Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tana Toraja Funeral Customs

(4/23/11) After a grueling 10 hour bus ride to Rantepao, arriving in torrential rain, we hoped our trip to the Tana Toraja region of Sulawesi would be live up to expectations.  It did.  The people were incredibly friendly, the scenery beautiful, the houses stunningly carved, and the culture fascinating. Surprisingly, we saw no tourists outside the capital town, but this is likely due to great guiding by Agus Lamba. 
Although most of Sulawesi is muslim, the Toraja practice christianity. But the religion, mixed with animist traditions, is quite unusually colorful, especially regarding funeral practices. 
In many ways, Torajan life revolves around death.  In the village of Leon, we saw amazing cliff graves. 

Nearby, the graves were offerings to the deceased, including a bottle of soda for the afterworld.
The higher sites on the cliff are reserved for Torajans with high status. Many graves are guarded by "Tau Tau", wooden effigies of the deceased, who stand guard. Sadly, many of the carvings have been stolen and unless the grave site is inaccessible, the families now keep the Tau Tau in their homes.

Tau Tau in Leon.

Tau Tau from a grave in Leora

A young village girl poses next to some recently carved Tau Tau.

The limestone mountains of Torajaland contain many caves, which are also used to house the dead.

Inside the caves near Leora, offerings of cigarettes have been placed near ancient corpses.

Our guide, Agus, knew a family whose grandmother had died two months previously and took us to visit. The Toraja may wait months or years before an auspicious time for a funeral. During this period, they keep the preserved body in their home and act as if she were still present. We were lucky to be invited to "meet" the deceased, and in keeping with custom, we asked her permission when it was time to leave.

In preparation for the funeral, scheduled for June, the family was building extensively. Here, a new rice barn was under construction.  The elaborate carvings, traditionally painted, are rife with symbolism.

Also being constructed, were lodgings for up to a thousand guests!  Pictures can't capture the scale of development; it was going to be an outstanding celebration, with relatives returning from as far away as Papua.

On our drive we met a man washing his water buffalo. Although Torajan men typically won't use shampoo on themselves, they take more care of a buffalo (which spends its day wallowing in mud) than a rich American would lavish on his Ferrari.

Buffalo are the principle form of wealth and are sacrificed in number at funerals.  They sell for between $4000-$35000, with albinos bringing top dollar.

Agus also took us to a "small" funeral ceremony; there were many hundreds of guests. As is customary, we brought gifts for the family of the deceased - a carton of premium cigarettes. (Ugh). Other gifts included well over a dozen pigs, each lashed upside down on a bamboo pole, and carried to the celebration by several men. 

Guests wore black and feasted in beautifully decorated buildings, which had been built just for this  day.

A small girl seemed bored by the proceedings, but we found it an amazing glimpse of a different culture, one which I had dreamed of visiting for twenty years.

1 comment:

  1. it's incredibly fascinating to me how belief systems always need to be taken in context. thanks for helping me do that with these Torajans. ~sT