Tucked away in a small green valley, the people of Tana Toraja interpret their Christian belief in a very open-minded way. Besides regular church service they still practice ancient and very complex rituals around their dead ancestors.
The definition of “dead”
Our guide Yohanis picks us up at our hostel in Rantepao. “You are very lucky! At this time of the year there are many funeral ceremonies.” he says, “Everybody can take holiday during Christmas and New Year’s festivities, so the family can get together easily for a funeral.”
You may wonder how respectful Torajan family members are to die at a convenient time for the whole family. But after a second thought we realize that there must be more to this story. Indeed, Torajans die like you and me: At any age and any time of the year. However, in the Torajan tradition, the funeral can be held months or even years later. Yes…sounds weird… but that is why the funerals can be conveniently scheduled at a date when all family members can attend. Besides being able to get the full family together, there is also a second reason why the funeral ceremonies are not held immediately after the person deceased.
Torajan style funerals costs several ten thousands of Euros. Yes, you read correctly. Several TEN THOUSANDS of EUROS. Rich families may even spend several hundred thousand Euros on the ceremonies. Thus a family may needs additional time to gather the funds for the celebration.
But, the person is dead and the dead do not wait, you think? The surprising answer is: Yes, the dead Torajans DO wait!
How does that work? Well, it is all about the definition of the term “dead”. Once a person is deceased, her body will be conserved via modern or traditional methods, using formalin or special herbal balms. The deceased person is not considered dead, but sick, as long as the funeral has not yet taken place. She will be laid in a bed in a separate room, will receive guests and will be served food from living family members. Visiting a “sick” person is a great honor for the guest.
At the funeral, which is most of the time a pretty happy family get-together, several rituals must be executed before the sick person actually makes the passage into the realm of the dead.
An acoustic journey to a funeral
An interesting article about Indonesian literature cites the poet Goenawan Mohamad saying about his own people: “We Indonesians are more sociable and love a good dose of noise.”
The intense acoustic experience of that day starts when we are picked up in Rantepao by our nice driver in a rattly old 4WD. May the happy honking begin! Once we have left the crowded streets behind we find ourselves on red dirt tracks. The driver replaces the honking with sweet Indonesian melodies blaring from the tiny radio speakers. Our guide Yohanis and the driver chime in cheerfully.
Dark clouds provide us shelter from the burning tropical sun while kindly holding back the rain for the moment. Still they are already mumbling down menaces.
We pass by several traditional villages and cannot get enough of the beautiful Torajan houses called “Tongkonan” (read more about the Tongkonan in our trekking article on Toraja)in between the green rice fields.
As we approach the village where the funeral ceremony is held, the streets get more crowded. Rabid bombard tunes blare out of a cheap beat box: it is the ice-cream seller’s jingle. He has strapped a cool box full of popsicles on his scooter. Several guests in dark or black outfit stand around him chatting and eating a cone.
We jump off the car and walk into a group of traditional houses, along with several other guests, all cheerfully gossiping. We have to stop several times to stand still for a couple of selfies that the curious Torajans love to take together with pale skinned long noses. Indonesians are very fond of their cell phones … and tourists.
About the Torajan funeral
Depending on the wealth of the family, Torajan funeral festivals can last several days.
While poor people from a lower caste are not obliged to prepare great festivities for their deceased, it is considered to be mandatory for wealthy and reputed families from higher castes.
In the first days of a funeral festival, the family of the deceased formally receives the guests, adhering to the following rule: The more, the merrier! Yohanis explains that it is considered to please the spirit of the deceased to see many people at the funeral and a pleased ancestor spirit in turn brings good fortune to the whole family in the future. Especially western faces are welcome, as their appearance is seen as a symbol for the importance of the deceased person. The number of guests during these days easily can sum up to several thousand people!
During the following days, many buffaloes and pigs will be slaughtered, and several rituals performed: The village people sing and dance in their traditional way, a ceremonial master prays and tells stories about the deceased. Wealthy families also often host water buffalo fights on a rice field nearby, where hundreds of people will gather to watch the spectacle (and bet considerable amounts of money on the outcomes of the fights).
The funeral ends with the long procession of the coffin through the village to its final destination: the family grave.
Before these rituals have been completed, the deceased person is not considered dead, but sick: The mood on funerals is therefore festive and cheerful. One of the most important functions of the funeral ceremony is the family getting together. Family bonds are highly valued in the Torajan society. And it works: Torajans come back home from all over the world to participate in their relative’s funerals, they socialize and get introduced to new family members and thus their bonds strengthen.
The second important function of the funeral ceremony is to bring the deceased person safely to “the other side” to join with the ancestors. There they transform into protective ancestor spirits who watch over the family and the village. So it is in everybody’s interest that this passage into the afterlife is successful. That explains the vivid participation of the village people. Another reason may be the free food, betel and booze, too.
The festival terrain
We stand in front of a large dust and mud covered place in the middle of the cluster of Tongkonans, the traditional houses. On the right hand side, we see the dead’s house with the coffin in first floor. On the ground floor stands a picture of the deceased and his wooden statue, a privilege of higher castes. Lower castes must not make a wooden statue of their deceased.
On the left hand side of the dead’s house stands the main house in which the closest family sits and watches over the whole ceremony.
From a smaller hut located on the right hand side of the deceased’s house, the ceremonial master announces new arrivals of guests and comments what is happening on the festival grounds during the whole ceremony with the help of a microphone and loud speakers. For example, he informs everybody about which guest gets which part of the buffalo as a present, who brings which present to the family and when the next buffalo is killed. In between, he prays and tells stories from the deceased person’s life.
On the other side of the place, the smaller rice storing houses offer shelter and seats in the shadows for lots of guests sitting and talking lively.
In a second row all around the place bamboo shelters make additional space and seats for more guests. These shelters have been constructed for the funeral only. They will decay and not be used again after the days of the funeral have passed.
Near the entrance to the village, four wooden pillars with a small roof stand tilted over a muddy brown ground. This is where the buffaloes will be sacrificed.
Straight ahead from the entrance we see the „reception house“. Also especially constructed only for the funeral, this is the place where the traditionally clothed grandchildren will serve food and drink to the waves of newly arriving guests.
In the center of the place stands a small plastic pavilion. Some village men are cutting pieces out of the bodies of the sacrificed buffaloes and pigs here. Two buffalo heads, coverd with a thick layer of black flies lie already on the ground. The whole area is a puddle of blood and the view not for the fainthearted.
The reception ceremony
As we arrive some village men unload a jeep full of living pigs. For transport, the pigs are strapped to an archaic looking bamboo construction. The intensely squeaking animals are laid into the shadows for the moment. They will be transported to the kitchen later. A balloon seller stands at the entrance to the funeral place.
On the main place, village men in purple shirts and black skirts dance, hum and sing in a big circle. Old village women in green dresses provide the rhythm by drumming large bamboo sticks (larger than baseball bats) on a wooden trough. The deep throaty sound of their voices gives us goose bumps.
We take a seat under the rice barns where many other guests are already shaking hands and talking loudly. A fat boar wallows in the mud in front of our seats. The rotund, dirty animal oinks happily.
Then the village people cease to sing and sit down at the side of the place.
At the main house a procession lines up, lead by an old, wrinkly man in black clothes with a wooden scepter in his hands. Behind him follow an almost equally old flute player and a female singer with microphone performing a song. They are followed by countless village people coming from the kitchen. Women carry food trays and men carry big tea pots. They meander through the place and finally make their way to the reception house to serve the meals and drinks to the last wave of guests which has arrived and is seated there.
After the guests in the reception house have finished their meals, the spectacle starts over: Another procession is organizing itself at the entrance to the Tongkonan cluster as a group of new guests has arrived: The procession is lead by three men in traditional war dresses who dance at the front, followed by the principal mourners, the grandchildren in traditional clothes. Behind them follow the new guests that have just arrived. They move slowly to the reception house to be officially received there. Shortly after, they will be served beverages and meals as described above.
Over the cause of the afternoon, this pattern repeats over and over until all guests have been formally received and the crowds start to fade.
The animal offerings
The pigs squeak, howl and cry in panic. Luckily we are saved from seeing them killed as they are slaughtered behind the scenes near the kitchen buildings.
Two water buffaloes are being shown to all the guests before they are tied to one of the wooden pillars and washed before being sacrificed.
After a more or less exact throat cut by a machete, a fountain of blood shoots out of the animal’s throat. As it is a strong male, he does not quickly fall to the ground. In his agony the animal runs wild and it takes several men to keep him more or less under control. A few minutes later his legs give out from under him and he collapses. The blood mixes on the ground with the brown mud. In the background the village people sing rhythmically. Family members murmur and follow the killing closely. Pigs cry in agony. I hear my own blood rushing through my veins. The huge animal releases a last deep snort before his life fades away. I do not watch the second killing, as I feel queasy.
The dead buffalo is tightened to a rope and six men pull him to the slaughtering pavilion, leaving a dark red trail in the mud.
We take a last look around, take some more photos and leave for lunch. Christian eats a buffalo steak. I go for some vegetarian food.
Before we leave, we get a goodbye present: A decent, fresh buffalo rip. Our guide Yohanis explains to us the function of the offerings also in the context of Torajan society. It is custom that each guest receives a piece of an animal that is slaughtered this day. He tells us that he considers it also as “social meat”. We are honored to receive such a prime piece.
Another funeral ceremony in preparation
We visit another Tongkonan group where a funeral ceremony is in preparation.
The old widower, already suffering from dementia and currently in a dangerous mood, throws a huge bamboo pole down the first floor’s balcony of his house. He misses Christian by a hair, luckily! It turns out someone “stole” his flip flops and he got angry when he could not find them.
Also at this place the first buffalo is already cut up.
In two days we will come back, take hundreds more selfies with guests, eat Torajan food and witness more traditional rituals around the ceremony.
For now, we are very tired after this day full of intense impressions. But even in our hotel room the acoustic experience does not find an end. A horrific Karaoke night right outside our room window takes place. The songs are interpreted so “well” that even the Torajan dogs chime in howling.
The buffalo fight
Two days before we have seen some preparations for the ceremony, but as we arrive today, the funeral is in its full flow. Men and women stand hand in hand in the center ground of the Tongkonan cluster and sing in their traditional ways.
Meanwhile, next to a rice field near the ceremonial ground, a number of ice cream sellers and refreshment huts have popped up. Many people, mostly men, are gathering around the rice field. They wait smoking.
A buffalo fight will start soon. As part of the funeral ceremony the buffalo fight is an additional element of showing the deceased’s and his family’s importance to the world.
After a long time of waiting two buffaloes are lead onto the field. Around me the murmuring starts and bundles of money exchange hands: The men are gambling on who will win the fight.
Our impression is that most water buffalos are very peaceful creatures. They want some nice green grass and a puddle of mud…that’s all. To get them involved into a fight, they have to be brought very close to each other and even then the fight often does not start. After some more “motivation” however, they get pissed off enough to fight. If one of the bulls still does not want to fight, he will run away before the fight actually begins and is replaced by another “champion” buffalo.
Once the fight has actually started, it is straightforward: The animals surround each other for some minutes. Then they meet up their heads, lock their horns and try to wrestle the opponent to the ground. Once they made out between themselves who is the stronger bull, the other gallops away. The whole fight takes about 5 to 15 minutes.
In a nutshell, a buffalo fight is far less bloody than I had imagined. I liked it, even though it is kind of a farce given the peaceful character of these animals.
The coffin procession
Now the rain and thunder have started. Another buffalo is sacrificed in the midst of the small ceremonial ground, and we take shelter under the roofs of one Tongkonan in order to eat some traditional bamboo-cooked rice with pork.
After the intense prayers of the ceremonial master the strongest rain has ceased and men are preparing for the long procession of the deceased person’s body through the village.
The dead person’s wooden effigy is taken off its festival seating and carried to the front of the procession.
A colorfully decorated bamboo construction will hold the coffin. Some village helpers are currently heaving it off the first story of the traditional house. Once the coffin is placed in the carrying construction many men gather around it to take it up their shoulders. The son of the deceased lady sits down cheerfully on top of the construction and will be carried away with his deceased mother under a lot of cheering and screaming from the people around.
Attached to the coffin construction is a 30 meter long, broad red tissue. Under this tissue the women row up and follow the procession under cheers.
The procession takes an hour in which the coffin is transported through the village and then back to the festival grounds.
Just before the procession is back on the grounds, it stops in the streets and gets really crazy: The men put the bamboo construction with the coffin down on the street. Then they start pulling and tearing on the construction under loud and strong chants, and the whole construction with coffin shakes wildly. In a savage frenzy and a loud noise from the crowd around the men turn the coffin round and round and round, while the son of the deceased person still sits on top.
All of this is supposed to symbolize the strength of the family and the village society.
Once back between the traditional houses, the exhausted village men who helped carrying the coffin, get free beer and cigarettes and continue to celebrate loudly.
We take shelter under one roof again, too, and continue talking to the many guests until late.
- A beautiful travel report from Toraja
- TED talk with interesting anthropological insights on death and life
- A thorough National Geographic article on Torajan death rituals
- Indonesia Country Overview (BBC)
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