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Loan Object
Photo by Johan Vipper
Photo credit: Johan Vipper

Divination Book (Pustaha)

mid-18th to 19th century

Bark paper, wood, and rattan

folded: 15 × 11 × 7 cm (5 7/8 × 4 5/16 × 2 3/4 in.)
Promised gift of Thomas Jaffe, B.A. 1971

The priest (datu) traditionally had a powerful role in Batak society. He used three essential ritual objects: a magic staff, his medicinal horn, and a bark divination book (pustaha). The text runs parallel to the folds in the bark and is read horizontally from left to right. The books also contain black and red drawings. Batak books use a script that is related to southern Brahmi of India and ancient Javanese writing systems. Like Sanskrit, it is syllabic in nature, and it is widely believed to derive from Sanskrit. The texts deal with divination, magic, and medicine. They could be used to determine auspicious days for ceremonies or new endeavors, or for reference when casting spells, influencing the weather, finding lost objects, diagnosing illness, or prescribing medicine. In addition to appearing in books, writing is found on other ritual objects.

The Batak of northern Sumatra comprise six groups: the Toba, Mandaling, Angkola, Pakpak/Dairi, Simalingun, and Karo. All share a common origin myth and ancestor (Si Raja Batak), have similar kinship and marriage customs, employ a common language and script, and emphasize certain ritual practices. Until the mid-twentieth century, political power was in the hands of chiefs and the council of elders, while spiritual power resided with the priest (datu), who had great influence on Batak life.

Made in Sumatra, Indonesia
On view
18th–19th century

Ex-collection: D. Manfredi, Milan

Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of such records is ongoing.