Death in Toraja

By Rob Packer

I think I should start by stating the obvious: Toraja is one of the weirdest places I’ve ever been. There are countless cultures referred to as unique in the world, often because they continue practices that stopped elsewhere because the social mores changed (the banning of fox-hunting in the UK), or an invading power has condemned them as barbaric (Spanish invaders put an end to Aztec human sacrifice along with countless other indigenous customs), or there wasn’t space for them in a new religion (Hindu customs in Islamicized Java), they were impractical (no examples as who can qualify a cultural practice as impractical apart from members of that culture?), or a combination. While there are plenty of celebrations no longer practised by the Toraja any one of these reasons, there is an obvious exception: Torajan funerals.

The view over Toraja

The view over Toraja

It’s tempting to say that the land of the Toraja (Tana Toraja or just Toraja) is located in a forgotten valley of Sulawesi, Indonesia’s fourth largest island after Papua, Kalimantan and Sumatra. Reality is less romantic however, as the main towns of Rantepao and Makale are on the main two-lane “highway” of Sulawesi that winds north of Makassar into the mountains. The 350km bus journey is leisurely spread over a potholed 8 hours, which began to sound reasonable when I heard that it takes around 60 hours to come from Manado, at the other end of the island. According to the Lonely Planet, “the first thing that everyone notices about Sulawesi is its strange shape”, which is roughly K-shaped or shaped like the profile of a cat with a very long, curly tail. The geological fireworks to create this mountainous island meant that the interior of the island was relatively isolated for much of its history, while the coastal Makassar and Bugis kingdoms were keys to the 15th century spice trade. For centuries, the Sulawesi coast was one of the most remote outposts of urban civilization. The lingering feeling of isolation and otherworldliness you get in the valley really makes it feel forgotten.

My Toraja experience began with an overnight bus-ride from Makassar’s humid heat. As we climbed into the mountains of South Sulawesi, we left the heat behind and headed into the rainclouds that can linger over Toraja at any time of year, even though July is technically the dry season. As we pulled into Rantepao, the centre of North Toraja, I noticed two things about the becaks in town (sitors in Rantepao terminology) – the bike on the back was a motorbike, and had a full rain-guard. Things did not bode well for staying dry.

A Toraja man, not enjoying the cold wet weather

A Toraja man, not enjoying the cold wet weather

Once I was showered, I joined up with my friend, Peter, who I had met in Yogyakarta and who grew up in the valley when he did some part-time work as a guide. He was in Toraja for a few days to show around a group of friends from Yogya and the plan was to see the main sights of the area. The first stop was Ke’te’ Kesu, a

Traditional Toraja houses in Ke'te Kesu

Traditional Toraja houses in Ke'te Kesu

village of the traditional houses that have become emblematic of the area, both because they’re everywhere and because they’re a lot more export-friendly than funeral processions. The most common story about the shape of the houses is that they’re a continuous reminder that the Toraja came from the sea. The less-poetic version has it that the houses represent buffalo horns in the same way they do in China; and these buildings do look like huge buffalo horns on stilts. The buffalo is enormously important in Toraja funeral culture and thousands are slaughtered every year at the climax of each funeral. Their horns are then used to decorate the houses: the more horns on the buildings, the richer or better-connected the family. Our first real contact with Toraja death culture began at the back of the village as we walked towards a cliff face behind, or rather towards the Toraja cemetery. Unlike a European cemetery, the coffins in this Toraja cemetery are mounted on a cliff face watched over by the ever-present tau tau (wooden effigies of the dead). Once you see the number of human bones in front you, you also start to notice offerings that have been left for the dead to use in the afterlife – and most of these offerings a cigarettes. Some of my photos look like anti-smoking ads, but the ever-practical Toraja know that you never know when you might need a smoke in the afterlife.

Smokes for the afterlife

Smokes for the afterlife

Our first funeral experience came at Lemo, where we saw trucks arriving full of Toraja dressed in black. Lemo is normally fairly touristed for its tau tau standing in galleries on a cliff face, but with the funeral, the place was packed. We followed the tracks up the muddy path to what looked like another village of traditional Toraja houses. It was only after we saw a Toraja roof being loaded

Loading a house onto a truck

Loading a house onto a truck

onto a truck and saw how the tightly packed buildings were slung out on bamboo over the hillside, that it became obvious that the village has been specially constructed for the funeral. Ankle-deep in mud, I watched one of the most confusing, engrossing and disturbing spectacles I’ve ever seen. The houses were arranged around a muddy square with a buffalo carcass with a single gash across the throat at one end in front of a house with a cylindrical coffin. In front of the dead buffalo, there was a man standing with a live buffalo and about ten pigs lying on the floor tied up in bamboo A-frames. The pigs’ screaming for everything that their lives were worth was bone-chilling. In front of the pigs and buffalo was a circle of men chanting and just about making more noise than the screaming pigs. Making even more noise than all of them was the master of ceremonies announcing the guests over loudspeaker and who let out a James Bond villain-style cackle

The house for the coffin

The house for the coffin

every now and again. Relatively silently in the background, around fifty women then the same number of men, filed into another house set up to receive guests. They were then followed in by groups of women bearing plates and men bearing kettles, all in traditional dress. What we’d just seen was a family or village group arriving to pay their respects: the animals in the square were their contribution to the deceased in the afterlife, and the group then process past the coffin before being received by the deceased’s relatives with tea, coffee and cakes. When this first group left, the buffalo was led away and the pigs, screaming eternally, were carried away, to all be replaced by another group’s contribution. Peter encouraged us to join this group’s procession into the pavilion and I reluctantly accepted. As

Receiving the guests

Receiving the guests

we walked into the pavilion, we split into groups of twenty and sat around the edge of what felt like open rattan boxes. We were soon joined by the male relatives of the deceased who offered us cigarettes, followed by the women who came in with plates of cakes and tea and coffee. This lasted around half an hour and was in almost complete silence. The uncomfortable feeling of being an intruder and a voyeur of something I didn’t understand never left.

The first thing you notice when you speak to the Toraja is the importance of their funerals. Part of it is seems on for the tourists, because funeral season (July and August) coincides with the tourist season; but as you talk to more people you come to realise that the funerals really unite Toraja culture: they marks them out from the surrounding Islamic Bugis and Makassar cultures. A guide told me that funerals are the only way that he knows the people from his neighbouring villages: after attending, or rather, stumbling across a few across Toraja and being passed by countless other pickups crammed full of people dressed in black, you really start to see how.

Attendees at a funeral

Attendees at a funeral

There are really two funerals in Toraja death culture: a small one immediately after the death and a grand one in the funeral season lasting up to four days. Between the death and the real funeral, the corpse is embalmed and referred to as a sick person and is only considered dead after the grander funeral when their soul has departed for the south with their buffaloes. The modern day rationale for the death culture is that Toraja now live throughout Indonesia and it would be hard to have a community gathering without forward planning. And according to my guide, the richer the deceased, the longer the gap between the death and the funeral will actually be: a gap of two or three years means that people are able to save for the buffalo and to make sure they can attend.

Toraja funeral: This was the biggest I saw with the houses spread over the hillside

Toraja funeral: This was the biggest I saw with the houses spread over the hillside

One of the most surprising logistical aspects to the Toraja death culture is the cost. So much so that when a Toraja relative dies, you’re doubly sad: because of the death, but also because of the cost of the funeral ceremony. Every party of guests at a funeral has to contribute to the departed’s journey to the afterlife with pigs and buffalo and it seems to be a huge case of keeping up with the Joneses: you can’t give fewer pigs and buffalo than another family gave to you in your family’s most recent funeral. And the price of a buffalo is staggering: buffalo are judged on the quality of their hide and horns, and albino buffalo with well-formed horns are the most sought-after. We saw one tied up outside one of the grave sites that Peter said would cost more than 100 million rupiah ($10,000). A huge amount in Indonesia, so it was no surprise when I went to the weekly market and saw buffalo brought from all over Sulawesi to sell. On that scale, the largest funeral I saw would have cost around $1,000,000: it had over eighty funeral parties ranged over a hillside, each contributing about five buffalo a piece.

Buffalo from all over Sulawesi are brought to Toraja for the funeral season

Buffalo from all over Sulawesi are brought to Toraja for the funeral season

The most infamous part of the funerals though is the buffalo sacrifice: the buffalo are given as offerings rather than gifts and the climax of the funeral is the sacrifice of the buffalo. We were fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your perspective) to pass a funeral just as the buffalo were being killed. It all happens in the centre of the funeral village where each buffalo is brought to the centre to have its throat ceremonially cut with a machete. It’s unlucky to need more than one cut to kill the buffalo and for it to take a long time for the buffalo to die. There was definitely some black magic at work here because it seemed to take forever for the blood to stop pouring and for the buffalo to stop stumbling over each other’s corpses (tied together for safety reasons, I was told). By the end, the middle of the square was a churned up mixture of blood and mud. It was a fitting end to my stay in Toraja: a fascinating, if gruesome culture.

Toraja buffalo sacrifice

Toraja buffalo sacrifice

Announcing the end of the buffalo sacrifice

Announcing the end of the buffalo sacrifice

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