Tanah Toraja and the Path to Heaven

Life in Preparation of Death

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After diving at Komodo I headed a bit north to a big starfish shaped island named Sulawesi. I flew into the capital, Makassar, which of course is sprawling, ugly, and dirty, just like all big Indonesian cities. I bused out the next morning to hit the nice beaches of Bira and then head up North to Tana Toraja, an area known for its elaborate funeral processions and ceremonies.

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In Torajan, the funerals are often massive, expensive, pre-planned, and scheduled, similar to that of a western wedding. You might be wondering how exactly funerals can be organized in advance? When a member of the Torajan community passes away the body is crudely mummified and stored under the house so the family has time to save up for the funeral. This can take months or even years depending on the size! So its fairly common to have dead grandma chilling in the basement for a while. The belief is that the person isn't really dead until their spirit can ascend to heaven at the funeral, so family members might come down and leave some food or have a chat with their somewhat taciturn relative. 

When the funds are adequate its time to get the show on the road! These funerals are big public events, so theres a lot of preparation involved. The family will set up wooden huts for seating, which of course in traditional torajan style also have the big curved roofs, called Tongkonan. All around Rantepao you can see these unique structures, which for the locals are meant to serve a link to their ancestors, as well as show status. It's a bit odd to see people living in little shacks next to these beautiful Tongkonan, but in Torajan culture the main focus isn't this life, but the next. 

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The funeral ceremonies last for a few days, with the size depending on the status of the person who died. The success of the funeral isn't measured by how many people that attend, but rather how many animals are offered up to the gods, primarily the number of water buffalo. These buffalo are very important to Torajans as it is believed a person's spirt will ride the spirit of a dead buffalo into heaven. Sounds kind of fun, doesn't it?

The funeral we attended was a three day affair. Me and two lovely German girls hired a guide to take us to the ceremony on day two. It's not mandatory to have a guide, but its nice because they introduce you to the family, you give them some small gifts, and they show you a place to sit and drink. Keep in mind the other guests are bringing things like chickens and pigs to slaughter, while we foreigners get off easy with a carton of cigarettes. I suppose its a bit odd being a stranger at a funeral, but the people were very welcoming, and you feel like you're part of the ceremony, not just an outsider looking in. 

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 The scene in the main yard. Men carry off a pig to be slaughtered

The scene in the main yard. Men carry off a pig to be slaughtered

The second day involved a few processions of the deceased's family through the main walkway; the female members are bathed in white make-up, wear special red dresses, and carry around some sort of wooden sword, making them look as if they came straight from the scene of a bad sci-fi movie. But outfits aside, the day was mostly just a lot of pig slaughter. When you walk in you can see pigs lying everywhere lashed to bamboo poles. The poles are used to carry the pigs off when the time comes. They don't make the killings a public spectacle, but just walking around you see plenty of it. They knife the pig, singe off the hair with a huge blowtorch, cut out the internal organs, and chop it all up. Yep, a whole lotta knifing, singeing, and chopping is what I mostly remember from the day. Afterwards the meat will be cooked up and served to the guests. No catering here! The rest of the meat will be distributed to the people of the village and other family members. 

 A man sheathes his sword after killing a pig

A man sheathes his sword after killing a pig

 blowtorching the dead pigs

blowtorching the dead pigs

 A girl from the deceased's family looks on

A girl from the deceased's family looks on

The next morning we came back again to witness the final day of the funeral, the buffalo sacrifices. Giving a water buffalo to the deceased is basically the ultimate gift. A good buffalo is very expensive and can take many years of saving in order to purchase one. The more that are slaughtered, the greater the chance the deceased has of getting to the afterlife. Because ya know if your soul falls off that first buffalo spirit heading to heaven, its nice to have a dozen or so more to catch you! 

When we arrived there were 10 buffalos lined up in the main yard. That amount of buffalos signifies a large funeral, but not huge by any means. There were two men who facilitated the sacrifice, one to hold it still, and another to slash open the throat. Some buffalos would stand in shock as the blood poured out of their neck while others would frantically jump around before collapsing, much to the amusement of many of the guests. Our guide said that while growing up he never felt any remorse for the animals because its all just a normal part of their lives. All the cheers from the crowd definitely cemented that view. We watched about 5 or 6 of the buffalo sacrifices and then decided that we had seen enough carnage for one morning, happy we had eaten beforehand. After all the killing eventually the body of the deceased will be carried to to their tomb, preferably inside a cave, where the body will be laid to rest and the funeral will end. 

I must say, those buffalo slaughters are probably the most gruesome thing I've seen while traveling. Although I guess its important to remember that these buffalos live a free ranging lifestyle and are taken good care of. They're killed quickly, (one wishes it was quicker) and the meat is not laid to waste. So even though its quite shocking to see, I don't think its inhumane or anything like that. I'm going to a couple photos from the ceremony, which are a little graphic, so scroll down at your own risk. The men certainly seem to find a bigger kick out this kind of thing than the women!

 First buffalo goes down

First buffalo goes down

 The  mood is quite jovial as another one bites the dust

The  mood is quite jovial as another one bites the dust