Life & Death in Toraja
Believed to have descended from the stars, the Torajans of Sulawesi are a unique people who practise elaborate funeral rituals for their deceased.
Words: Stephanie Brookes Photography: David Metcalf
Located in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago, between Kalimantan and Maluku, Sulawesi sprawls out across the sea, in the shape of an orchid. Tana Toraja, located in South Sulawesi, centres around the township of Rantepao, a landscape of mountainous and ancient terraced rice fields, and is home to the rich and complex cultural heritage of the Torajan people.
The journey into the heartland of this culture starts by heading north from Makassar and involves an eight-hour journey by road. An Indonesian road safari is always made easier with a driver; a guide comes at a nominal fee when you rent a car or a van. The roads in central Sulawesi are in poor condition, often rough and bumpy, but this all evens out when you travel in the comfort of an all-terrain vehicle with high seats, large ground clearance and good suspension.
Entering the highland region of Tana Toraja allows you to explore a unique culture, one that has fascinated people for centuries with their elaborate sacrificial funeral ceremonies and sacred burial cave sites guarded by effigies. The traditional Tongkonan houses are beautifully decorated with colourful motifs carved into wood. Many of these huge, peaked roof houses are adorned with buffalo horns from past sacrifices.
FAR, FAR AWAY
The Torajan people believe that they are descended from the stars and arrived on Earth in starships. It is thought that the shapes of their houses resemble those very starships. In the book Ring of Fire, An Indonesian Odyssey by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, the Torajan people are quoted as saying: “Before the dawn of human memory, our ancestors descended from the Pleiades in sky ships.”
One of the highlights of visiting Toraja is to attend a traditional funeral, which is held only when a family has saved up enough money to host the elaborate event. It is necessary to build a complete village to house hundreds of guests over a five-day period. The temporary village is dismantled afterwards. Another major cost involves purchasing animals for ritual sacrifice.
A funeral buffalo purchased from the animal market can range from USD2,500 to 40,000, while a pig currently costs from USD250 to 350. It is not uncommon to have over 50 pigs and several buffaloes sacrificed at a funeral. For this reason, a mummified body may end up staying in the family house for five years or more waiting for the accumulation of finances.
One of the traditional villages David and I visited, not far from the township of Rantepao, actually had a five-year-old preserved mummified body lying in the lounge. The deceased was an elderly female whose husband had passed on earlier; her family was still unable to pay for a second funeral.
A ROYAL REQUIEM
Some preserved bodies are stored in ornately decorated sarcophaguses. For those of royal descent, a royal widow is obliged to stay in the same room as her dead spouse until the funeral ceremony and final burial. A widow must stay with the mummified – yet gradually disintegrating – corpse of her late husband for up to five years or more, and symbolically, she rots away too. During this time, she subsists on a special diet that excludes rice products. It is necessary for her to become symbolically dead. She is not permitted to leave her husband’s side. Her helpers, which include lesser widows, and in some cases, slaves, tend to her needs. It is important to nourish the deceased’s soul, so a bowl of food is replenished daily and palm wine is served, while an offering of betel nut or chewing tobacco is made at regular intervals. The Torajans believe it is only through this careful and giving ritual that the deceased will become a free soul, richer in the next life.
RITUALS IN REMEMBRANCE
The saddle-shaped, curved Tongkonan houses found mostly around Rantepao, are seen as a measure of a family’s social standing and are important places for ceremonies and rituals.
Although we were travelling outside of prime funeral season (July to October), we were keen to attend a funeral, and our guide, Sada, assured us he would help. After numerous phone calls, his efforts paid off and we found ourselves on the way to Tikala Village, just north of Rantepao.
Navigating a one-kilometre trail by foot, we reached a temporary bamboo village, which had been erected for the sole purpose of the funeral. By 10.00am, the temperature had already hit 35 degrees Celsius and it was sweltering.
As we joined a steady stream of people making their way to the funeral, a friendly vibe accompanied us. Casual chatting and joking was the order of the day. Torajan funerals are seen as a ‘send-off’ and a celebration of the soul, so the vibe is far from morbid and solemn. It is seen as a joyous occasion and therefore, devoid of grieving.
When we entered the funeral area, we were welcomed by the family of the deceased and invited to join the ‘family platform’. Foreigners attending a Torajan funeral, are seen as a sign of good luck, viewed as a dignitaries, and thus, treated as honoured guests.
Once our tea arrived, a small fan club started to gather around us, people jostling to sit by us and start up conversations. We met people from small villages, towns and cities, many of whom spoke very good English, and all of them wanting to bestow their hospitality upon us.
From the shaded platform, we looked out over the entire funeral arena and soaked up the welcoming vibe. We were inundated with offers to show us around, whilst more tea arrived, and within about half an hour, we had met over 15 family members.
In the distance, we could hear pigs squealing and animals in distress. Torajan funerals are not for the faint-hearted. One has to keep an open mind, and as observers of a time-honoured tribal ritual, we watched with awe, fascination and a little bit nervousness as pigs and buffaloes were hauled into the ‘circle of death’. They were dispatched with great speed and efficiency. Blood flowed through the middle of the common area, and huge chunks of meat were weighed and divided systematically according to rank and status.
For a funeral, depending on your ranking in the village, you must offer a certain number of pigs or buffaloes, which are then slaughtered and the meat distributed amongst guests. Torajan society is a highly structured one, with four classes of people, including nobility and peasants.
To be accepted and included in a traditional funeral ceremony with such openness and warmth was indeed an honour.
CLIFFS OF THE DEAD
Next on the agenda was a visit to Toraja’s death cliffs. This is another fascinating aspect of the culture. The Torajans bury their dead in coffin slots chiselled in cliffs, hillsides or in rocks. Some have effigies called tau tau placed in front of the rock entrances to guard the spirit of the dead body. Some bodies are left out in the open, the skeletons exposed for all to see. Many of these bones date back 400 years.
The next day, we decided to stay in a traditional village. We headed high into the mountains to a village called Batutumonga where Sada had organised an overnight homestay in a traditional Tongkonan longhouse.
It was late afternoon and the light was softening when we reached the high road that would lead us there. The roadside was dotted with mountain folk tending to their cattle, and as it was a school day, we passed many school children sharing the road with farmers and villagers. It is not unusual for children to walk 8 to 12 kilometres to and from school each day!
It seems that even though Torajans live in basic houses, in very poor conditions, these rural people are always happy and relaxed, seemingly without a care in the world. In terms of materialistic acquisition, which many of us in more urban areas pursue, the Torajans seem happy to live in a simple way, not wanting for much. Their most important asset is a large, healthy buffalo.
At the Tongkonan homestay, we climbed a rickety wooden ladder and settled into the attic where colourful mattresses were laid on the wooden floor. The owners cooked a delicious dinner, and we dined overlooking the beautiful mountains of Toraja and learned about village life.
Life in traditional Torajan villages is structured around an ordered social and political system. Every village is one extended family, with the centre being the traditional Tongkonan house. Every Tongkonan has a name, which is also the name of the village. Marriage within a village is commonplace, however close cousins are not permitted to marry; marriage is permissible between fourth cousins and beyond. Extended families share a kinship and they help each other in farming and paying off debts.
A bilateral family line is maintained and each person belongs to both the mother and the father’s families. This is the only bilateral family line practised in Indonesia. Children inherit the family land and house (and any debts) from both the mother and father.
AN ADVENTURE TO REMEMBER
Early the next morning, we embarked on a rafting adventure just out of the main town of Rantepao. This involved a one-hour walk through Ma’dong village, traversing a series of rice fields. We put-in on the riverbank of the Maulu River.
Paddling downstream and being carried by the gentle current, was soft and easy. Only the occasional swooping of eagles above interrupted the calm stillness of floating down the deep gorge. As the river narrowed, we passed a series of large waterfalls cascading from the steep mountainous terrain. Several male iguanas sunbathed on large boulders. The rapids appeared in small bursts, but mostly, it was a trip down a lazy river, perfect for ending a spectacular seven-day trip.
Toraja’s belief system is called Aluk, which translates to ‘the way’ or ‘the law’. According to an ancient myth, the Torajan ancestors came down from the stars using stairs, their means of connecting with their creator, Puang Matua. In the Aluk belief system, the world consists of the upper world, which is Heaven, and the lower world, Earth, which belongs to man and is seen as the underworld. Heaven is covered by a celestial, starship-shaped Tongkonan roof. Aluk governs the fabric of social life, the farming methods and the ancestral rites of passage and rituals.
DANCE & MUSIC
Dances are performed at funeral ceremonies. Dancing is important because the deceased person is going to the afterlife and the journey is long. Torajans dance not only to express their grief, but also to honour the onward journey. A ritual called a Ma’badong takes place all through the night. This is performed by men in a circle who chant (all night) and it is considered to be the most important part of the funeral ceremony. On the second day, the Ma’randing warrior dance is performed. This signifies the courage of the deceased during their life on Earth. Several men dance wielding swords, sporting fine headdresses and buffalo horn helmets, holding large buffalo skin shields. The dance is held before the ritualistic procession of carrying the body of the deceased from the rice barn to the site of the funeral. Dancing is then turned over to the older women who dress in long feathered costumes and perform the Ma’katia, a poetic song, which speaks of the generosity and loyalty of the deceased person.
After the ritual slaughter, a group of boys and girls clap their hands and perform a lively, celebratory dance called a Ma’dondan.
War dances are another feature of the Torajan culture. The Ma’nimbong dance is a war dance performed by men, followed by a women-led Ma’dandan dance. All these dances are scheduled and performed according to Aluk religion. If you are lucky, you may catch a special dance called Ma’bua, which is performed only once every 12 years. This dance involves a priest who wears a buffalo head and dances around a sacred tree.
As well as funeral and war dances,Torajans perform dances to honour the land and the rice growing cycles. Dancing and singing also take place to honour harvest time, thanksgiving and to celebrate pounding of the rice.