Hundreds of men with white turbans were sitting on mats, hands resting on their chests as a gesture of veneration, while women formed a circle in the yard of the Malim place of worship in Hutatinggi, Laguboti, North Sumatra.
In the center of the circle stood Raja Marnakkok Naipospos — a ritual leader — and members of his community, in front of three small stages covered with offerings for Mula Jadi Na Bolon (the Almighty God) and other deities believed to belong to the kingdom of the Almighty God.
The congregation looked engrossed as Raja Marnakkok recited a prayer to the sound of traditional Bata instruments, gondang sabangunan. Raja Marnakkok then placed offerings on the small stages in front of him, thus completing the Malim ritual of Sipaha Lima.
The Permalim, followers of Malim, perform Sipaha Lima in the fifth month of the Batak calendar to make offerings to Mula Jadi Na Bolon and other deities.
Malim is believed to be the Batak ethnic group’s oldest religion, practiced long before Christianity was brought in by Dutch colonial missions or Islam by Paderi warriors from West Sumatra.
The Batak are known to have worshipped Mula Jadi Na Bolon since the days of Raja Batak, one of their ancestral chiefs.
Many circles are convinced Malim derives from Islam, because of the similarities between the two religions such as the use of turbans and the prohibition to eat pork as well food containing blood. However Raja Marnakkok begs to differ.
“They [the similarities] are only coincidences. Historically, the Parmalim do not have any direct connection to Islam,” Raja Marnakkok told The Jakarta Post.
Although the Batak’s belief in Mula Jadi Na Bolong dates back centuries ago, the name Malim was only coined later.
Women’s style: Permalim women have a special hairdo called sanggul, and wear ulos (scarves) while performing Malim rituals. JP/Hotli Simanjuntak
Bataks are also known to have been pagans, blending their belief in Mula Jadi Na Bolong with an animistic worship of the spirits of the dead as well as objects with supernatural powers.
Malim was declared a Batak religion when Dutch colonizers strived to conquer the Batak region in the 1800s.
A leader and king of Batak, Sisingamangaraja XII, put up a fierce resistance to the Dutch’s attempt to control his land. A very long war prevailed between Dutch troops and Sisingamangaraja XII’s forces. The Batak already believed in Mula Jadi Na Bolon under Sisingamangaraja.
In 1907, the Dutch announced Sisingamangaraja XII had been killed, yet in the Malim faith, Sisingamangaraja never died. A new leader, Raja Nasiakbagi, emerged in the Batak community. Thus Malim officially became a religion in Batak land when this new leader met with his disciples. At the time, he said: “Malim ma hamu”, literally translated as “Be sanctified are you”. So the teachings spread by Raja Nasiakbagi are now called Malim.
“Up till today, the Parmalim have remained convinced Sisingamangaraja XII was Mula Jadi Na Bolon’s chosen prophet, whose divine mission was carried on by Raja Nasiakbagi, when the Dutch attempted to rule the Batak land,” Raja Marnakkok Naipospos pointed out.
Raja Marnakkok is Raja Mulia Naipospos’ grandson, the first-generation Malim religious leader after the demise of Sisingamangaraja XII during the Dutch siege. Raja Mulia was one of Raja Nasiakbagi’s loyal disciples, widely regarded as an incarnation of Sisingamangaraja XII.
Although Malim originates from the Batak community, only a limited number of Batak are aware this faith exists. It is said the intense proselytizing of Bataks by Christians has led to the Christian community covering up the existence of Malim, especially from the younger generation.
Bless us: Raja Marnakkok Naipospos, a Malim religious leader, blesses the followers with boras sipir ni tondi. JP/Hotli Simanjuntak
The Permalim have even been likened to sipele begu (Satan worshippers), a rumor thought to have been fabricated by the Dutch while they spread Christian teachings. Many Batak subsequently abandoned Malim because of the stigma around the religion.
“Campaigns branding Parmalim as devil worshippers still exist today,” said Raja Marnakkok Naipospos.
“As a result, the Batak not familiar with Malim regard it as a heresy. But in fact, Malim recognizes the existence of the one and only Almighty God,” Raja Marnakkok Naipospos went on.
Because Indonesia only officially recognizes six religions — Islam, Catholicism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism, many local faiths like Malim are categorized as beliefs — rather than religions. Therefore any matter related to those “beliefs” come under the Education and Culture Ministry.
“The Permalim are forced to choose one of the six official religions as the faith printed on their citizen’s identity card,” said Monang Naipospos, one of Malim’s religious leaders and member of the regional council of Toba Samosir.
But the government has attempted to address this issue by passing two laws — Law No.52/2009 on population growth and family development, as well Law No.23/2006 on population administration — allowing members of the Malim community to leave the religion status blank or choose any status for their citizen’s identity card. The Permalim have long fought to obtain these concessions.
“We have initiated an identity card bearing no religion on it. It’s better for us to leave the religion identity status blank instead of choosing one we don’t belong to,” added Monang Naipospos.
The Permalim ultimately hope they will gain the same status as followers of the six official religions in Indonesia. “We’ll keep striving for Malim’s recognition as an official religion in the country,” concluded Monang.