Nine hours drive from Makassar, in the mountainous South Sulawesi is a region known as Tana Toraja, with its capital at Rantepao. It is populated by the Torajans, a proud ethnic group of mainly Christian people with animist leanings, who enjoy a kind of celebrity status in Indonesia because their unique architecture, culture and funerary customs are well known by all and a ‘must see’ on everyone’s bucket list.
Like most travel in Indonesia it is it remarkably easy to get there. I contacted a driver, Pak Rasyid, by phone, and he took me under his wing and looked after me for a week. Flying in to Makassar from Bali, he was waiting with a handy sign at the airport and within minutes we were on the road north and in the highlands at a Rantepao resort by nightfall.
The Torajan culture appears to be alive and well, perhaps in spite of decades of tourism promotion by the government. Torajan houses, called tongkanan, are at the centre of every village and daily life, and they are everywhere in this part of the highlands. These magnificent carved houses stand high on wooden piles with huge sweeping curved arc roofs, apparently reminiscent of the shape of the ships that brought the Torajans to Sulawesi some 25 generations ago. The Torajan colours of red, yellow, and black add exquisite detail to the carved patterns of the walls.
Christianity was brought by Dutch missionaries early last century, but for many the old animism customs continue, particularly in their dealing with the dead and beliefs in reincarnation. Wealth was traditionally measured by the number of buffalos a family owned, though these days it is augmented by remittances from family members who live elsewhere, and income from tourists. The government ensures there are a few sites identified and promoted for tourism purposes, which has the advantage of protecting a thousand other traditional family sites by concentrating the effects of their ceaseless tramping feet. It also allows for the hosts of souvenir shops that gather around each attraction like tax collectors around a Roman temple. In these crowded commercial dens you can buy everything from your very own tautau effigy of the dead, razor sharp swords and bamboo flutes, to Torajan coffee, cloth and sailing ships in bottles.
“Tomorrow,” Pak Rasyid told me, “we will go to see some caves and you can buy a souvenir.”
“That’s where I’ll be put, up there,” said Remi: young, vital, and clearly not about to die soon. He was pointing to a pile of coffins. They weren’t stacked neatly, but one upon another wherever they fit. They were mostly plain wooden boxes, although occasionally one was delicately carved with Torajan motifs. Lower coffins were ancient rotting shells whose walls had crumbled so badly that bones had tumbled out.
“All my family is there, for hundreds of years.”
“And those bones…?”
“Yes, my ancestors, but long ago. You can see my grandfather up there on the left… the red coffin.”
His grandfather clearly hadn’t been there that long, but like the others his casket had been pushed into the gap so that at least part of it was within the shallow limestone cave. The cave already seemed full.
“What happens when you can’t get any more coffins in?” I asked.
“Simple, we’ll cut the cave larger. The nobles all have graves carved straight into the rock, look up there.”
Remi pointed out square holes which had been carved straight into the limestone cliff, high up on the wall above us. They had padlocked doors to deter grave robbers, but some were so high the lack of bamboo scaffolding needed to reach them must have been protection enough. Outside the rich graves, wooden effigies of the dead, tautau, sat on carved ledges, their bone-white eyes gazing out across the valley.
We entered a cave at the base of the limestone cliff. Bones and rotten caskets lay everywhere. Many of the skulls had been collected and placed along rock ledges. They leered back at me in the gas-lamp light Remy was charging 50,000 rupiah to use.
One broken casket had several skulls lying among a tangle of long bones and ribs.
“Poor people are buried in here. Sometimes they use the same coffin many times. The bodies rot down to make more room.”
Why such elaborate funerals here in Toraja? Why are they so important?
Reincarnation, I was told. When people die they are really only just sick. They sit, mummified, in a corner of the house, sometimes for years, until the family can lay on a lavish funeral. Only then can reincarnation occur.
A thought occurred to me. “These poor people, the ones who share coffins… would it be possible for a person to be buried in the same coffin again and again, each time he was reincarnated?”
Remi laughed. “I am sure it has happened.”
I wondered what it would be like to know so much about what was going to happen after death. Could I find out?
“What if I moved to Toraja – would I be allowed to be buried in one of these caves?”
“No, it is only for Torajans,” said Remi.
“What if I brought a lot of money,” I proffered.
“Give it to me now, and I’ll see what I can do… maybe,” he grinned.
The next day Pak Rasyid told me of a Torajan funeral across the valley we could see. I hesitated, would a tourist be welcome at such an event?
“Of course,” he said. “Everyone is welcome. The funeral is a huge celebration of life. People save for it their whole lives. It is aluk todolo, the way of the ancestors.”
As we approached, we could see red flags on houses, and hundreds of darkly-clothed people waiting under elaborately carved shade houses. A group of young children, princesses, were gathered by an open-sided shelter. We stopped and chatted. They were dressed in white, with red, yellow, and black beaded headdresses and belts and were waiting for the tautau to arrive. The effigy would be placed on a chair at the back, and her immediate family would sit around her, and eat the food brought to them.
The old lady, Ibu Bertha Duma, had been ‘noble’ and wealthy, so the crowd waited in anticipation of an extravagant show. She had died the previous year and this was the first day of the several days of ceremony and celebration. As a corpse, she had been thought of as ill, or sleeping, and she had been symbolically fed and dressed by the family each day since she had died. Even now, everyone knew her soul was lingering around the village, waiting for the last day of the funeral when her body would be placed in a high cave, carved into the family’s cliff. Only then could her spirit depart for Puya, the Land of Souls, accompanied by the spirits of the buffalos slaughtered at her funeral.
A dozen elderly women in purple silk shirts and intricately patterned sarongs started to rhythmically beat a drum log, and pigs were carried in, tied tightly to poles. A buffalo was led down the path into the village by a group of youths. This was the first of thirty brightly decorated buffalos, worth $2000 each, which would be slaughtered and shared out among the villagers.
The horns and jawbones of the offerings would return to the house and be attached to the growing stack against it. More horns mean higher status.
The drumming started again and music from reed flutes announced the arrival of the tautau. The old lady had been replicated in wood. She sat on a chair which was tied to bamboo poles for the porters. She was resplendent in a bright purple dress with orange beaded necklaces and conical shade hat. A large ring glinted on a wooden finger as a crowd danced it to its place. The princesses busied themselves to welcome it and the kin of the deceased moved into walled family stalls around it, ready for lunch.
Two lines of black-clothed man and women holding a bright red strip of cloth above their heads arrived. The women wore beaded necklaces of the same orange colour as the tautau. A hundred meters or more long, the cloth was tied to the elaborately carved coffin, carried on a bamboo frame by several dozen men. There was no sadness. The coffin was danced down, and thrown about in joy. People laughed and cheered and shouted advice, the drumming was incessant. A hundred helping hands passed the coffin five meters up a ramp to a shaded platform, carved and painted in red, black, and yellow. Prayers were called out across the crowd, unintelligible to me in the Torajan language.
On the ground below, the first buffalo’s jugular was stabbed by a flattened spearhead. Its removal drew out a bright red fountain, but the beast made no sound as it slowly collapsed. It was quickly butchered, and another behind it, in a flurry of small black flies. Small children gaped in awe as the blood flowed.
The crowd shrank back into the shade as food boxes and water cups arrived for lunch. There was a pause as people ate.
We moved back to the tautau and took photographs of the family posing with it. The funeral had started well - despite the festering metal scent of fresh blood and the screaming of pigs, everyone was pleased.
The drumming started again and a line of about 50 men, dressed in identical dark purple shirts with Ibu Bertha’s name on their backs, formed a circle near the tautau. They held hands and began a slow dance, chanting a dirge. On and on they went, sadness fell across the crowd at last. This was, after all, a funeral.