The beautiful lush green landscape of the Toraja Land has cast her charming spell upon us and we are eager to explore the nature of this lovely place in a trekking tour. While trekking, we are again and again reminded of the importance of the death in the Torajan culture by the many outstanding, monolithic graves and funeral caves.
Our way to Battutumonga
We visit the surroundings of Battutumonga, a village which is a good base for day treks in the northern Toraja Land. We take a shared car from Rantepao until halfway to Battutumonga and walk the rest of the way cross-country through rice terraces and fields of the local farmers. Despite the tropical heat, we enjoy very much the breathtakingly beautiful views down into the valley.
The trek through the rice paddies requires some balancing acts to avoid wet feet. Otherwise the trek is easy and relaxed. We pass several small villages and are amazed by the fantastic Torajan architecture:
Torajan architecture: Velvet Underground meets Andy Warhol
Do you know this great Velvet Underground album with the cover by Andy Warhol? The one with the banana? Imagine you are an architect and take the same drugs as Velvet Underground. You then decide to fashion a house to celebrate Warhol’s banana. I think that’s what happened here in Toraja.
Our guide Yohanis explains a bit more. Western anthropologists believe that the banana shaped roofs are actually a remainder of a seafaring nation… thus substitute “banana shaped” by “boat shaped”. As there is a caste system established in Toraja, only men of wealth and political power are allowed to build such Tongkonan, as these houses are called in Toraja. The bigger the roof is, the wealthier the man. Simple, world-famous logic: Size matters.
These stilted houses are ornamented with wooden carvings. An open platform on the first floor shelters the people from the rain, real rooms are found on the second floor. The house is topped by a curved boat shaped roof. The traditional houses do not stand alone. Usually they stand in a cluster of bigger and smaller ones, surrounding an open meadow. The bigger Tongkonans are for the people to live in them. The smaller ones are built around them to store rice and other grains or food.
You can easily recognize the main house, where the patriarch lives, by – of course – the size, but also the more delicate ornaments and the rows buffalo horns decorating the front. The horns are directly linked to the status of the person or family living in the house as they stem from offerings at the village’s funerals. The higher the status and wealth of the family, the more buffalos were slaughtered and the more buffalo horns consequently decorate the home of the family.
Close to one of the villages, we encounter a crowd of locals and soon discover the reason for the gathering: They are meeting up for a cock fighting tournament.
No matter of what you think about this blood sport, cockfighting has a very long tradition. This tradition is even more obvious in Balinese Hinduism. The cockfights were originally practiced for centuries as an ancient religious purification ritual to expel evil spirits. Similar to an animal sacrifice, this ritual is called tabuh rah, which translates to “pouring blood”. While these rituals are still practiced today, the tournament which we encounter is without a religious purpose and focuses on gambling. As in Indonesia all gambling is forbidden by lay since 1981, also the cockfights are illegal, but our guide Yohanis tells us that they are still extremely common and that farmers actually breed a special kind of cock with high stamina to win in these games. The women present in the convention are not gambling, but rather sitting at the side, watching the spectacle from a safe distance and selling instant noodles and beer to the audience.
The cockfights take place in three phases. In the first phase, the owners of the cock investigate the opponents to determine whether they actually want to enter into the fight and see good chances that their cock will be the winner. In this phase, also the gambling begins and both the owners as well as the spectators bet on the competing cocks. If the owners of the cocks decide on a fight, the next phase begins, preparing the cocks for the combat. Razor sharp metal spurs are attached to the cock’s natural spurs. Afterwards the owners of the cocks enter the so called cockpit (this time the fight ground is just a small meadow in between trees) and bring the cocks very close to each other. To start the fight they hit the heads of the cocks against each other which immediately gets the animals aggressive. Now the third phase, the actual fight, begins. First the cocks surround each other before engaging in close combat where the unskilled observer can only see a ball of feathers without being able to distinguish the two animals anymore. Usually, after two or three attacks it is clear which cock is the winner and the other either runs away or lies injured or dead on the ground. As with all blood sports, we are not fond of what we see but observing the intense attention of the crowd on the fights and the strong impressions on their weathered faces is an experience we would not want to miss.
After being witness to three cockfights, we continue our walk through bamboo forests, rice paddies and lush green hills. Besides the intriguing architecture of the village houses, another aspect is unique to the Torajan landscape: Graves are omnipresent, be it as caves, monoliths or trees:
A grave for everyone: the rich, the poor and the babies
Although Torajans are Christians, their understanding of the burial of a person is very different to what a European Christian would have. Instead of cemeteries the Torajans use huge monoliths, caves and (!) trees as graves for their deceased.
As we walk past green hills and rice paddies, we already notice the huge rocks that lie scattered in the landscape. Some of them are used as graves: The wealthy people carve burial caves into the monolithic rocks. We visit a huge stone wall with many caves inside. The graves here are up to 700 years old. Outside on the rocks are small balconies where you can see the wooden effigies of the deceased persons.
Our next stop is a small cave, hidden away in between rice paddies. We have to cross a small bamboo bridge to get there. In the cave, we see up to 500 years old skeletons and half rotted beautifully carved wooden sarcophagus. Some smaller effigies can be found here as well. Here the middle class and less fortunate people have been buried. Yohanis stops to give a small prayer and puts some cigarettes as offerings next to a skull. Until today the Torajans are very caring for the remainders of the deceased and visit the burial places regularly to give small offerings to the spirits.
We were very touched by the baby graves carved into trees. Torajans believe that babies are so innocent that they do not need huge buffalo offerings to get back to the “spirit world”. At least until they grow teeth. The logic behind that is intriguing: As long as the baby has no teeth it cannot speak. Thus it cannot speak false either, and remains innocent. Once it grows a tooth all of this innocence is over.
These innocent toothless dead babies go back to nature’s arms: the Torajans bury them in trees. These trees are on a very holy ground and when they grow and blossom it is a sign that the baby has safely arrived in the “spirit world”.
We finally arrive in Battutumonga for lunch. In the afternoon we hike up the mountain in Battutumonga, a nice and feasible 2 hour ascent. We meet several groups of youngsters up there which are camping close to the summit. If you are traveling with a tent, this could also be a very nice option. The view is spectacular, although we have to wait until the clouds part from up there. Luckily we get back just in time to our nice and very basic farm homestay before the thunderstorm breaks loose.
The next day we continue our tour through the nice green scenery and red dusty roads. When it starts to rain in the late afternoon we hop on the loading area of a passing truck and get back to Rantepao dry before the heavy tropical rains come down. Our minds are filled with images of monolith graves, fighting cocks, laughing children, toothless village elders and surreal stilt houses when we have a late dinner in the city.
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