The role of the parbaringin priesthood in Toba Batak society in Sumatra; Indonesia.


Johann Angerler

This project aims to investigate the complex relationship between ritual, ritual specialists, social organization and the economic and ecological problems faced by Toba Batak society in precolonial times. Research will be carried out into the history of the parbaringin a hereditary and hierarchical priestly organization, specialized in agricultural rituals. In literature their role in society is usually seen as a religious one. But after research among the Toba Batak over a period of one and a half years, I conclude that in certain areas the parbaringin's role in society went far beyond the religious sphere.

Precolonial Toba Batak society is regularly described as being stateless, organized segmentarily and as having a relatively democratic social system. In fact, if one looks at the modern kinship system, this society does seem democratic. Kinship occupies a dominant position among the Toba Batak. To an observer from outside, it seems that every relationship within Toba Batak society is determined by the rules of their kinship system, the so called asymmetric alliance system: Every individual is by birth integrated into the patrilineal, segmental lineage system (lineage or clan is called marga); the individual can actualize the membership to a marga segment of different order, according to descendancy. For instance as a descendant of one's grandfather, of one's great-grandfather, or even of the marga (founder) and into the system of marriage alliances dalihan na tolu, the "three cornered cooking" is the Toba Batak metaphor to describe a triadic relationship:
any ego group is in an inferior position to a bridegiver group and in a superior position to a bridetaker group). The alliance system is supposed to give stability to the society and to work in favour of equality. In the past, a number of very strong mechanisms of redistribution (so the duty of bridetakers to help their bridegivers materially, but also the duty for help between lineage mates) always prevented the formation of a permanently richer stratum of nobility in Toba Batak society. Precolonial Toba Batak society can indeed be characterized as a relatively egalitarian system (if one disregards the relatively small number of slaves and the inequality between the sexes). A bridegiver is no doubt inferior to his bridegiver and obliged to serve him, but in turn he always has his bridetakers who will serve him if necessary.
But can it be said that all political processes within this society took place on the level of the kinship system? It is difficult for outside observers to perceive the political structures. So it is no wonder that historians and anthropologists have held the view Toba Batak did not need any state because their kinship system provided them with whatever they needed. As far back as our historical knowledge reaches, Toba Batak were never united.

But in the many fertile valleys of North Sumatra thousands of people lived together, cultivating rice for at least some twenty generations on artificially irrigated fields. Artificial irrigation requires co-operation for the construction of the irrigation system and for its maintenance. And positive understanding among the inhabitants of one irrigation area is needed in order to ensure peaceful and just distribution of the available irrigation water. Dissension, armed conflicts and feuds could have devastating effects on the agriculture and cause famines.

Was the stateless Toba Batak society able to avoid this danger because of the alliance system? Historical reality shows that Toba Batak society, despite the stabilizing effect of the alliance system, was susceptible to conflict. There were conflicts among different groups which had no alliance relationship and there were also conflicts between rival segments of one marga. Even between brothers exasperated conflicts flared up. Often myths of origin begin with the history of conflicts between brothers.

To my question about the reasons for armed conflicts which are historically known to have taken place (old people know the history of their marga very well), people told me most often: "dispute about water". There is no sign that kinship structure alone could provide enough stability for undisturbed agricultural work. However, in coherent irrigation areas different marga, with and without alliance connections had to live together and to share the water in a way that everybody received sufficient supply.

The role and the functions of the parbaringin becomes much more understandable if the above-mentioned problems, which confronted society, are considered. It is my opinion that it was due to the parbaringin; and their symbolic system that the territorial organizations of the stateless Toba Batak could reach enough stability to successfully conduct artificial rice field irrigation. By means of their broad knowledge and their clever handling of the ritual as their most important instrument, they could influence economic and political processes.
The parbaringin had an important share of power in local territorial organizations, but they were not real rulers. They were not allowed to use any weapons, they were immune from any attack and they never went to war. They lived from their own land and that they held ex officio. To cover the costs of the rituals they collected contributions from the society. Through number of taboos they were controlled by the society and this prevented them from becoming real rulers. They remained members of a political system which was based on the separation of powers and which gave its functionaries only as much power to exercise as was necessary to fulfill their tasks to the benefit of the society. The parbaringin's tasks were not only of religious nature, they also organized irrigation work, and many other kinds of communal work and they regulated the annual agricultural cycle.
Their wives, the paniaran, also fulfilled important tasks especially for women, but also for the whole society. By her marriage to a parbaringin a parbaringin's wife entered the paniaran organization, which was female led and independent of the male parbaringin organization.

Although the Protestant mission saw the parbaringin as competitors in religious matters and the Dutch colonial government forbade their rituals, they did not disappear immediately. In remote areas much of their knowledge survived and their rituals were still performed until the end of Dutch colonial government.

After Indonesian Independence internal Batak power struggle overthrew their position of influence in society. Parbaringin organizations ceased to exist. Today only individuals, old people, still keep the special knowledge of the parbaringin. To let these old people narrate, to explain their view of the world and society and getting a lively idea of what it meant to be parbaringin or paniaran in Toba Batak society, also is a main aim of this project.

[Up] [SEAS Home] [APSIS Home]
created: June/12/1995
updated: June/12/1995
APSIS Editors