Karo Batak people
north Sumatra, Indonesia
19th–early 20th century
47.0 (h) x 33.0 (w) x 50.0 (d) cm
Musée du quai Branly, Paris
© 2010 Musée du quai Branly Photograph: Patrick Gries/ Scala, Florence
For the Batak peoples of north Sumatra secondary burials are of supreme importance. At these rites the bones of significant individuals are exhumed, washed, wrapped in fine cloth and moved to an elaborate sarcophagus often guarded by images of singa lion-serpents. Masked dancers in fine textiles and beaded jackets perform in front of the former house of a prominent member of the village before accompanying the bones and coffin to the grave. It is hoped that these spectacular displays of respect will encourage the ancestral spirit to act favourably towards the surviving descendants.
The dramatic masks are sometimes left beside the grave, an allusion to the former sacrifice of slaves to serve the deceased in the afterlife. Throughout Southeast Asia, masks are widely donned to communicate with spirits.