It’s funeral season in Tana Toraja, in the hills of the central highlands of the Indonesian island state of Sulawesi. How can you have a “funeral season”? you may well ask. How can you make sure that your nearest and dearest conveniently passes away between June and August? Actually that doesn’t matter as you’ll more than likely have to keep them in your house for the best part of a year, if not longer, whilst you save up for the main event. Death is a big deal in this part of the world and families will wait until they have saved up sufficient money to stage a 3 day extravaganza of a send off complete with food and refreshments for hundreds, dancing and plenty of pig and buffalo slaughtering.
Bolu Toraja Sulawesi Indonesia
Toraja Funeral in Sulawesi
Stranger still, attending a funeral is touted as a tourism highlight and foreigners are made very welcome. So, one morning five of us set out in our best black t-shirts to a nearby ceremony. First stop was the market where we bought our gifts – several kilo’s of sugar and many packets of cigarettes – as advised was the tradition. Actually the tradition is to buy a buffalo or a pig but luckily foreign guests are not expected to fork out the several hundred dollars upwards that these costs. Buffalos with lots of white or pink in their colouring are particularly valuable and can cost as much as 5 thousand US dollars!! We arrived at the venue which looked like a cross between the Surrey County Show and a hill tribe convention. Every patch of grass seemed to be occupied by buffaloes and pigs, bought as gifts to the family. The site is a specially constructed area surrounded by covered wooden platforms, decorated in traditional Toraja colours; on them people were sat chatting and drinking. At one end was a female MC conducting the proceedings (apparently she was a priest) and above her on a high platform was the coffin. At the other end was a pavilion where people were lining up to offer condolences to family members sat inside. In the centre area, at one end buffaloes were being paraded and at the other, a dance troupe performed. We were invited to sit in a family ‘gazebos’ and served tea and snacks (the snacks were from now on known as ‘funeral snacks’ whenever we purchased them on bus journeys etc) and later lunch (very tasty and better than sausage rolls and quiché). There were lots of people milling about, almost a picnic atmosphere. The MC was continuously announcing who had bought which buffalo as they were paraded for all to see. Luckily they didn’t announce that three Brits, one American and a Dutchwoman were a bit tight and had only brought a few dollars worth of sugar and fags. Lots of people did want to take our photograph though.
Kete Kesu Torajaland
No one seemed particularly sad but then I suppose that as the woman had died almost a year ago, all but the closest family and friends had probably gotten over it quite some time ago. I suppose that does mean it could be a true celebration of her life. The only living creatures who had reason to be sad were the pigs and buffalo who once presented to the crowds, their hours were numbered. Today the buffalo were safe as it was clearly pig slaughtering day. Buffaloes, we were told, were tomorrow. We were led to an area which we had passed on our way in which can only be described as an open air slaughter house. All around pigs were either being “sliced”, gutted, charred to take the hair off or chopped up into pieces ready to be distributed among the villagers. As many of you know of my fondness for pigs, you will be wondering how I coped. Not sure really; I guess I have learned to detach AA Milne’s Piglet from what is part of fairly regular scenes in Asia. We do have some pretty gory footage but as I write this, am undecided whether to post it. Having seen more than enough bloods and guts, we said our goodbyes and left.
The rest of our time inTorajaland was equally fascinating and equally morbid as sightseeing here generally involves visiting graves. Life in this part of Indonesia revolves around death, coffins, graves and bones. The people here are largely Christian (thanks to the Dutch) but they still also follow their historically traditional beliefs of animism.
Kete Kesu Torajaland
Kete Kesu Torajaland
Meaning, in brief, that they believe that the spirit or soul exists not only in human beings, but also in all other animals, plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, etc. This in turn means, from what I can work out, is that they believe that the spirit remains in the body even after death and is the reason that after the person has died, but before their funeral ceremony, whilst they are lying in the family home they are considered to be sick and friends and family will pay their respects by bringing gifts of cigarettes and saying hello and goodbye each time they visit.
So back to the graves, of which we had plenty to visit. The Toraja don’t bury their dead in the ground, because the ground too has a soul. In fact they don’t really seem to bury them at all and at all the funeral sites there were lots of skulls and bones which have been left after the coffin has decayed. In ancient times the coffins were placed inside caves but since people were buried with valuable possessions many got ransacked so over the years different methods were developed including carving out holes high up in the rocks and “hanging graves” which are literally wooden coffins strung up high on cliff faces. Babies are laid to rest in a special type of tree which allows their spirit to be carried up by the leaves. Today many families have specially built concrete mausoleums at the foot of the cliffs but still it seems that many coffins are just placed inside caves. One cave we were taken in to felt particularly macabre – dark and slippery with lots of rotting coffins and plenty more bones piled up. There was one newish looking coffin; “look, look” our enthusiastic guide who was showing us around by the light of a gas lamp “he been here 3 months”. And before we knew it, he had lifted the cloth to reveal a window in the coffin lid! To make the whole thing even more spooky, it is traditional to have a wooden effigy of the person, known as a tau tau, perched in a balcony carved in the rock face to guard and protect. At one of the sites the local tau tau was at work copying from a photograph of a western woman – apparently a German tourist had commissioned one of herself but I don’t know if she plans to keep it for her grave or put it on her mantlepiece!
Rice paddies Torajaland