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18 July 2008

Torajaland, Sulawesi - WildAsia

Life and Death in Torajaland, Sulawesi

LIZ PRICE gets an unexpected invitation to witness a Torajan funeral rite in Sulawesi, Indonesia, and finds their culture and traditions very much alive.

[published on WildAsia 11 Apr 2003]

[Stolen and published on Indonesia and World Tourism News February 26th, 2007 ]

© Liz Price

In Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, I was chatting to a local man when he asked me to the funeral of his mother. Taken aback by this offer, as normally funerals are private matters reserved for family and friends, I politely refused. Yet he insisted, saying funerals are happy occassions and it would be an honour that I attend. I was in Torajaland, the centre of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The Torajan population are of Malay origin and came to Sulawesi many centuries ago settling around the town of Rantepao in what is now known at Tana Toraja. Although Islam arrived in Sulawesi in the early 17th century, the people still hold onto some beliefs of their forefathers.

What I knew of the funerary rites was limited other than they can last for several years. When a person dies, the body is placed in the back room of the house and is left there until enough money can be saved to give a decent ceremony so that the deceased can go to the next world. During this time, the deceased is considered to be sleeping and family members regularly attend to offer food and drink. The soul can only go on to the afterworld when the death ritual has been enacted. When it is time for the funeral, there is a procession around the villages so the departed can bid farewell to the living. Everyone gathers at the site for the celebrations, where bamboo pavilions have been erected.

The "Buffalo" in Toraja Culture

The first thing noticeable were the slaughtered buffalo lying in the centre of the pavilions. While startling from a western viewpoint, this is an important part of the funeral ceremony. As the relatives believe that the souls of animals follow the master to the next life, this accounts for the requirement of animal sacrifices at the local requiems. A strong buffalo is needed to carry the soul of the master on the journey to the afterworld.

In Torajaland the buffalo has long been the symbol of wealth and power. The more important the dead person, the more buffalo are slaughtered. In an attempt to impress, the family will slaughter as many buffalo as possible, and quite often this can cause financial ruin. In an attempt to end the practice, the Indonesian government has imposed a tax on each beast killed. As well, one buffalo has to be given to the tax collectors, and one to the church.

Funeral Rites

On the first day, the buffalo are slaughtered in the field. This is considered to be the moment of death of the "sleeping" person. I was only too glad that the beasts had already been killed. The carcasses were laid on the ground and the heads had been placed in a line. Nine heads were displayed. This meant the family had saved up a large portion of their income. Each buffalo cost up to two million rupiah (approx. $400 CDN).

The departed are said to preside over the ceremony and therefore the coffin is situated on a high platform constructed around the house at one end of the field. This was actually right next to the hut where I was sitting. The coffin and trimmings were decorated in bright red material. The children from the family were standing near me, each one dressed in their traditional attire.

The guests began to file in, forming a procession, firstly going past the tax tables. Each group of guests carried offerings tied to a bamboo pole: live animals such as pigs, food or drink. The pigs were killed out of sight at the back of the houses. Each group of adults were led in by the children of the deceased, and the visitors were taken to another hut for tea and cigarettes. I had actually taken a box of cigarettes as my contribution. This procession went on all morning. I was given some local palm wine, and drunk it out of a long piece of bamboo before lunch. This was rice on a banana leaf, with some of the barbecued meat, washed down with more tuak.

After lunch, The remaining buffalo carcasses were beginning to smell having been lying in the hot sun. Each carcass was skinned and butchered, and meat was being auctioned off, and the people were leaving with their share of meat tied to a piece of string. These procedures continue for anything from one to seven days. For entertainment there are buffalo, cock, and kick fighting.

Burial Day

The following day would be the actual burial and the body was being put in the family crypt in a stone grave. There are three methods of burial for the Torajan people. The coffin, plus any possessions which will be needed in the afterlife are placed either in a cave grave, a stone grave or a hanging grave.

There are many caves in the surrounding limestone hills, and for most people the coffin is placed just inside the cave entrance. The wealthy often have a stone grave carved out of the rocky cliff. This costs a considerable amount as it takes a specialist many months to chisel out the tomb. In some cases the hole can be large enough to accommodate the whole family. Sometimes the entrance is sealed with a metal or wooden gate, otherwise it is left open.

A carved effigy of the deceased is made and placed on the wooden balcony built on the rock face. These statue or tau tau look down over the land, and offerings are put in their outstretched hands. The tau tau are one of the most photographed sights in Sulawesi, and pictures appear in all the guidebooks. Unfortunately, theft of the statues by souvenir and antique collectors has become a major problem.

The third burial method is to hang the coffin by ropes and suspend it from the cliff face. This is known as a hanging grave. After some years the ropes inevitably rot and the coffin falls to the ground below. Coffins of babies and children are hung from trees.

All these types of burial mean that valuable farming land is not wasted by space taken up for cemeteries. It is a very scenic area with green valleys and rice paddies dominated by limestone hills. But it is the Torajan houses which provide a spectacular setting in this serene landscape.

The wooden houses are built on high stilts, and have large curved roofs. These roofs are said to resemble ships or buffalo horns: ships to represent the means of transport by which the settlers arrived, and horns because the buffalo is an important animal linking man to his ancestors. All the houses point north, the direction from which the settlers came. Opposite the houses are smaller replicas which are used as rice barns. Both the houses and rice barns are intricately carved, and are further decorated with buffalo horns. It is good to see that these Torajan people have not lost their culture but still practice it today.

Travelling to Sulawesi:

Travel advisories exist due to civil unrest, protests against UN action.
Visa Requirements: 60 day stay without visa

Currency and Costs: $1 CDN= 5000 Rupiah (rp). Exchange rates fluctuate wildy and travellers are advised to carry credit cards and US cash (when no ATMs available). Large denomination bills ($100) get better exchange rates. Most purchases require bargaining but look to your conscience before applying this too stringently. Tipping is generally not expected. Budget rooms can be found from 15 000 rp; meals from 5 000-10 000 rp.

When to go: Travel is possible year round. It's hot and wet during the wet season (October to April) and hot and dry during the dry season (May to September). The best time to visit Indonesia is from April to October. Monsoons can make travel difficult in remote areas and affect underwater visibility for diving/snorkeling.

Getting around: The interior roads on Sulawesi are in dubious shape. Mountain rpads are often clogged by mud and rockslides. When traversing the island, allow plenty of time and extra days. Air-conditioned buses to Rantepao are advisable as it is a long trip: six hours from Pare Pare; nine hours from Ujung Pandang (Capital). The Pelni ship from Maumere (Flores) to Ujung Pandang only goes once every two weeks on a Friday night. Avoid deck class; pay the extra for cabin class, you'll be glad you did. Flights from Ujung Pandang to Denpasar (Bali) cost 555,000 rupiah (note: allow extra days for flight cancellations). Merpati airlines gives 25% student discounts on flights (require copies of your ISIC card).

Health risks:Dengue fever, giardiasis, hepatitis, Japanese encephalitis, malaria, paratyphoid, rabies, typhoid. Check with your doctor/travellers' clinic for prophylaxis/immunizations.

© Liz Price - article may only be republished with the author's permission.

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