The Karo Regency covers an area of more than 2.000 square
kilometers (or 3% of North Sumatra) on an average altitude of
700-1.400 m above sea level. Average temperature is 16-27 degrees
Celsius, and average rainfall 1.000-4.000 mm per year. The active
volcanoes Gunung Sibayak (2.000m) and Gunung Sinabung (2.400m) are
visible from most points in the Karo regency. When looking out over
the Karo landscape, at the first glance, it often looks rather flat.
However, if one moves around along small roads, one soon realizes
that the landscape is varied with many small and deep valleys making
the traveling very nice and giving unexpected views.
The population of the Karo regency is app. 300.000. The
regency capitol is Kabanjahe even though Berastagi is more known
amongst foreigners. App. 75% of the population is farmers. Tourism,
both international and domestic also plays an important role in the
economy, however now less important than before. The fertile land of
Karo has made the area known for fruits, vegetables, and flowers.
The Berastagi Marquisa (passion fruit) is well known throughout
Indonesia and is a local delicacy. The big cash crops are oranges (mandarines),
cabbage, and corn. The Karo people are known to be hard workers.
The Karo people are normally described as one of six
sub-groups of the Batak people. However, Karo scholars claim that
they form their own ethnic group, the Karo. Others say that the Karo
are closely related to the Melayu. The Karo people have, like the
other Batak peoples, a strict clan system. There are five so-called
original clans (marga): Karo-Karo with 20 sub-clans, Sembiring with
18 sub-clans, Tarigan with 14 sub-clans, Perangin-Angin with 18
sub-clans, and Ginting with 16 sub-clans. When people of other
ethnic background move to Karo they are given a Karo clan name and,
in such a way, are faster assimilated. For example a Sihotang from
Toba becomes a Karo-Karo Sitepu. The clan system is today not as
strict as it once was.
The Karo people embrace several religions and they live
peacefully together. Even the smallest village has normally both
Christians and Muslims living next to each other, in some cases even
in the same longhouse. There are still people of older local
religions (called Pemena), however they are few and less visible
nowadays. Half of the Karo people are Protestant, 18% are Catholics,
and 28 % Muslims. Other religions cover 2% of the population,
including a few Hindus. Karo became Christians or Muslims during the
last century. The first Christian conversions took place as late as
in the 1930's. Hinduism was much more influential in Karo than in
other Batak areas, especially in the Sembiring clan. Biring is a
Karo word meaning “black”. It is almost impossible to find any
religious fanatics in Karo.
Traditional Karo ceremonies can be very interesting. Many are
disappearing, but some still exist and take place in certain
- Pesta Tahun is a yearly cermony which usually is celebrated
after the harvest. The time for Pesta Tahun differs from village
to village. Village elders choose the appropriate day, with the
help of the Karo calendar. Traditional dancing is performed and
traditional Karo food is served. The dancing normally starts in
the evening. The young people normally party until morning.
- Erpangir Kulau is a bathing ceremony that cures us from evil
curses. Offerings are presented to God for his blessings. It can
for take place, for example, at weddings and baptism.
- The ceremony Perumah Begu still survives amongst Animists. A
shaman communicates with spirits of ancestors by letting them
possess his body. In this way information about the future can
be obtained and longing for the ancestors can be conveyed.
- Other ceremonies to look out for are: Erdemu Bayu is a
wedding ceremony involving many agents between the groom and the
bride. Mengket Rumah is a housewarming party and Cawir Metua is
a ceremony for people who have passed away at old age. Ngampeken
Tulan-tulan is the Karonese version of the Batak Toba Manongkal
Holi where the remains of important ancestors are exhumed and
given a better grave. It is a way of improving the status of the
ancestor. Gundala-gundala is a Karonese dance where the
performers use masks. Tarian Lima Serangkai is a dance by five
couples representing the five original Karo clans. If you want
to take part in a Karo ceremony it is recommended to dress up a
bit. Use long trousers and be clean. The locals will appreciate
Traditional Karo houses are still in use in many. However,
nowadays most people find the traditional house too cramped and
old-fashioned. In general, this is a problem as many houses are left
to fall apart. It is expensive to repair these kinds of houses and
not many people know how to do it any longer. The government doesn't
have enough funds either to help the locals to save their cultural
heritage. A traditional house falls apart fast if no one lives in
it. The smoke from the kitchen keeps destructive insects away.
A traditional Karo house is built approximately 2m above the ground
and is resting on 16 pillars. Four, six, eight, or twelve families
used to occupy one house. Two families shared one open fire. The
inside is one open area, but alcoves were often available for
intimate moments of married couples. Animals and firewood were kept
underneath the house. The Karo house has two doors. One leads to the
west and one to the east. In front of each door is a verandah of
bamboo, called ture. Here, women were weaving, making pandanus mats
or other handicrafts. Women gave birth sitting on the steps leading
up to the doorway. The roof of the house was made of ijuk (fiber
from the sugar palm), resting on bamboo. The roof has two triangular
gavels made of bamboo ornament called ayo-ayo. On top is a buffalo
head looking down. No nails were used to construct the house.
Besides houses for living there are also other kinds of houses. The
jambur is a roofed platform were people who broke the king’s law or
village traditions were punished. It was also used for discussions
and so called musyawarah (an Indonesian tradition of solving
problems by talking until full agreement is reached). The geriten is
a building that was used to keep the sculls of important families.
The lesung was used for milling rice. The sapo was used for storing
rice. The rumah lajang was the building where unmarried men slept.
To build a house, from the moment the trees were cut until moving
in, involves seven different traditional ceremonies. The first
ceremony is for choosing trees to cut down. The second to the fifth
ceremonies concern different stages of the building process. The
sixth ceremony is for placing the buffalo heads and the last is when
moving in, the housewarming party. It was important to choose good
timber, as there were no forms of wood preservation. It took 40
persons about 12 month to build a 10m long and 8m wide house.
Approximately 100 trees were normally needed.
Karo Food: Tasak Telu is a chicken boiled in a special way
and given to a pregnant woman and her husband by the parents after
app. 4-5 months pregnancy. They have to eat it from the same plate.
Children also give it to their parents who recently have recovered
from sickness. They all eat the chicken together. Tasak Telu can
also be given to children who have successfully finished their final
exam. A specialty often served at traditional ceremonies is a kind
of cake made of grass taken from the first stomach of the cow
(rumen), or Pagit-pagit in Karonese. The grass from the cow is
squeezed and then cooked together with leaves of the sweet potato.
It is considered very delicious. Another cake for special events is
Kueh Cimpa, which is made of rice flour, coconut, and palm sugar.
If you prefer more "normal” food try the fish dishes "Ikan Mas Arsik"
(Gold fish curry), "Ikan Mas Panggang" (grilled Gold fish) or "Ikan
Nila Panggang" (grilled Nila fish). The Karonese are also known for
their good BBQ-pork. There are many restaurants specialized in it. A
sign saying “B2” indicates that they serve pork. "B1" indicates that
they serve dog meat. Try the local alcoholiv beverage "Tuak". It is
the fermented fruit jiuce from the sugar palm. It has to be fresh.
Oukup is a kind of traditional Karonese steam bath. A mix of
spices, including orange peel is boiled. Traditionally the person
covered himself with a blanket and placed a bucket with the steaming
hot water beneath. Today it has been modernized and the person sits
in a small chamber and the steam enters via a pipe. This modern form
has become very popular the last few years, especially in Medan
where hundreds of Oukup establishments have popped up. However, many
of these establishments are like many massage parlors, only a
cover-up for more amoral activities. When visiting an oukup-establishment,
which is recommended, you will notice what kind of place it is when
you enter. The steam bath is considered to be good against flu,
headache and sleeping problems.