The Funeral Rituals and Ceremonies of the Toraja

Trip Start Apr 24, 2009
Trip End Aug 29, 2009

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Flag of Indonesia  , Sulawesi,
Monday, July 20, 2009

No problems whatsoever at the airport of Jayapura for our flight to Sulawesi. A neat line in front of the check in counter of Lion Air and very efficient staff. After a flight of 3 hours with no food (you couldn't even purchase food if you wanted to) we arrived in Makassar, South Sulawesi. Even though it is a big city, about 1.5 million people, it is not as crowded, busy and dirty as we expected. Ok the open sewage smells are stringent and you have to be careful when you walk on the pavement not to fall into one of them but the city has actually quite an atmosphere.  We spent a couple of days visiting the Old Dutch Fort Rotterdam and the bustling and lively old harbor with its tall ships and market. In the fish restaurants here you pick your own fish and it is freshly grilled and served with several deliciously spiced sauces and that for just three euros! What a treat. But the main reason for our visit to Sulawesi is the Tana Toraja region. The Toraja area is known for the typical boat shaped houses, the Tongkonan. Also the funeral ceremonies and customs here are very special and specific to the region. . You can imagine that this draws a lot of tourists to the area. When there are tourists there are also guides who want to show you around. They sort of hang around the hotels and restaurants waiting for customers. So we talked to one of them and organized a package deal with him. He showed us the different aspects of the funeral ceremonies and rituals. A funeral ceremony usually last 3 days with a procession, a reception, sacrificing buffaloes and pigs and the actual burying All relatives, friends and neighboring villagers attend the ceremonies and it is a kind of social event. Depending on your social status the ceremonies are accordingly. So if you are from the high noble class the family has to make sure that enough buffaloes and pigs are sacrificed, as according to the old animistic believes the souls of animals need to join the body to the next life. For the high noble class at least 24 buffaloes have to be sacrificed, but the more the better. As this is a costly business the family takes time to organize this and therefore the ceremony and the (re)burying takes place months after the person has died, usually in July and August which coincides with the dry season, the Indonesian holiday season and the harvest season. They bury the bodies in big caves that are hollowed out of the rocks. In front of the caves wooden statues called Tau Tau, representing the deceased persons, are placed in balconies.  But only if you are from the noble class you are allowed to have a Tau Tau. Unfortunately this custom of the Tau Tau is disappearing as the Toraja have been converted to Christianity and most of the Toraja no longer make the Tau Tau as part of their funeral tradition. In former times they also had Menhirs (megaliths) as a sort of a grave stone. Again the more buffaloes you sacrifice the bigger the menhir you could get. As with the Tau Tau this custom is also not in use anymore. Another way of burying the deceased is in natural caves. The body is placed in a wooden coffin that resembles the shape of a traditional house.  The coffin is then placed in a cave and Tau Tau’s are placed in the cave as well. They also have special baby graves. A baby would not be buried in a cave but in a special tree. According to legend if you would bury your baby this way your next child would not die an infant.

Apart from visiting these caves and attending one day of a funeral and to see more of the daily life of the Toraja we also went on a trek for 3 days in the area. This time not with porters and a cook but just a guide. It was a very rewarding hike. Absolutely amazing scenery with views of endless rice paddies and terraces on steep slopes.  Walking through the rice paddies was sometimes more like balancing on a tight rope. In the rice paddies people were busy harvesting the rice and you could see the different stages of the harvesting. Buffaloes were enjoying their mud bath in the rice fields. Dotted in the scenery are the traditional villages with the Tongkonan houses.  In the villages kids are playing and asking for gula gula (candy).  Dogs and chickens are happily walking around. Women are busy working and men are hanging around smoking and playing with their mobile phones. We spent the nights in a Tongkonan house  These Tongkonans are used as a family gathering place. Usually only the parents or grandparents live in here and the rest of the family lives in a house that is built next to it.  The Tongkonan are beautifully carved and colorfully painted according to a traditional pattern. Most of them have tin roofs now but originally the roofs were made of bamboo. Across of the house a smaller version of a Tongkonan is built that serves as a rice barn, In front of some of the houses there are big rows of buffalo horns hanging. This shows how many buffaloes they sacrificed for a funeral. All in all we got a real good impression of how village life is here in the Tana Toraja region. After a day of rest we went back to Makassar to get to our next destination, Bali.
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