1800 - 2013

The great pustaha

Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

the story of a remarkable Batak book
Tropenmuseum Amsterdam

One of the most treasured objects in the collection of the Amsterdam Tropenmuseum is this so-called pustaha, an ancient book used by Batak priests in northern Sumatra, Indonesia. It was collected in the 1850’s but may be quite older than that. The pustaha is surmounted by a carved mythical wooden serpent-like animal, and underneath the bottom panel you can find something very much like animal legs, a kind of hooves. In between the wooden panels are the pages of the book. The pages are folded accordion-like, like the book music used in a street organ. The 56 pages are made of tree bark cloth, and if you unfold it completely you get a strip 17 metres long.

The wisdom of nine generations of magician-priests is stored within these pages. The book contains descriptions of all kinds of spells and incantations needed by the datu, as the Batak priests are called. There are formulas for, for example, destroying other villages or eliminating opponents, for inspiring love, and stories about the creation of the world.

Interior of the great pustaha

The museum has around 150 examples of this kind of books but this is the finest piece in the collection. With a hight of 42 centimeters and a length of over half a meter, it is presumably the largest in the world. 

The serpent on top of the book is probably Naga Padoha, ruler of the underworld. A myth says that back in the days when there was only sea and no islands, the serpent stirred up the sand in the ocean bed and so created the islands which make up Indonesia – all 18,000 of them.

Datu with pustaha, medicine horn and wand

Datu, the Batak magician-priest

Pustaha are composed and owned by datu. These priests or priest-magicians use them as reference work for information about magic, rituals, prescriptions and divination. The books are written in Batak script using a ritual language called poda that is only accessible to the priests. 

Other priest instruments are wands, medicine horns, bamboo calenders and datu knives.

Wand of a datu
Knife of a datu

The introduction of the great pustaha we are dealing with here was translated into Dutch by Father Promes in 1968. It proved to hold information of the priests who handed over the knowledge on magic. It contains the names of the priests, and the villages where they lived. Following the trail along these different villages, one can see that the knowledge was transferred from the west of Lake Toba to the southwest of the lake, all the way to Lobu Siregar. This is where the writer of the book lived, Guru Tumurun Hata ni adji, namora Simandjuntak.

Van der Tuuk

The pustaha was brought to the Netherlands by a linguist named Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk. Van der Tuuk was born in 1824 in Malacca and at the age of twelve sent to the Netherlands for his education. As a linguist he went to Sumatra on an assignment for the Netherlands Bible Society, to translate the Bible into the Batak language. He arrived in north Sumatra in 1851 and moved a year later to the coastal town of Barus.

Portrait of Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk

From there he traveled into the interior of Batak land, where he found the Batak language in its purest form. He was probably the first European ever to see the sacred Lake Toba. 

During his stay in North Sumatra, between 1851 and 1857, Van der Tuuk collected the great pustaha among a large number of other Batak objects, such as wands, textiles, medicine horns and weapons.  

After Van der Tuuk was nearly killed when he met the Sisingamangaraja, the holy leader of the Batak, he was forced to flee back to Barus. In 1857 he went back to the Netherlands, never to return to Sumatra. In the Netherlands he finished his four volume Batak-Nederduitsch dictionary, and translated a number of Books of the Bible. His heart however was much more with the Batak people then with his task of translation.

Van der Tuuk did return to other islands of the Netherlands East Indies, where he finally resided in Bali, more like a Balinese than a colonial citizen. In 1894, when he was at the age of 70, Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk died of dysentery in a military hospital in Surabaya, Java.

Natura Artis Magistra

In 1862, before he went to Bali, van der Tuuk donated his collection to the Ethnographic Museum of the Zoological Society of Natura Artis Magistra, nowadays known as the Artis Zoo in Amsterdam. It may seem odd now, but in the 19th century it was quite common for an ethnographical collection to be an important asset within a zoo.  In the N.A.M. statutes it is written that “mankind has its place within a zoological garden […] the most organised creature known in zoology”. 

The Artis museums acquired artefacts from private collectors, administrators, trade agents, travellers, explorers, missionaries, companies and scientific societies. There was no specific area of interest, all continents were represented. Hence, the Artis collection contains rare treasures. 

Objects from the Artis collection

The artefacts were displayed in the Grand Museum (Groote Museum), alongside the zoological and geological collection.

In 1861, a separate Ethnographical Museum arose. Room was scarce, as can be seen on a 1866 print where the objects were packed on top of each other. On the floor we can clearly see the great pustaha , standing in a central spot alongside draperies with Batak medicine horns and priest wands. At that time the pustaha was already considered to be a special object. 

The great pustaha on display in the Ethnographical Museum of Natura Artis Magistra

Colonial Museum Haarlem

Another museum collection was growing in Haarlem, where in 1871 the Colonial Museum opened its doors. Frederik van Eeden collected artefacts and samples of trade goods from the overseas territories known as the Netherlands East and West Indies. But the Pavilion Welgelegen, where it was housed, soon became too small for the vast collection. 

Colonial Museum in Pavilion Welgelegen, Haarlem
Exhibition in the Colonial Museum in Haarlem

The Colonial Museum moves to Amsterdam

In 1910 the Vereeniging Koloniaal Instituut (Colonial Institute) was founded, and plans were made to build a new facility in Amsterdam, opposite Natura Artis Magistra. The institute would, among other departments, house the Colonial Museum. The construction work took considerably longer than expected, partly due to the first world war. When it was finished in 1926, the Colonial Institute at the Mauritskade was the largest building in Amsterdam. 

The new museum was now ready to store the entire collection from the museum pavilion in Haarlem. 

In the meantime, in 1921, Artis donated the entire ethnographical collection of over 10,000 objects to this very Vereeniging Koloniaal Instituut. Through this transaction, the objects donated by Van der Tuuk came together with the collection of the Colonial Museum, including the great pustaha.

In what is now known as one of the oldest ethnographical collections in the Netherlands, we find, besides van der Tuuk’s collection, several pustaha a whole variety of other objects from Oceania, Africa, Asia and the Americas. 

The great pustaha at the Colonial Museum

The pustaha has been on display almost permanently from the very beginning. Before the Colonial Museum officially opened, visitors could come and see the Anniversary Exhibition for Queen Wilhelmina’s 25 years of reign, in 1923. While most of the institute was still under construction, objects were displayed on tables in the museum galleries. 

The institute was officially opened in1926, by queen Wilhelmina in  the light hall of the Colonial Museum. 

Tassilo Adam

The Vereeniging Koloniaal Instituut was now in the posession of both the Haarlem and the Artis collection. After the opening, new objects found their way to the museum. Among the other circa 150 divination books that were in total collected in the history of the museum, a number of interesting examples can be found in the collection purchased from the German planter Tassilo Adam (1878-1955). 

Adam was fascinated by Batak culture. This initially prompted him to move to Sumatra to work there as an assistant on a tobacco plantation. Adam started collecting objects for himself in 1910, and after 1914 moved his focus to photography. It is he who shot one of the most famous photographs from the Tropenmuseum collection, of a young Karo Batak woman with astonishing earrings (padung-padung) and necklace (kalung berahmeni).

Among the objects Tassilo Adam collected was a number of pustaha. Though much smaller in size and less spectacular in design than the great pustaha of Van der Tuuk, the importance of the formulas, recipes and illustrations are considered similar.

Tassilo Adam must have been intrigued by the content of the books. He made quite a number of drawings where he copied illustrations from pustaha. Presumably these were meant for publication, which never actually came about. 

Singa or Naga Padoha?

Until recently, the animal figure on top of the pustaha was thought to respresent a singa. The word singa, meaning lion in Sanskrit, dates back to contact with Hindu traders in the southern Batak area. In Batak culture the singa itself is a complicated mythical creature related to the female serpent. An example of the representation of a singa can be found in a wooden animal head that was collected by Tassilo Adam. Wood carvings like these were placed on the façade of a house or, in the case of this particular piece on the right, of a granary to protect the rice.

Tassilo Adam found the same singa on a sarcophagus, where a singa is hewn into the stone cover.

World War II

When in 1939 the threat of war was felt from neighbouring Germany,  the great pustaha was one of the objects that was evacuated from the galleries, and brought to safety in the basements of the museum. The pustaha must have been one of the most precious objects stored inside the vault, according to a newspaper article from August 1939. 

Despite, or perhaps thanks to the fact that the ‘Ordnungspolizei’,  the order police of the German occupying forces, was based inside the Colonial Institute's offices, the great pustaha survived the war. It was back on display shortly after the war, when the museum was called Indisch Museum for a couple of years. The museum only held on to that name until the Netherlands recognised the sovereignty of Indonesia in December 1949. The great pustaha was displayed together with other objects of Batak origin.


After 1949, the museum received its present name. 

In 1987 the famous exhibition “Budaya Indonesia: arts and crafts of Indonesia” was opened to the public. This exhibition gave an overview of 2000 years of culture and history of Indonesia, represented by some 500 artefacts. The pustaha was once more displayed within the context of magical, sorcery related objects like the medicine horns and containers.

Permanent exhibition

Today, the pustaha is displayed on its own as the most important example of the dragon symbol, and as a representation of Naga Padoha. Even though Van der Tuuk's medicine horn and magical wands are just around the corner, the pustaha is considered to be a written record relating to Batak’s cultural history, rather than a magical, gruesome curiosity that must be feared.

Credits: Story

Compilation — Richard van Alphen
Sources — Based on the article
by Pim Westerkamp, Curator South East Asia at the Tropenmuseum: From singa to naga
padoha, the making of a magical creature. 
In: Indonesia and the Malay World
Vol. 37, No. 108 July 2009, pp. 163–181.             Other sources:

Frank, Denise, Cultuur onder vuur: het Tropeninstituut in
oorlogstijd. Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2012.   --  Jongmans, Rob, Tassilo Adam (1878-1955), In: 'Photographs of the Netherlands East Indies
at the Tropenmuseum'. Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2012, p.34-35.  -- Sibeth, Achim, The
Batak:  peoples of the Island of Sumatra.
Stuttgart: Lindenmuseum, 1991.  -- Wijs, Sonja, Artis
Zoo and the Tropenmuseum. Web publication, Tropenmuseum 2013.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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