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Tana Toraja – where the living live for their dead and the dead live among the living

 Tana Toraja

Somewhere, far away, among the thousands of islands of Indonesia, there is an island with the profile of a contortionist – Sulawesi. And, as the island looks weird, it is the perfect place to discover a unique culture which many people would regard it as weird… somewhere in the central areas of the island, surrounded by green mountain massives … Welcome to Tana Toraja!

Tana Toraja is a great place blessed by God. Although located in an area that should be hot (it is a few degrees north of the equator), temperatures are never out of the ordinary, on the contrary, there is a constant temperature between 20 and 30 degrees all year round. Differences appear between the rainy and the dry season, but the rains in Tana Toraja are nothing like thePhilippinestyphoons or the Indian monsoon.

The local population have roamed a lot in order to find such a place. Legends say that the Torajans come from somewhere in the Indochina peninsula and that they are brothers to the Dayaks in the neighbouring island of Borneo, but also to the Bataks of the Sumatra island , over 1,000 miles away. Legend says that the Torajans came on water by boat and they managed to climb up the river until they reached the Toraja area. That is why traditional houses have roofs with a curved shape, suggesting boats. Actually, this original architecture (however, closely related with the Batak one inSumatra) rises everywhere in front of you… the wooden houses are imposing, extremely high. The horns of the sacrificed buffalos are strung on the front wall; these buffalos were sacrificed in the Torajan ceremonies – it is obvious that the more horns there are, the richer the family. Although the houses seem huge, their interior is extremely tight. There are only three rooms inside and the ceiling is very high as if people who are three meters tall lived inside. In fact, this was one of my great surprises – even though they seem huge on the outside, their interior is so narrow.

And this is how I got to write the sacred word – buffalo. Buffalos are the main wealth of the Torajans. Buffalos are the currency – a home can cost between 10 and 50 buffalos, and, when they borrow money, even if they receive Indonesian rupees or dollars, the loan is denominated in buffalos – the strongest currency! If you borrow 3,000 Euros (this is about how much a buffalo costs), you will give back 3,500 euros if, at the moment of the money repayment, a buffalo costs 3,500 euros or 2,500 euros if the buffalo depreciates… but there is small hope, since the demand in buffalos is growing. There are also two types of buffalo – common, black buffalos, that cost around 3,000 euros, while a “special” buffalo  – white or spotted, can cost up to 10,000 euros!

OK, but what on earth do the Torajans need so many buffalos for? Well, here comes the key of the problem – you cannot bury your relatives unless you have a ceremony and you cannot have a ceremony unless you sacrifice buffalos! And the funeral ceremony is a fundamental tradition for a society such as the Torajan one.

I can say, without being wrong, that the Torajans live to bury their dead. It is probably the most important thing that a Torajan must do in his/her life – to bury the dead in accordance with traditions. But let us take tradition step by step… Firstly, one has to die. God forgive him/ her, in other areas they bury him/ her, the Hindus burn him/ her, the Zoroastrians leave them to the eagles. Well, in Toraja, the dead is not dead when he dies. He continues to be considered alive, only that he is a little sick. And he/ she is parked in a special room, in the case of traditional houses, the front room, the rest of the family squeezing into the other two rooms. For centuries, the body was embalmed and it lasted, modern science replacing the traditional embalm with formaldehyde! Actually, passing by several houses, it sometimes smelt of formaldehyde, clear evidence that a “sick one” is waiting for his/ her ceremony.

Families need to gather their money and prepare the ceremony. The dead man can wait for one more year or even two or three until the relatives collect the money to bury him in a somewhat pompous ceremony. Do you think that buffalos are the only expense? No way, especially for the ceremony they have to build some pavilions – called ‘coop’ in Torajan. After you have the buffalos and the coops, the guests flow … obviously, they will not come empty-handed, they will come with plenty of live pigs that they will eat on the spot, cakes and many other goodies.

I witnessed such a ceremony, too. Foreign visitors are welcome at funerals, the number of foreigners who attend seems to be a reason of pride for the organizers – anyway, there is not much mourning, the atmosphere being not at all of pain, but rather resembling a party. The dead man came from a rich family, our guide being amazed at how soon the ceremony was held after his death – just three months, apparently a speed record in the area. The dead man was in a coffin in the middle of a canopy over which there hovered a Torajan roof shaped as a boat. At his head, they sang some psalms – most of the Torajans are Protestants – the only religion in the area that has accepted their traditions and then everyone gathered in a dance around the coffin. After the dance, the men grabbed the canopy and, jerking it so hard that they almost woke the dead man up, went down the valley, laughing every time the canopy fell from their hand. They wanted to take him around the village, too, but they gave up … at the entrance in the courtyard with chicken coops they had built a gate which was much too small for a canopy, so they took him round the coops and climbed him atop a tower from where an MC roared the story of his life for endless minutes… Meanwhile, the relatives and the guests were flowing with pigs on their backs, busily squeaking and the buffalos were carried around proudly. The organization was by the book – there were also traditionally dressed hostesses who were dealing with the VIPs.

The climax was when they brought a bull whose neck they slayed in front of the tower with the canopy… The foreigners were horrified, the locals enjoyed it, what is certain is the fact is that everyone photographed or filmed the killing of the poor buffalo… The ceremony was going to last for another three days – the following day came another row of guests who brought pigs and other gifts (buffalos are strictly family business), the third day all the buffalos were sacrificed (the guide told us that there would be around 30 to 40 buffalos, well, a wealthy family) and, the fourth day, they will bury him.

The grave is as sophisticated as is the burial ceremony. Traditionally, adults were buried in niches carved into the rocks. The blue-blooded ones that had killed at least thirty-three buffalos at the ceremony are entitled to a tau-tau, a wooden statue that looks like a boo-boo, reproducing the effigy of the deceased. Nowadays, tombs began to appear, too. Do not think that cemeteries came along, too, tombs are placed everywhere, in the field, around the villages, wherever they could – and they are as big as a house! However, the children who die when they are very young do not have a ceremony, they do not need buffalos… they used to be buried in the trunks of huge trees … trees … I saw some trees, they are still alive, they are green, they grow … and the dead children also live in their living trunks…

How to reach Tana Toraja

It’s not easy to get to Tana Toraja. In case you are in Malaysia or Indonesia, Air Asia, Lion Air and other Indonesian companies will fly you to the town of Makkasar in the south of the Sulawesi island. From here, you also have to go on an eight hour-journey (by car) or ten to twelve hours (by bus) to the town of Rantepao, the capital of the Torajan tourism. Once in Rantepao, you had better get yourself a guide that has some form of transport (generally cars, but we saw some Spanish people on motorcycles). Personally, I spoke to Dodo of Makkasar, a recommendation on the Lonely Planet forum who organized everything flawlessly – 100 EUR transport to Makassar- Rantepao and back, three days around Tana Toraja with a super cool guide and accommodation at a decent hotel in Rantepao. Dodo can be found at the e-mail address: donow77@hotmail.com

When to go in Tana Toraja

Go in summer (July-August). The period coincides with the dry season, in addition, is the season of funerals. More than half of the Torajans work outside the region and that is the holiday season when they return home to the ceremonies of the relatives… In fact, during the period when I was there (mid August), there were a few ceremonies in the region every day.

Indonesian visa

For most of nationalities, visa can be obtained either from an embassy abroad or from the airport on arrival. At the embassy, they ask for a ton of documents, so it’s easier to take it at the airport. I took it at the airport in Denpasar (Bali) and the procedure took less than 5 minutes.

What you eat

In Toraja, Asian food dominates – but, if you want something more European, no problem, you explain  what you want to the waiter or the cook and he you will prepare it … less fusion, but very tasty.

Money

The Indonesian currency is the Indonesian rupee and the strong local currency is the buffalo. You find buffalos in the market once a week in Rantepao, but you can only use them to buy houses and hold ceremonies. If you need rupees, you can find some exchange offices around Rantepao, but also ATMs both in Makkasar and in Rantepao.

Pictures of Tana Toraja:

Tana Toraja

Toraja

Toraja

Toraja

Toraja

Tana Toraja

Tana Toraja

The ceremony

Tana Toraja: hostesses

Hostesses

Tana Toraja ceremony

Ceremony

Tana Toraja: the ceremony

Ceremony

Tana Toraja: the ceremony

Ceremony

Tana Toraja

Ceremony

Tana Toraja

Hostesses

Tana Toraja ceremony

The coffin

Tana Toraja

With the coffin among the coops

Tana Toraja

With the coffin among the coops

Tana Toraja

Tana Toraja

Tana Toraja

Sacrificing the buffalo

Tana Toraja

Hostesses

Tana Toraja: the ceremony

Pigs as gifts

Tana Toraja

Funerary dance

Tana toraja

The pig Market

Tana Toraja: School celebration

School celebration

Tana Toraja: The monument of the coffin carriers

The monument of the coffin carriers

Tana toraja: children

Torajan children

Tana toraja: Tau Tau

Tau Tau

Tana toraja: Tau Tau

Tau Tau

Tana toraja: Tau Tau

Tana toraja: Tau Tau

Tau Tau

Tana Toraja: The tombs of children in the trees

The tombs of children in the trees

Tana Toraja

A burial vault

Tnaa Toraja: burial vault

Burial vault

Tana Toraja

Don’t smoke and live!

Tana Toraja: Traditional village

Traditional village

 

Până acum există "1 comentariu" la acest articol:

  1. Raj says:

    Very Nice and informative , Nice to know what peoples do there .

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