Toba Batak Pustaka Book of Medicine & Magic Manuscript (Sumatra), 18th century
alim tree bark (Aquilaria malaccensis) concertina textblock, written in black ink, with solid wood covers
10 x 7 in
SKU: DB1002d
Price on Request

The pustaha is the magic book of the Toba Batak people of North Sumatra, Indonesia. Pustaha, borrowed from the Sanskrit pustaka, means book or manuscript. The book consists of two hardcovers and pages made of softened tree bark. It belongs to a priest, or datu. The priest is the second most powerful person in a Toba Batak village, after the chief. The pustaha contains notes and drawings of fantastic creatures and notes on magic and ritual protocol. Because the information contains the priest’s notes that he found necessary to record and that are often abbreviated, the pustaha can be difficult to interpret. The text is a modified Sanskrit alphabet, which points to Hindu influence on the Toba Batak. The pustaha is used by the datu as a reference for information related to magic, ritual, prescriptions, and divination. The pustaha’s subject matter can be broken down into three categories: 1. the art of preserving life; 2. the art of destroying life; and 3. the art of fortune-telling. The art of preserving life includes medicine. For the art of destroying life, the datu enlists a pangulubalang, a spirit which the priest makes submissive to him by magical powers. The art of fortune telling occupies a large space in the pustaha. Batak astrology shows Hindu influence. Calendars in the book are not for telling time but to find out whether a day is auspicious or inauspicious for a particular action or event. Before every undertaking or event, the calendar is consulted. The Christianization and Islamicization of society have greatly diminished the use of the fortune-telling calendar. 


The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

Achim Sibeth, The Batak: Peoples of the Island of Sumatra. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991. 

A digital copy of this manuscript is available upon request.