Where funerals are the biggest party in town

Trip Start Aug 22, 2005
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Trip End Jul 17, 2006


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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Saturday, November 12, 2005

Our next destination was the Tana Toraja region of Southern Sulawesi. We could have travelled overland to get there, but given that the Central Sulawesi area is notorious for violent conflict between Christians and Muslims, and even worse that three Christian schoolgirls had recently been executed just outside Poso, we decided to play it safe by backtracking to Gorontalo and flying to Makassar, from where it was a comfortable 8-hour bus ride to Rantepao, the region's major city.

The area is stunningly beautiful, with traditional villages, waterfalls, and brilliant green rice paddies and vegetable gardens impossibly perched on steep hillsides. The most fascinating aspect of "Torajaland" though has to be its unique cultural traditions which were many and varied until the arrival of the Dutch put an end to most of them. The Torajan houses are a sight to behold, some would say they look like boats on stilts, others swear that the high eaves represent the horns of a buffalo. Whichever it is, the houses are all brightly painted in the traditional style and on the front of each are mounted columns of buffalo horns sacrificed when the house was built. Indeed, ritual sacrifice plays a crucial role in many aspects of Torajan life, particularly during the funeral celebrations, one of which we were lucky to witness.

When a Torajan person dies, the family begins the process of rounding up relatives from far and wide, which may take several months. During this time, it is believed that the soul of the deceased is still with them - the body is injected with preservative, remains in the house and is treated no differently to the living family members (is served meals, takes baths, etc). Then, when a date can be set and enough cash has been raised the festivities begin, which can last for up to five days. Temporary pavilions are constructed in the village, and the celebrations begin with some traditional kickboxing and buffalo fighting. When we arrived at the funeral, we were met by an incredible scene. Hundreds of people were sitting around chatting over coffee whilst in the center of the square the carcasses of eight recently-sacrificed buffalo were being hacked to pieces for distribution to guests, in order of status. We were introduced to the family, and handed over our suggested gift of cigarettes (cue the next funeral). Other guests had brought along gifts of trussed-up pigs, and throughout the morning they were led around the back to be killed and thrown on a fire to burn off the hair before butchering it. The phrase "squealing like a stuck pig" now makes a lot more sense to me.

Whilst lunch was prepared we sat in the shade of the rice barns and drank tuak (fermented rice wine) from hollowed-out bamboo and did our best to make conversation with the guests. Some of the younger kids seemed really nervous around us at first. Lunch was served - barbequeued pig and buffalo (what else?) - which we felt honoured to eat given the bickering that can sometimes go on over its proper distribution. A litre or so of tuak later and it was time for the body to be buried. Despite the intoxicating effect of the tuak on me, the way the coffin was carried to the cave was definitely one of the strangest things I have ever seen. One of the bereaved sons threatened to throw himself off the balcony where the coffin was on display, but was eventually restrained and the coffin was hoisted on bamboo poles and carried down the hillside by a mob of drunken teenagers. They pushed and pulled against its weight, whooped and hollered, splashed water and almost dpropped it in the rice paddy (taking some of the boys with it on a couple of occasions). According to one theory they do this to confuse the spirit so that it cannot find its way back home. When they reached the cave they began the difficult task of crossing the river and hauling it up the cliff face, the thinking being that the harder it is to reach the grave, the less likely it is to be plundered. As a parting shot, one of the young lads thought it would be funny to pick up the skull of one of his more ancient ancestors and wear it on his head.

The rest of our time in Tana Toraja was spent trekking through the countryside and seeing other examples of traditional villages, cave graves and waterfalls. When a person is buried in a cave, a lifelike effigy of them is carved from wood and placed on a balcony in the cliff face. These tau tau are meant to watch over the grave and guard it against intruders, and they make for an eerie viewing experience. On one of our treks, our Indonesian Meatloaf-a-like guide Hendrick told me to select a live chicken from his backyard, which he made me hold for a while. I had begun to grow rather attached to it until he took it off me, snapped its neck and cooked it for our lunch. This basically sums up the traditional values and natural philosophy of the Torajan people. What an amazing place!
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