Tana Toraja – a region in the highlands of Sulawesi, island in the North of Indonesia; renowned for coffee and special funeral rites. The latter the reason I undertook the 9 hour bus journey from Makassar to Rantepao. A modern bus for a change, with a very soft suspension – not really suitable for the roads of Sulawesi, or the breakneck driving of the local drivers, the bus swayed like a ship in stormy seas, soon it was full of vomiting people, all 9 hours long. The reason for the many scent bags swinging from the ceiling became clear to me.
I emerged shaky, but with all stomach contents intact, and for the next three days visited the ceremonies, grave sites and villages of the area, mostly together with other tourists one meets in the guesthouses and with whom one can share the costs.
Indonesia is mainly Muslim. Exceptions include Bali – Hindu – and Tana Toraja -75% Christian, but really very Animistic. This is especially evident in the funeral rites, which take up to a week, and have a bloody ending for pigs and buffalos. Tourists are gladly invited to the ceremonies, as they bring both presents (instead of animals usually cigarettes or sugar) and good luck for the family. A word of warning though – if you have a kind and sensitive heart for animals, don’t go anywhere near a ceremony.
Funerals are Big Business. The entire family and their friends perform their rites to transport the dead to the afterlife. Funerals are expensive, as a prescribed number of pigs and buffalos have to be sacrificed amidst a grand celebration. Therefore it is not unusual for the dead body to be stored in a special room at home for weeks or months, until enough money has been saved (during this time, the dead count as “sick”, and continue to be visited and fed, until death is official after the ceremony). There are 6 different kinds of ceremonies, starting from children, where only one pig is sacrificed, up to the nobility, for whose ceremonies hundreds of pigs and buffalos sacrifice their lives.
Whilst the family is doing their processions, the animals are slaughtered. The pigs squeal awfully, all the way to the slaughter; the buffalos are silent. The death itself is swift – the buffalos have their throat cut, the pigs receive a stab to the heart. The fur is burned off, and the meat cooked and given to family and guests.
Some funerals have bull fights – they don’t have much in common with the fiery Spanish fights that you may be thinking of now. Two very docile, peaceful buffalos briefly lock horns, then agree a truce, and spend the remainder of the time looking around shyly, and grazing. When the screaming of the crowd gets too much they make their escape into the fields.
After the first two fights we had enough, but the people of the area don’t tire to bet a lot of money on the fights – I am not sure what’s the protocol for fleeing bulls – the one that runs faster, wins?
The dead are buried in graves, which can take various forms: A wooden coffin in a cave; without coffin in a man-made rock grave; in coffins hanging from cave ceilings or wooden frames; where there are no rocks or caves, they are buried in the earth and a little Toraja house set on top; babies are buried in trees, the holes close again after a few years and the little bodies are taken skywards, with the growing of the tree.
For very rich Torajans, a Tao-Tao is made – a wooden statue with the likeness of the dead. Such a statue costs 64 buffalos, is highly coveted, and most of the original statues were stolen and sold a long time ago; today, you mostly see replicas.
Every 6 days, there is a livestock market in Bolu, where the pigs and buffalos for the ceremonies are sold.
The buffalos are incredibly docile creatures, they just stand around, no idea about the fate that is awaiting them (even at the sacrifice places). The pigs are more aware – maybe because they are already firmly lashed to the frames. Their miserable screams echo across the market.
The Toraja villages – the houses have a rather unusual form, the roof resembles a boat, or bull horns. This architecture is in remembrance of their forebears, the To ri aja, which means “those who came from above”. I thought of space ships, but apparently it just means: The North. The front beams are often adorned with the bull horns from former ceremonies, and show the social standing of the house owners.
One family often has a group of these houses in a village, which is built in two rows around an open space.
A visit to Tana Toraja is really worth the effort, for the beautiful landscape, and of course the funerals. Here a few tips: A car with driver should be between 350,000 and 400,000 rupees (ca. 35 to 40 US Dollar), a guide ca. 400,000 rupees per day. The initial prices are often higher, so negotiate. A guide is really only needed for the ceremonies, everything else can be done using local transport. The mini busses and “taxis” (private cars with yellow license plate) can be found at the roundabout at Rantepao or on the street. They have often fixed routes, so just walk around with a sheet of paper with the destination written on it and show that to the drivers. One way costs between 3,000 and 10,000 rupees. You can also rent the entire bus or car, then the prices will increase of course. For example, going to Batutumonga – gorgeous views – cost about 50,000 rupees (5 Dollars) / passenger, with 5 people.