The Rich Heritage of Hindu-Buddhist Civilization in Sumatra: Unraveling the Cultural Tapestry

The narrative of Hindu-Buddhist culture in Indonesia often seems centered around Java, influenced by the abundance of factual data found on the island with the country’s densest population. Scholars like G. Sambodo et al., in their work on the role of communities in handling new inscriptions, have noted that Java boasts the highest quantity of inscriptions, essential for reconstructing classical Indonesian history. However, this Java-centric view doesn’t imply a lack of Hindu-Buddhist relics elsewhere. Sumatra, particularly in the land of Batak, holds a unique and rich historical tapestry waiting to be acknowledged.

While the contemporary Batak community predominantly adheres to Christianity or Islam, Edi Sedyawati et al., in “Candi Indonesia: Seri Sumatera, Kalimantan, Bali, Sumbawa” (2014), reveal the discovery of approximately 10 temples in North Sumatra alone. These archaeological findings, along with numerous inscriptions, unveil a Hindu-Buddhist civilization in Tanah Batak that flourished from the 9th to the 15th centuries CE.

The discovery of inscriptions in Tanah Batak marks the embryonic stage of the Batak script, or Surat Batak. Uli Kozok’s monumental work, “Surat Batak: Sejarah Perkembangan Tulisan Batak” (2009), traces the origins of the Batak script. This script first appeared in manuscripts, known as pustaha in the Batak language, written by datu (spiritual leaders) in the early 19th century. The Batak script, consisting of ina ni surat and anak ni surat, initially emerged in the Mandailing-Angkola region and later spread to Toba and Karo. The unique aspect of the Batak script lies in its application, often written on laklak (wooden bark). Pustahas typically contain knowledge about healing, divination practices, Batak mysticism, and a few myths about Batak genesis.

Kozok’s research also reveals unique linguistic elements in Batak manuscripts. Several Batak words, such as portibi (from “Pertiwi,” meaning earth goddess), debata (from “Dewata,” meaning deity), mangameru (from “Mahameru,” sacred mountain in Hindu cosmology), and even the term pustaha itself (derived from “Pustaka,” meaning book), show Sanskrit linguistic borrowings in ancient Batak.

The incorporation of Sanskrit into the Batak language suggests a chronological connection with the Hindu-Buddhist cultural framework. Prasasti Sitopayan I, discovered in North Sumatra, serves as evidence for the earliest use of Batak script. According to C. Nasoichah in “Prasasti Sitopayan I dan II: Tinjauan Aspek Ekstrinsik dan Intrinsik” (2012), this inscription represents a fusion of Javanese and Batak scripts, indicating cultural interaction.

Sumatra, particularly North Sumatra, is home to many Hindu-Buddhist sacred structures known as “biaro.” The focal point of these discoveries is the Padang Lawas Temple Complex, situated between the Padang Lawas and Padang Lawas Utara regencies. The architectural amalgamation found in Biaro, as seen in Biaro Bahal and Si Pamutung, reflects the artistic influences of the Ĺšailendra, Singhasari-Majapahit, and even Chola dynasties of South India. The archaeological findings, including sculptures and short mantra inscriptions, strongly indicate the prevalence of Vajrayana Buddhism.

While the architectural elements suggest that the construction of biaro in Padang Lawas began in the 11th century and continued until the 14th century, questions linger about the supporting society. Some scholars, like Sukawati Susetyo, propose a connection between Padang Lawas and the existence of the Panai Kingdom on the West Coast of North Sumatra. This hypothesis gains credence from the discovery of Prasasti Panai, which mentions Pannai as a city under Sriwijaya’s suzerainty in the 12th century.

The historical narrative of Hindu-Buddhist culture in Indonesia extends beyond Java, and the cultural legacy in Sumatra, especially in Tanah Batak and Padang Lawas, is a testament to the rich tapestry of Indonesia’s past. The synthesis of local culture with Hindu-Buddhist elements, as seen in the Batak script and the architectural wonders of Padang Lawas, invites us to explore the diverse and interconnected history of the Indonesian archipelago. Acknowledging and delving into these narratives helps paint a more comprehensive picture of Indonesia’s cultural heritage.