According to Caglayan (2004), 'the most powerful members of a Batak community are ritual specialists, known as datu
. They are experts in religion, and are most often members of the village's founding family. These specialists, who are exclusively male, are able to cure the sick, contact the spirits of the dead, and predict auspicious days for particular events. A datu
's most important possession is his ritual staff, made of special wood that symbolizes the tree of life. Since a specialist is required to create his own staff, they vary widely in style and form. [...] Specialists 'animate' or activate the power of the figures by filling them with a magical potion, known as pupuk
. This substance is considered to be extremely powerful and can be stored only in certain types of containers such as the hollow horns of water buffalo, wooden vessels, or Chinese trade ceramics.'
During the ceremonies, the datu
entered into a trance and danced and performed other actions while holding the staff, which is known as tunggal panaluan
, whose supernatural powers assisted in curing ceremonies, divination, malevolent magic, and other tasks. The staff was an extension of the priest's identity and ritual powers. Regular ritual offerings of palm wine, animal blood, and eggs have given this tunggal panaluan
a rich, deep patina.
Caglayan describes the origin of the iconography of tunggal panaluan, which depict a sequence of human and animal figures placed on top of one another. The two figures at the top represent a legendary twin brother and sister. According to oral tradition, the twins' incestuous relationship was responsible for the origin of the staffs. When their relationship was discovered, the twins fled to the forest, where they encountered a tree hung with fruit. The brother climbed the tree to pick fruit for his sister, and as he did so he merged with it, becoming a wood image. His sister followed him, and met with the same fate. Attempting to rescue them, a succession of datu and animals climbed the tree, transforming in turn into the figures which appear below the ill-fated twins. The tree was later cut down, becoming the first tunggal panaluan.