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Click to enlargeThe 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 villages.

  • 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 it.

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.




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