Batak Arts and Crafts on Lake Toba

Batak arts are popular due to the tribe’s ability to make carvings and sculptures. This fact is evident from the beautiful engravings on the ornaments of their homes. They also have a talent for fine art including the skill to make sior and hujur (arrows), losung gaja (large dimple), and Sigale-gale puppets (dolls of wood that can dance). They are also famous for weaving skills. Ulos weavers have a talent called martonun, i.e., weaving the cloth on traditional looms.

Find below some of the Batak arts and crafts commonly found on Lake Toba.

Batak Gorga

Batak Gorga is carving or chisel art usually found on the exterior of traditional houses and art instruments (e.g., drums, flutes, harpoons.) Gorga represents a pattern or motif that is not only carved but also painted, and in general Batak Gorga uses just three colors: red, black, and white. Gorga is mostly done by sculpting wood, but more recently by carving concrete also on more modern houses and then painting it with three different colors.

Materials for Gorga are usually softwood that can be easily scraped/carved. Sculptors often use Ungil wood (people also call it Ingul lumber) in their work. Ungil wood has specific properties, such as resistance to direct sunlight and rain exposure, which means it won’t get quickly damaged or weathered due to sunstroke and humidity. The wood is also typical for the manufacture of ships/boats on Lake Toba.

Craft Sculptures

Making sculptures is a significant skill in traditional arts that is common in the Batak land. The carvings of Gorga or ornament on the traditional houses are proof of their decent talent in this area. Sculptures also appear on many kinds of conventional tools, such as sior and hujur (arrow), losung gaja (large dimple), and parpagaran and sigale-gale (a tool for summoning supernatural powers).


Ulos is a typical cloth made using looms instead of machines. The dominant colors on ulos are red, black, and white decorated by a woven variety of gold or silver threads. Ulos was initially worn in the form of a scarf or sarong only, often used in official events or ceremonies, but now it also appears in the form of souvenir products, pillowcases, belts, bags, clothing, table mats, ties, wallets, and curtains. Ulos also possesses supernatural powers according to Bataks. For example, it may be given to a pregnant woman to facilitate the birth of the baby and to protect her from all dangers during labor. Ulos has many variants, coming and going just like a fashion product. As a result, some ulos variants have become extinct (not produced anymore), e.g., King ulos, Ragi Botik ulos, Gobar ulos, Saput ulos (ulos used as a wrapper), and Sibolang ulos.


Tandok is a container made of woven pandan leaves (Pandanus). For Batak, tandok is very important and appears during various ceremonies. In general, this bowl is for placing rice delivered as offerings. Rice is a staple food on Lake Toba. It can also be used to put complementary food such as sugar, dried fish, coconuts, fruit, coffee beans, and tea. The size varies considerably from about 30 cm (1 ft) to 3 meters (30 ft). The big tandok is also called giant horn.


Sigale-gale is a wooden puppet used in a funeral dance performance on Samosir. Sigale-gale is a well-known feature to visiting tourists. During the dance, the artist operates the doll from behind like a marionette using strings that run through the ornate wooden platform on which it stands. The setup enables its arms and body to move and its head to turn according to the operator’s intention. Traditionally the performance was carried out only for childless persons. Toba Bataks believe that each dead soul will become an ancestral spirit and the children of the deceased shall perform funerary rites. But if a person died childlessly, then a Sigale-gale is created as a substitute for his/her child. To look real, Sigale-gale could be life-sized and equipped with sponges that could be squeezed to make the doll appear to cry. The wooden figure has jointed limbs mounted on large wheeled platforms on which, weeping, they danced during funerary ceremonies called papurpur sepata, held for persons of high rank who had died without offspring. The ritual dispelled the curse of dying childless and placated the spirit of the deceased so that he would do any harm to the community.

Beads (manik-manik)

Beads are one of the traditions that have long been famous to Batak, i.e., since the 10th century AD. The residents used to make beads of clay, clam, bone, stone, and glass. But now they have used synthetic materials whose shapes and colors are more artistic and diverse. They weave the beads to form a typical Batak motif and turn them into various pieces of jewelry. The beads are also complementary to other crafts such as anjat (woven bags), traditional clothes, and others.

Woven Pandan

Woven pandan mat is the production of traditional craftsmen from Mandailing Natal (Madina). The rug is suitable for bedrooms as well as living rooms, for personal as well as ceremonial use. It is water-resistant. The crafts also include Harianjang (rice basket), Hadang Hadang (woven bag), and various other household products.

See also Batak Culinary on Lake Toba.