The future of the past

Experience the rich intertwined histories of Java and Sumatra and return back completely charmed
The exterior of Maimoon Palace outside Medan
The exterior of Maimoon Palace outside Medan

The strains of a soulful if slightly out-of-tune kirtan emanate from the gurdwara, competing with the clanging of the bell from the Mariamman koyil (temple) standing right next to it, and the azan floating out of the modest south Indian mosque a few steps down the street. The street in question is Kampung Keling, in the heart of Medan, the biggest city in Sumatra and the fifth largest in Indonesia. As a mirror to Indonesia&rsquos multi-religious, multi-ethnic society, it&rsquos hard to beat Medan. Javanese, Malays, Batak tribals, Chinese and Indians rub shoulders on its crowded  streets, and the architecture too reflects layers of the city&rsquos history gabled Dutch colonial mansions, Victorian and Art Deco buildings, mirrored malls in the style of early Dubai, metal-domed mosques, red-brick church steeples, and brightly-painted gopurams studded with statues of deities.

On the outskirts of the city is the Maimoon Palace, a Mughlai-Italianate extravaganza built in 1888 by the Sultan of Deli, its grandiose frontage given a homely touch by a clothesline from which hangs wet laundry &mdash T-shirts and underwear, which probably belong to the current Sultan, a teenager.  And then there&rsquos Medan&rsquos newest attraction, the towering Mary Annai Velangkanni Church, a confection of ornamented stucco, stained glass and colourful murals, the creation of Father James Bharatputra, a much-revered local Tamil priest.

Like many once-thriving colonial ports, Medan has a faintly mildewed, though distinctly cosmopolitan, air. It also has the buzz of a city that&rsquos enjoying a revival and a new prosperity.  On its traffic-choked roads, luxury sedans outnumber colourful little bechaks &mdash originally hand-pulled rickshaws, which are now attached as sidecars to motorbikes. Our jolly minder (&ldquoWelcome to Sumatra I am Resham, that is, Silk Singh &mdash but you can call me Roy.&rdquo) is a mine of information on Medan&rsquos history and its Indian connections. Beginning as a trading post in the 19th century, conveniently located 26km inland from the harbour at Belawan on the Malacca Straits, Medan&rsquos population soon grew to include Dutch colonial officials, planters, merchants and traders, and the labourers, shopkeepers and others who came to service their needs. They included a number of Indian migrants, the majority from Tamil Nadu and Punjab, and also Muslims from UP who opened bakeries. The Tamils came mostly as plantation labour in the palm oil, rubber and tobacco estates established by the Dutch, and the Sikhs as watchmen to guard homes, offices and stores. A bit later, since the Dutch found they couldn&rsquot do without their dairy products (unlike the natives who didn&rsquot drink milk at all), they shipped in herds of cows and then recruited Sikhs from Punjab as dairy farmers. Some 30,000 Indians remain today in this city of two million, and they have found new means of livelihood as building contractors, mechanics, spice traders, and tour operators like Resham Singh. Resham&rsquos father came to Medan from a village near Pathankot in the 1930s, as a watchman at the swankiest restaurant in town, the Tip Top. In the &rsquo70s, he retired and went back to his village in Punjab, but his children stayed on and became well-assimilated Indonesians. &ldquoI born and brought up here in Medan. I speak only a little Punjabi,&rdquo Resham chuckles. &ldquoThe day my father leave, I cut my hair and I stop wearing turban.&rdquo

But the Indian connection goes back much further, he adds. The word Sumatra itself derives from the island&rsquos original name, Samudra (it was Marco Polo who corrupted it to Sumatra in his Travels, and the name has stuck ever since). Trade and cultural links with India go back to at least 200 BCE a Sumatran king donated generously to the Buddhist university at Nalanda the Pallavas and Cholas had a thriving maritime trade with Sumatra and inscriptions found in northern Sumatra bear witness to the presence of Tamil colonies here in the 11th century.

As we drive out of Medan and head for the cool hills of Berastagi where we are to spend our first night in Sumatra, Resham points to signboards with Indian words that have entered the national language, Bahasa Indonesia. Medan itself, he tells us, comes from maidan because it was once the site of a battlefield, and Bahasa from bhasha. Uttara means north, girija is church, prathama is first, akhir means last, and surya is sun. So you couldn&rsquot blame us for deducing that susu means toilet but it doesn&rsquot (it is milk), and pulao is an island.

When we arrive at Berastagi after a three-hour drive, we find every- thing covered in a fine layer of white &mdash trees, flowers, the floor and the tabletops in our hotel look as though they&rsquove been dusted with icing sugar. A week before our arrival in late September, Mt Sinabung, the local volcano, had erupted after lying dormant for three years. Before 2010, its last major eruption had been over 400 years earlier. A ring of hills, many of them volcanic peaks, surrounds Berastagi, and around the corner from our hotel, Mt Sinabung comes into view, smoking furiously and spewing fine white ash high into the atmosphere. Thousands of people have been evacuated from villages within a 3-km radius. It&rsquos an exciting and slightly frightening sight for us three travel writers from India, who wonder if we&rsquoll have to flee streams of lava and brimstone in the night.  But Resham is dismissive of our fears  &ldquoNo worry, Sinabung only coughing this not eruption.&rdquo [As it turned out, Mt Sinabung erupted again on 1 February 2014, causing 14 reported deaths, and forcing the resettlement of 4,000 evacuees.]  

The rich volcanic soil and the cool climate (we are at an altitude of 1,300m) have made Berastagi the agricultural hub of the region, famous for its fruits, vegetables and flowers. It is also the home of Batak tribals &mdash there are six million of them in Indonesia &mdash most of whom are now Christians, though they were once cannibals (or so says a blood-curdling 1783 account by the British traveller William Marsden). Resham&rsquos take on the Bataks &ldquoBatak women very good at farming, doing all work.&rdquo And what about Batak men &ldquoThey very good at blowing flute. And drinking palm wine.&rdquo

The skills, industry and salesmanship of Batak women are on display at the fruit market in Berastagi, with its pyramids of passion fruit, rambutan, mangosteen, avocado, pepino, marquisa and other exotic-looking fruit whose names we never learn. The flower section of the market is ablaze with azaleas, fuchsias and lilies of every stripe and colour. Another corner of the market has rabbits and puppies for sale. &ldquoBatak people very much like eat dog,&rdquo explains Resham.

The next day we discover more about the distinctive Batak culture as we visit the Simalungun Palace, once the home of a Batak king. It&rsquos a huge, magnificent wooden longhouse with intricately carved pillars, its horned roof thatched with dried leaves of the sugar palm tree, and topped with the head of a buffalo. The colours which the palace (like most Batak houses) displays represent the three worlds that the Bataks believe in &mdash black for the underworld, red for the world we live in, white for the spirit world. Here, in a long dorm-like room, the 12th king, who ruled over a 25-sq-km territory, lived, slept and ate with his 12 wives. The 13th king was killed in a civil uprising in 1947&mdashthe last of a dynasty that began in 1624.

A couple of hours later, we are at the site of another Batak kingdom, this one on an island in the middle of a gigantic lake, Danau Toba, an expanse of crystal-clear blue water covering an area of 1,707 sq km and surrounded by &lsquoa rim of fire&rsquo volcanic peaks. It&rsquos a deep crater lake, formed by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption around a hundred thousand years ago. We drive there through scenic hill roads, past groves of cinnamon and clove trees, stopping to admire the Sipiso Piso waterfalls that thunder down into the lake from a height of 120m. After lunch at the sleepy lakeside town of Parapat, we take a boat to Samosir &mdash an island almost as large as Singapore &mdash in the middle of the lake. Samosir is the &lsquoparadise island&rsquo of one&rsquos dreams serene, fragrant with flowers, lush with foliage, devoid of tourist hordes (hurry there before that changes), and dotted with charming Batak villages.

In Tomok village, we see the grand stone-tomb of a famous Batak king, Sidabutar, carved with his formidable effigy and that of the woman he loved but who refused to marry him (no one can tell us the date of the tomb). A short boat ride away is Ambarita village with the public meeting space of another Batak king, Siallagan, and it has chairs hewn from rough blocks of stone arranged in a circle. In an adjoining courtyard is a rectangular stone with a hollow for a head to rest on &mdash this was a chopping block where beheadings used to take place. The Bataks began converting to Christianity after the visit of a German missionary in the mid-19th century coincided with a bumper harvest, and that persuaded a powerful local king to turn Christian. The villagers are skilled woodcarvers and weavers, and you can see them at work in shops lining the path to these historic Batak sites.

At night we sit on the terrace of our hotel watching the moonlight reflected in the lake, while an off-duty waiter strums his guitar and sings. His voice is melodious and resonant, the music hauntingly lovely. &ldquoBatak people very much like to blow flute, sing, play guitar, eat dog and pig,&rdquo says Resham. Could it be that the Naga tribes of India have a Sumatran connection too

The next morning we head back to Medan, a five-hour drive on the Trans-Sumatra highway, past oil palm and rubber plantations, and avenues of  mahogany trees. At Medan there&rsquos delicious shuddh ghee karaprasad at the gurdwara, and we&rsquore warmly urged to stay and eat at the langar, prepared by a dozen middle-aged Sikh ladies. Behind the gurdwara is the Khalsa High school (now closed), where generations of Sikhs have studied and gone on to prosper as Indonesian entrepreneurs&hellipa corner of a faraway island that will be forever Punjab. We bid a fond goodbye to Resham that is Silk Singh, who has kept us informed, entertained and amused through our wanderings in Sumatra with unruffled good humour and unflagging enthusiasm.

From Medan in Sumatra to Jakarta in Java is a two-hour flight across the Indian Ocean.  Here we board a bus for the three-hour journey that will bring us to Bandung. Our guide now is the suave Teddy Gunawan, an ethnic Chinese resident of Jakarta, who resourcefully summons up lavish vegetarian meals for our colleague, instructing restaurants along the way in the intricacies of Jain food taboos (&ldquovegetarian means no carrots, no cauliflower, no potato,&rdquo he intones). Teddy also introduces us to the delights of chilled Bintang beer, avocado milkshake and soursop juice. It is late evening by the time we reach Bandung, established as a military station in the 19th century by the Dutch. In 1955, it was the scene of a famous conference that for the first time brought together leaders of post-colonial African and Asian countries (Nehru, Sukarno, Zhou en Lai et al) and paved the way for the non-aligned movement. Today, Bandung is a bustling city of seven million people, the third largest in Indonesia, and a favourite weekend getaway for people from Jakarta who come to enjoy its pleasant climate (it&rsquos at an altitude of 768m). With its plethora of factory outlet malls, it&rsquos also a magnet for shopaholics from as far away as Malaysia and Singapore.

Early next morning, we head out to see one of the great natural wonders of the area, the Tangkuban Perahu volcanic crater. It&rsquos an awe-inspiring, apocalyptic sight, this vast, deep crater, still emitting strong fumes of sulphur. Where we stand at the crater&rsquos edge, peering down into its grey depths, there are petrified tree trunks &mdash turned stone by a great eruption eons ago. A mist begins to rise from the crater floor, mingling with the sulphur fumes, and the air turns chilly &mdash we&rsquore at a height of over 2,000m. It was time to warm up with a brisk walk and some retail therapy at the craft stalls around the parking area. There are tempting baskets of strawberries and blackberries from farms in the vicinity, beautifully carved wooden birds and animals, necklaces made from polished black lava-stone, an intriguing musical instrument made of bamboo tubes called the angklung and, most irresistible of all, orangutan masks with a fuzzy halo of orange fur.

Where there are volcanoes there are usually hot springs close by and so we proceed to Sari Ater, a beautifully landscaped garden with rock pools and waterfalls fed by steaming hot sulphurous water. A blissful soak and foot massage at one of the pools, and we head back to Jakarta, driving through an idyllic undulating landscape of tea gardens framed by low hills. 

At Jakarta, there&rsquos time only for a rejuvenating Javanese oil massage before dinner, at which Teddy has laid on a special treat &mdash a show by a visiting troupe of Chinese acrobats. We watch, heart in mouth, as two little girls perform incredible gymnastic feats to the strains of an operatic aria from La Traviata. Then a male crooner comes onstage, sings Hey Jude, and suddenly the inner rockstar in dignified Teddy Gunawan is unleashed &mdash he bounds up to the stage and does a spirited rendition of My Way, made famous by Frank Sinatra. As the evening winds to an end, the balladeer from Beijing spots the table of Indians, and belts out, with great feeling and a heavy Chinese accent, that evergreen favourite from Bobby, &lsquoMain Shayar Toh Nahin&rsquo. Finally, our Raj Kapoor moment in Indonesia, and a heartwarming note on which to end our trip.

The information
Getting There
Malaysian Airlines has daily flights from Delhi and Mumbai, via Kuala Lumpur, to Medan&rsquos Kuala Namu International Airport (round trip about Rs 44,000). There are daily flights from Medan to Bandung (round trip about Rs 30,000) and Jakarta (round trip about Rs 15,000), including by the national airline, Garuda (

Indonesia issues 30-day visas on arrival to Indian tourists for $25. The expiry date on your passport should be at least six months away at the time of entry, and visitors have to keep round-trip flight tickets handy. A 30-day extension may be granted on another payment of $25.

Rs 1 = 191 IDR (Indonesian Rupiah).

Where to stay

  • Medan The Grand Elite Hotel (from Rs 3,000 62-61-80501111

  • Berastagi The Mikie Holiday Resort (from Rs 3,000 62-628-91650

  • Samosir Island Toledo Inn (rates on request 62-62-541429).

  • Bandung Grand Aquila Hotel (from Rs 5,900 62-22-2039280

  • Jakarta Hotel Borobudur (from Rs 6,500 62-21-3805555 

What to see & do

  • Medan Spend time at the Kampung Keling Street, also known as Little India. Drop in at Tip Top restaurant, an atmospheric colonial relic that&rsquos still popular. Also worth a visit is the 19th-century Maimoon Palace and the Mary Annai Velangkanni Church.

  • Berastagi Visit the fruit and vegetable market, and take a day trip to the nearest volcanic peak, Gunung Sibayak (but take a guide), with hot springs nearby. Also visit the Simalungun Batak palace at Pematang Purba.

  • Danau Toba and Samosir Island Catch the Sipiso Piso waterfall, and Ambarita and Tomok villages on Samosir Island visit the crafts shops near them for wood-carved animals, weaves, and traditional musical instruments.

  • Bandung Head to Mode House and Heritage Factory Outlet malls for branded clothing and handbags visit the Tangkuban Perahu volcanic crater and soak in the Sari Ater hot springs resort in the vicinity.

  • Jakarta Try the Javanese deep tissue oil massage and, if you have the time, the three-hour Sapta Puspita (seven-flower) treatment at the Taman Sari Royal Heritage Spa (

What to eat & drink
All the hotels listed above have substantial breakfast buffets with several local dishes &mdash nasi goreng (fried rice), mie (Malay-style noodles), gado-gado (a salad with a spicy dressing), kankung (a green leafy vegetable saut&eacuteed with red chilli). Streetside stalls, called warungs, offer a few other dishes such as fried fish and rendang (beef in a spicy curry). Especially look out for the delicious satay, and bakso (a meatball soup President Obama&rsquos favourite during his childhood years in Indonesia). Feast on the fabulous exotic fruits, from mangosteen to durian and try the famous coffee, Kopi Luwak, processed from the dung of the civet cat (on sale for around $500 a kilo). The locally-brewed Bintang beer is highly recommended.

Recommended guides 

  • Sumatra Resham Singh (62-61-4159958 086566-4072006).

  • Bandung/Jakarta Teddy Gunawan (0816-711690

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