Jabu: The traditional house of the Batak Toba people in Indonesia

The Toba people, also referred to as the Batak Toba, are the most numerous among the Batak tribes of Indonesia.

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Most of them live around Lake Toba and on Samosir, an island within the lake. The traditional Batak Toba houses are the most distinctive in Indonesia, with saddleback-shaped roofs and ornate carvings.

Toba Batak extended family alongside their intricately carved Jabu house c. 1900. Photo credit

Toba people lived in permanent villages, unlike some of the other Batak tribes whose settlements were more transient because of the slash-and-burn agriculture they practiced. Batak Toba cultivated rice and vegetables.The houses are usually found in groups of ten or less. The word for house in the Toba language is jabu.

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Because of frequent conflicts between tribes in the past, houses are positioned in easily defendable positions.

Toba Batak houses and residents in a photograph by Christiaan Benjamin Nieuwenhuis Photo credit

Houses were usually constructed standing next to each other in a row. Opposite the houses, there was a row of small rice granaries called sopo. The street running between the jabu and the sopo was called alaman.

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A jabu – Toba Batak house Photo credit


Batak Toba House, Lake Toba Photo credit

Jabu are built in three sections. The lowest section is the area beneath the house raised on wooden pillars that prevent flooding and dampness. The pillars traditionally rested on flat stones and nowadays stand on concrete. Some of the pillars support horizontal beams known as labe-labe, which run the length of the house at head height and support the roof. This lower section was used as a shelter for the animals overnight.

The middle section is where the families lived. In the past, there were usually several families to a single house. This area was divided, and depending on age or who married first, for example, each of the families occupied a different room in the house. The living area wasn’t very big and was poorly lit: there are four small windows on each side of the house. Most of the people’s activities were outdoors so the jabu was used primarily for sleeping. Ladders were used for access to the living area, although nowadays people use stairs, which are more convenient.

Batak House – Traditional Building – Lake Toba Photo credit

The third section is the attic, separated from the living section by a wooden ceiling. The attic was used mostly for storing family valuables and sometimes ancestral shrines. The large roof, shaped like a saddle, dominates the structure. In the past, it was usually built using palm fiber thatch. Today, many houses have turned to metal zinc roofs which are far more durable in the humid climate.

Batak Toba house Photo credit


Old Batak Village, Samosir Island, North Sumatra, Indonesia Photo credit

The original Toba houses were large communal houses, a way of living which is very rare today. Jabu are now generally single-family dwellings. There are not many of them left and not many new ones are being built. The Toba people now tend to live in modern houses built from modern materials.