Rice paddies, buffaloes and the dead. Welcome to Tana Toraja!

Burial caves in Tana Toraja

Burial caves in Tana Toraja

I was excited about our arrival in Tana Toraja for some time. After reading countless papers on this part of Sulawesi, my old love for anthropology had heated up again. It were the green rice paddies, beautifully craved houses and rice barns, ceremonies of life and death had brought us here to discover what the land of Tana Toraja has got to offer.

As soon as we found accommodation in Rantepao (major city in the area), filled our empty stomachs with coconut porridge and refreshed with hot showers, we started to enquire about a funeral, one of the main reasons for our visit in Toraja. With good timing, and turning up just after the rain season ended we were spoilt for choice. Funerals in Toraja, being seasonal events, start late May lasting throughout the summer months and the day before we arrived a celebrations had begun in a nearby village. So just after 2 hours we arrived in Rantapao, at 9am we were on our way to the funeral. Together with Johnny, a local guide and with a german couple, Oliver and Jojo (met in our guesthouse), we were taken for a journey into very unfamiliar but yet exciting local traditions and customs.

Rice paddies of Tana Toraja

Rice paddies of Tana Toraja

Although Christian in majority, Torajan people managed to remain their funeral ceremonies being same or very similar to the rituals before Dutch colonisation. With sacrifice of animals, walking the dead and other rituals these festivals of death are totally different to our western ways of saying goodbye to loved ones.

First thing that comes with a Torajan funeral is a price. It’s usually an expensive event that depends on the wealth of the family of deceased and because of high cost involve, the funeral may take several years to be organised. Money needs to be saved, buffaloes bought (one buffalo can costs up to $50,000) and relatives from all over Indonesia have to arrive in time to attend the celebrations. With all that in mind,  traditional funeral also serves an opportunity to pay respects and debts to the family of the deceased and demonstrate the prestige of the family.

Until the funeral takes place, the deceased is considered sick and specifically he or she is refered to as ‘having a headache’. The body is kept in the house and thanks to use of formalin, the corpse keeps relatively fresh and most importantly odour free. The deceased is taken care of, spoken to and provided with offerings such us food, drinks and cigarettes. It’s all pretty different to what we are used to back home.

The funeral we were going to attend, had already started and we were arriving on the morning of the second day. The schedule was simple: scarfing of buffaloes and pigs, followed by family of the dead receiving guests and condolences. We were told the dead man was an important person, an ex policeman, coming from a wealthy background,  hence the funeral took only 3 months to organise. The event was also attended by people from the police force and few ministers, who were sited on a special VIP platform overlooking the area where the ceremonies took place.

Guests arriving at the funeral

Guests arriving at the funeral

Sacrifice of animals is an important part of Torajan culture. The belief is that the spirit of the deceased will live peacefully thereafter, continuing to herd the buffaloes that have come to join him or her. On the day we attended the blood of 20 buffaloes and even more pigs had been spilt. What I noticed was that while the pigs were ruthlessly carried on a bamboo sticks with their legs tied and fat bodies hanging upside down, the buffaloes were calmly led on leash by they owners. The pigs would end their lifes away from the excited crowed, at times waiting tied away for hours or days. For the buffaloes the story was a little bit different.

Pig awaiting to be sacrificed

Pig awaiting to be sacrificed

As more and more people gathered around the arena where the sacrifice of buffaloes was going to take place and we were too rushed by John to walk up the small hill. Not knowing what to expect we kept our distance. Some guest sat on the rised platforms, whilst others stood closer to where the butchery of buffaloes would soon begun. Children climbed over their parents shoulders or stood on their tip toes hoping to get the closer look.  With their phones and cameras ready they all anticipated to see the blood.

Waiting for the sacrifice to begin

Waiting for the sacrifice to begin

People may want to argue this but Torajans do love their buffaloes (probably mainly because they are big financial assets to their families), yet for western minded person it may be hard to comprehend their reasons behind this custom, however. I have been told that in the recent years less and less buffaloes are sacrificed for smaller ceremonies, for instance blessing the rice barns, and pigs are use instead, but I guess this does not answer the question still.

It was a long and sharp cut that opened the first buffalo’s throat. Disoriented animal kept on rolling its confused eyes and stood still without making a single noise. Expecting to witness some terrifying moans, buffalo dashing around and trying to escape, I looked away, however none of that had happened. The buffalo calmly waited with the blood gasping out its throat and at least 10 minutes passed before the suffering was ended and the beast collapsed. Thankfully with the second sacrifice the things went much quicker. It seemed like on this occasions less suffering was involved and it took minutes for the animal to pass out and hit the ground unconscious. Once dead, both buffaloes were moved aside to make a room for fellow ones to arrive.

A final pat for the buffalo

A final pat for the buffalo

Sacrificed buffaloes seen from far

Sacrificed buffaloes seen from far

Having seen enough blood we walked away from the buffalo arena. Invited by the granddaughter of the deceased we sat down on a raised platform and got served coffee and cake. In return for their hospitality, John handed her a big pack of cigarettes on our behalf.

Family of the deceased and Jojo

Family of the deceased and Jojo

We watched guests arriving and leaving and as more buffaloes were being killed, their meat was cut into pieces getting ready to be distributed across the relatives and villagers. It’s a part of the funeral ceremony to share the meat with others, but more importantly it’s the ‘giving back’ of the animals that plays a crucial role in the festival. Torajans are obliged to offer a buffalo or a pig to family of a deceased and should a death occurred in their family the offering will be returned.

Distribution of the buffalo meat

Distribution of the buffalo meat

Due to the prolonged timings of the funeral ceremony we were unable to stay to the last day when the coffin was being placed in the burial caves. Instead, we visited 3 relatively grand ‘cemetaries’ and the small baby tree grave. Arriving there almost felt like walking into an open grave site. Most of the coffins are located in a cliff graves, but some burial caves are full of new and old coffins, some of which expose the bones of the deceased.

Burial caves in a cliff

Burial caves in a cliff

Beautifully craved coffin

Beautifully craved coffin

Offerings left inside a cave

Offerings left inside a cave

Traditionally Torajan society was categorised by 3 casts, aristocracy, commoners and salves, which was reflected in the burial customs. The higher status of the descendent, the higher location of the cliff grave. Same rule goes for wooden Tau Tau, a lookalikes of the dead person that stands on the balcony of the tomb and represents the dead watching over their remains.

Tau Tau

Tau Tau

These Tau Tau are kept behind metal bars to prevent theft

These Tau Tau are kept behind metal bars to prevent theft

Leg bracelets indicated the high status of the dead

Leg bracelets indicated the high status of the dead

If a child dies before he has started teething and is younger than 6 months, a different burial customs are held. The baby is wrapped in white cloth and buried upside down inside a space in the growing tree, and covered over with a palm fibre door.  The belief is that as the tree begins to heal, the child will become part of the tree.

The baby tree graves

The baby tree graves

Moving away from the subject of death (but not completely, as in Toraja everything seems to be somehow connected), Torajan houses and rice barn are architectural beauties scattered around and dominating over the lush green rice paddies of central Sulawesi.

Made of wood and raised off the ground on stilts, traditional houses are carved and painted with patterns,  buffalo heads and motifs of rosters. The dwelling,  ‘face of the house’ points north-east,  which is associated with Torajan believe in cosmology, where north refers to life-giving waters of the river that passes through the region and south is related the rasing sun.

Many houses have buffalo horns killed at the funerals stack to their front pillars (the more horns, the higher prestige of the family). Inside, the house divided into 3 parts. The north-east part of the house is where the parents sleep, the middle space is dedicated for kitchen use as well as for grandparents and children and the very south-west cabin usually stays unoccupied unless there are visitors staying over or if member of the family passes away, the body is kept in that space.

Traditional Torajan village

Traditional Torajan village

Impressive collection of buffalo horns

Impressive collection of buffalo horns

Opposite a Torajan house, facing south stands a rice barn. Equally beautifully carved, rice barn’s boat shape looking roof is made of golden bamboo pipes. Below the decorative main compartment, where the rice is stored, is most important social space in Torajan village. A platform where people meet, talk and rest. In the past, rice barns were considered to be a serious spaces where no joking was accepted, but I was told that although they still seen as objects of respect, there rules are a bit more relax and having a laugh in the rice barn isn’t as bad.

Construction of a rice barn

Construction of a rice barn

Decorative cravings

Decorative cravings

We both absolutely loved the cravings on the houses and rice barns and were lucky enough to purchase one from an old rice barn that got destroyed during a storm. After a bit of negotiation on the price we got invited for a tea and dessert to our new friends house.

Almost custom made :)

Almost custom made 🙂

Family photo

Family photo

There is so much more to Torajan ways of leaving, rather than the funerals and I was gutted we couldn’t stay longer to experience more of Tana Toraja. But I can just hope that one day we will be back to catch up on anything we had missed!

by Kinga

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