Most Indonesian people do not even know that the Batak people have their own characters. In fact, the ability of the ancestors of the Batak people to develop their own characters is a sign of the high level of Batak culture in the past.
History of Batak Scripts
In general, Batak characters have 5 variants, depending on the language and region, namely Angkola-Mandailing, Karo, Pakpak-Dairi, Simalungun, and Toba. However, because the five Batak regions have the same parent, there is a continuation of culture and language. Therefore, there is no clear dividing line between the five variants.
According to experts, Batak characters such as many other Nusantara scripts are derivatives of Indian script, namely the Pallawa script. However, how exactly the Pallawa script influences or transforms into a Batak script is not clearly known.
Also as with other Nusantara characters, Batak characters are included in the abugida category or a combination of consonants and vowels that are placed on the script as diacritics. The basic vowel of the character reads [a] and can change according to the pair of vowels.
Areas that use Batak characters are generally located in remote mountainous areas. Therefore, this script was not affected by Islam which entered from the coast to the interior.
The entry of Islam also brought Arabic Malay letters known as Jawi writings. The alphabet, also known as the bald Arabic script, quickly replaced the original Sumatran characters. New Islamic influences entered the Batak land in the 19th century so that the original script could still survive until the 20th century.
Use of Batak Scripts
Batak people have known the tradition of writing for a long time. However, they never use the writing system for everyday purposes. Daily activities such as making documents, making notes on accounts payable, and making genealogical records are not carried out by ancient Batak people. For these needs everything is done orally.
In general, Batak characters are used to write shamanic sciences (hadatuon), medicine, astrology / astrology, and others. Most of the remaining manuscripts contain shamanic knowledge. This knowledge is only written by shamans (datu) because only they are smart and have the right to write this discussion. The script is usually made of bark (pustaha), but sometimes it is also made of bamboo or buffalo bones.
However, not all Batak texts are written by datu. Ordinary people also use Batak characters, both for the purpose of correspondence (including threatening letters) and to write lamentations for the suffering they are experiencing. This fact shows that not only datu can write. According to Kozok (2009), it is likely that in the precolonial era, around 30–50% of Batak men had understood literacy.
The media used in writing Batak characters in general are three, namely bark (laklak), bamboo, and buffalo bones. The most widely used media are bark and bamboo. Although the paper had entered the Batak at the end of the 19th century, it was rarely used to write Batak characters. Paper is used in schools to write Latin letters.
Karo Batak script on bamboo media.
Karo Batak script on bamboo media.
In the case of written media, Sumatra seems to have differences with other regions. Generally, the most widely used writing media in Java, Bali and Sulawesi are palm leaves. Likewise, manuscripts in the form of metal tablets and inscriptions were not found in Batak land.
The extinction of the original Batak writing tradition
At present, people who understand Batak characters and their writing techniques are very rare. According to Uli Kozok (2009), there are 3 causes that make the Batak script not much recognized and endangered.
First, as has been stated, traditional Batak people do not use writing for their daily needs. Similarly, they do not write their literature or stories. Literature or stories are passed down orally from generation to generation.
Second, the entry of Christianity and Islam into the Batak land which shifted the original Batak culture. The Padri and evangelists from Germany consider texts written by datu as pagan objects. Therefore, they tried to destroy the ancient manuscripts. Since then, there has been no published Batak book. Even if there are texts written using Batak characters, the numbers are very few.
Third, 90% of the remaining Batak manuscripts are stored in foreign museums and the rest in the national museum. This makes it difficult for local researchers to access it.
For this issue, Uli Kozok, a researcher in the field of Batak scripts, has pioneered the return of Batak scripts to the country by uploading them to cyberspace on the ulikozok.com site. An effort that is certainly very helpful in the development and re-introduction of Batak characters in the country.
Today the tradition of making pustaha and also manuscripts with bamboo and buffalo bones can be said to be extinct. Even if there are craftsmen who make pustaha, most of them are souvenirs that are of very low quality and are used only for decoration.
This product is not an original text, but only a meaningless text because it was written by craftsmen who actually did not understand the Batak script. Very few craftsmen understand the Batak script. Even very little of it only makes artificial copies of existing books.