The most distinctive type of Batak manuscripts from north Sumatra are the pustaha, folded concertina-style books written on treebark, which mostly contain notes on divination and magical formulae. Pustaha can vary considerably in length and size – those in the British Library collection range from the relatively large, with pages each 28 x 20 cm (Add 19378) to the tiny, measuring only 4.5 x 3 cm (such as MSS Batak 9). Simpler manuscripts may not have any special covers, ending just with the final leaves of treebark, but quite a few Batak pustaha have covers of wood. Sometimes these are finely carved, particularly on the front cover, but occasionally also on the back. Manuscripts may also have a plaited band made of split rattan or bamboo, which can be placed around the covers of the manuscript to clasp the book closed. Additionally, there may be two holes drilled into the top wooden cover for a string of ijuk fronds to be attached so that the manuscript could be carried or hung easily. Presented below are images of all the original covers of Batak pustaha in the British Library collection.
MSS Batak 6, which mostly contains texts on divination in war, especially by use of rambu siporhas, divination based on the position of a double string thrown on the ground. This pustaha has a beautifully carved wooden front cover, but a plain wooden back cover.
Full view of the finely carved wooden front cover of MSS Batak 6.
Although now severely abraded, it is clear that the front cover of this pustaha was elaborately carved with the figure of a lizard set within geometrical borders. The back cover is finely polished but plain. The pustaha still has its plaited clasp band and original carrying string. Add 19381.
Unusually, this beautiful small pustaha has finely carved wooden covers for both the front (left) and back (right). As can be seen, the front cover has slighlyt angled top and bottom edges, to accommodate the two holes for the carrying string, while the bottom cover is rectangular in shape. The pustaha contains a text in Simalungun Batak on protective formulae. Or 11761
This pustaha, which appears to contain texts on protective magic (pagar), is one of a number collected by Baron Oscar von Kessel who travelled in the Batak country from Tobing vis Sipirok to Sigompulon in 1844. The wooden front cover has a decorative ridged spine, through which holes have been drilled for a carrying string. Add 19380.
This is the oldest dateable Batak pustaha, which entered the collections of the British Museum in 1764. The shape of the plain front cover, with its ridged form along the spine, and with two holes for carrying strings, is echoed in many of the other manuscripts illustrated here. Add 4726.
Although the front wooden cover of this pustaha is without decoration, it is artfully ridged in the middle to accomdate the holes for a carrying string, now lost. Before 1817. MSS Batak 5
A similar ridged central spine can be seen on the front wooden cover of this pustaha, also with two holes at top and bottom. Although the original carrying string is now lost, the pustaha still has its two original plaited rattan bands to keep it closed. Add 19378.
Add 19379 has two wooden covers and two plaited rattan clasps, and – most rarely – its original thickly-twisted carrying string.
These two small pustaha both have carrying strings and plaited rattan bands around their plain wooden covers. On the left, MSS Batak 2 dates from before 1811; on the right, Or 6898 is a Karo Batak manuscript.
The rather battered appearance of the wooden covers of this pustaha is reflected in the poor condition of the contents, as the manuscript has been broken in several places and then repaired. However it still retains its original plaited rattan clasp band. Or 12587
On the left, this pustaha with very plain wooden covers, Or 13957, contains a text devoted to the art of waging war, written by a datu from the western shores of Lake Toba. On the right, MSS Batak 10 is an unusual example of a pustaha which is taller than it is wide. Although the covers are simple they are finely polished.
Both these pustaha have only has one wooden cover on the front. Although the manuscript on the left (MSS Batak 7) is elegantly angled in the middle around the string holes, the side is badly damaged. On the right, Or 11762 has one angled front cover, and unevenly folded leaves, yielding pages of different sizes.
Like most of the manuscripts above, this pustaha has two wooden covers, with a ridge along the top cover with two holes, but in this case, uniquely, the carrying handle is made of a piece of goatskin. MSS Batak 4
This is one of the most unusual covers of a pustaha, being made entirely of goat skin, with a wrap-around ‘envelope flap’ which recalls the Islamic tradition of leather book bindings. MSS Batak 3
These two small pustaha do not have wooden covers, and their final leaves of treebark function as the outer covers. Although it is not known exactly when they were acquired by the India Office Library, the style of handwriting of the price tag suggests it was written around 1900; the sum of one pound and ten shillings charged for each manuscript then would be equivalent to £175 today. MSS Batak 8 and MSS Batak 9
While the pustaha shown above were evidently created without covers, others held in the British Library are now in a damaged condition and probably lost their covers – and perhaps also other pages – some time ago. Or 16998
All the manuscripts shown further above have original covers, but some pustaha in the British Library have had covers added more recently. These leather covers (left, Add 19385) and the wooden covers (right, Add 19384) were probably added in the British Museum following acquistion in 1853.
As long as it can be ascertained that they are original products of Batak culture, even the relatively plain wooden covers of pustaha are of interest in contributing to our knowledge of Batak craftsmanship, especially because in many western institutions ‘improvements’ made in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the addition of new covers, have served to obliterate the look and ‘feel’ of the original manuscript. Rene Teygeler has reported, based on information gathered by Voorhoeve: ‘When the collection of Van der Tuuk entered Leiden University Library in 1896 all the pustaha that had no covers were provided with new ones. Today only two manuscripts of this collection still have the original boards. From the entire collection ’ And from the entire collection of Leiden University Library, only 23 of the 200 pustaha have one or both original covers’ (Teygeler 1993: 597). By comparison, of the 33 pustaha in the British Library, all save three are in original condition, with or without covers. Of these 30 in original condition, 18 have covers of wood or leather, and all of these have been illustrated above.
All the pustaha and other Batak manuscripts in the British Library have recently been digitised in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures of the University of Hamburg. A full list of the digitised Batak manuscripts can be found here.
Jan van der Putten and Roberta Zollo, The power of writing: the manuscript culture of the Toba Batak from North Sumatra / Die Macht der Schrift: die Manuskriptkultur der Toba-Batak aus Nord-Sumatra. Manuscript cultures, 2020, 14.
R. Teygeler, Pustaha: a study into the production process of the Batak book. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1993, 149(3): 593-611.