We flew to Makassar for the sole purpose of immersing ourselves in death in Torajaland, where the indigenous ethnic group in the mountains of Sulawesi have a fascinating culture of celebrating their deceased. It’s doable on your own, but we hired a local guide because it’s really hard to learn anything otherwise. And learn we did.
I wish I remembered the name of the village our guide Arru hails from, but I have a crappy memory. Anyway, it’s a good representation of traditional Torajan homes. We walked through the short row of houses as Arru explained that homes always face north and rice barns face south. Buffalo horns are stacked high up the center of the front of these homes to signify how many buffalo were sacrificed during the funerals of their family members, which in turn shows off the wealth of these families. There are reasons for the placement of almost everything within these villages.
I got thoroughly distracted by a woodcarver’s shop selling stuff for tourists. After I spent way too much time in there wavering between the endless options, I bought two small wall panels and rushed back to Arru so we could get through the rest of the tour of the village and head to a funeral ceremony in the early afternoon.We climbed up into the small hatch of a house into the main living area, where the cooking and hanging out takes place. There were storage areas for dried foodstuffs and a sleeping area. It was surprisingly tight inside, compared to how large the houses look from the outside.
Behind the house was a short path that led us towards the mausoleums and hanging graves, where bones of family members would be packed into wooden coffins and hoisted high onto the edge of cliff faces to prevent robbers and animals from getting into them. Over time, coffins would fall from their rotting wooden pedestals and spill out their contents. These bones were piled into broken coffins on the ground, while skulls were carefully lined up on top of the coffins to watch the tourists as they passed. We walked up and ended up in front of a cave, where coffins were packed into a corner, and various tangible offerings were made to the deceased.
We needed to get to the funeral. As guests, people generally offer cigarettes as a gift to the family. We made it clear to Arru that we wouldn’t buy cigarettes but we would like to bring something else instead. He insisted that cigarettes were the only thing we could bring, and we insisted that we wouldn’t bring it. Yes, it might be a tradition, but there are so many that harm people, and to agree to this means we would be directly contributing to harming the health of the Torajan people, and to the support of the tobacco companies. We finally convinced him to allow us to bring sugar (the alternative being not going to the funeral) and he grudgingly agreed. And man are we glad we did, because the smoking was intense. Every man, young and old, had a cigarette in his mouth. They were chain smoking and couldn’t seem to put it down, even when they were singing.
The tourists were ushered to plastic chairs lined up by the center of it all. People sat in the elevated platforms of rice barns flanking us or in the temporary bamboo and tin-roofed areas between them. The teardrop-shaped coffin was placed on an ornate pedestal shaped like a house and sat in the middle of the clearing. The dead are preserved and stay in the family home for months or years until the family can arrange for a proper send-off. In the mean time, the deceased is considered a sick person and not dead.
Everyone was served lunch of pork, vegetables and rice, while funeral singers stood in a circle around the coffin and sang a melancholy song. We only had a little time to sip our coffees or teas before Arru motioned for us to follow him. All of the tourists grabbed their cameras and rushed over to a small hill next to the village where a buffalo’s throat had already been slit and it lay gasping and bleeding on the ground. The slaughter of presented buffalo symbolize the “real” death of the deceased.
Soon afterwards, relatives of the deceased carried the coffin in a short procession through the village. This was done in a rather boisterous fashion, with the women walking in front and the men hoisting the coffin up on their shoulders and running in jerky spurts, almost colliding with the women in front of them. We chose not to follow them in the heat and waited for them to come back around to a screeching halt, kicking up dust everywhere and nearly spilling the coffin onto the ground. I wonder if the dead like to be manhandled (literally) like that.
The bamboo platform the coffin was resting on was quickly dismantled and turned into a large ladder. The coffin was hoisted up to the second floor of the main platform, and after much twisting and turning of the coffin, it made it up there. The coffin overlooked the gifting ceremony, where we watched a procession of guests bearing gifts for the family of the deceased. Water buffalo and bound pigs were dragged to the center of the clearing, where the pigs screamed and caused a ruckus. Things seemed to be winding down so we left to make our way to the stone graves.
Besides the fact that the stone graves look amazing, there is a practical aspect to burying the dead in hollowed-out stones and cliff faces. It allows for the precious land to not be taken up with large cemeteries. Genius! This particular stone grave was one I’ve been wanting to see. Wooden effigies looked down from their stone balconies, making us feel like we were the spectacle. On each effigy, one hand was raised up and the other was parallel to the ground and palm up, symbolizing giving and taking, or life and death. Stone graves are chiseled by hand, which takes months to years to complete. They’re not cheap either, which make them only accessible to the rich.
Our last stop on this whirlwind adventure was a baby grave. Babies who died before they had teeth were buried in holes dug into trees. It is a fascinating practice, where the baby’s father digs a hole into the side of a large tree, and places the baby standing up into it. The belief is that the tree becomes the baby’s “new mother”, nourishing the baby with her sap. Because the tree becomes the baby’s new mother, the real mother isn’t allowed to be there for the burial, and the baby is buried facing away from the real mother’s home. This is a burial practice that isn’t in use anymore but I thought the story behind it was worth mentioning.
So our first day in Torajaland was long and intense, but this learning experience was exactly what we had come for.
For more photos of Torajaland, check out our Flickr album.