“…As the landscape to the north of the lake was dominated by groups of high steep mountains, Balige was also surrounded by mountain ranges which rose higher to the east, towards Habinsaran, where the sun rises, the source region of the Asahan stream. … Behind that was a mysterious outerworld, just as this outer world, for centuries had considered the Batak countries a mysterious world, populated by tribes with scary habits, with a fascinating culture interwoven with legends and myths…”

The earth and its inhabitants. Figure 37, Lake Toba and the Batta country.

According to a legend, there was a mountain called Mount Tuhaweoba in areas where Lake Toba now. Tuhaweoba is also the name of the type of pepper). The mountain exploded, Lake Toba was created and the people who shared the land were divided. Those on the western side of the lake became the Batak Toba and on the eastern side Batak Simalungun. The word Tuhaweoba changed over time into Tuba and later into Toba.

Danau Toba, was formed about 100,000 to 75.000 years ago during one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions known to human kind; a tremendous disaster, which caused a layer of ashes of 600 meters to fall down. About 30,000 years ago, a new series of explosions formed a volcano inside the old one. The caldera lake that was formed by these explosions measures 100 km by 40 km, its odd elongate shape is a result of the interactions between the magma chamber and the shearing forces of the Sumatran Fault along the west that has stretched it out. The pressure from the dormant magma, which has not erupted, caused Samosir Island to emerge.

A Viennese Original, called Chris,  bold and wrinkled, living in Toba for almost 40 years and married to a Batak Lady told me about this legend, disturbed only by the ringing church bells and the Sea Otters, playing in the lake:

O nce upon a time there was a young farmer named Toba. He lived in a fertile valley, therefore he was able to support his lonely, humble life with the crops he grew.

One day he went fishing at a river not far from his house. The river was usually rich with fish, but today he did not catch any fish, so hungry, he decided to go home. Just as he was preparing to leave, his rod caught a big fish. As he lifted the big fish, it suddenly talked, the golden fish cried and begged him to release it.

Surprised to see a talking fish, he released it to the river, but suddenly the fish transformed into beautiful young woman. The woman said that she was a princess cursed to be a fish. She thanked the farmer for breaking her curse and to show her gratitude, she was willing to be his wife under the condition that the farmer should not tell anybody about her being a fish or a terrible disaster would be. So the farmer and the woman got married and after a year, they were blessed with a baby boy (or a baby girl, there are different variations of the tale). The boy grew up to be a child of great appetite. He had a fierce appetite and would eat all the food on the table without leaving anything for his family.

One day the boy was asked to bring rice to his father who was working in the field. But on the way, the boy ate up everything. His father was very hungry and tired after the hard work, but there was no food left for him to eat. This made the farmer loose his temper and in anger, he hit the boy and called him a son of the fish.

Crying, the boy ran home and asked his mother if he really was a son of a fish. Shocked and sad to hear this, the princess told the boy to run to the hill near their house and to climb to the top of the tallest tree. She herself hurried up to the river where she met the young farmer the first time and disappeared.

The sky turned black and thunder and lightning roared and heavy rain fell onto the valley. It rained so hard and so long that the valley began to flood. The water got higher and higher until the valley was no more, it had turned into a lake.

My friend Chris, told me several variants:

  • The earth began to shake, and the volcano started to erupt. The earth cracked and formed a big hole. It is said that the hole became the Toba Lake.
  • The princess changed again into a very large fish that became the keeper of the lake and is worshiped till today.
  • The the father or the son became the island of Samosir.
  • People named the lake after the farmer, Toba. The hill became an island in the middle of the lake, and was named Samosir Island. The son was believed to be the ancestor of Batak People of North Sumatera.

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REFERENCES, ATTRIBUTIONS AND FURTHER READING