Death is a Picture in Tana Toraja
Toraja is a region in Sulawesi Island, Indonesia that looks like
a picture postcard of Nature's Ideal Home. Terraced rice fields
carpet the ground, limestone cliffs form the walls, and extraordinary
winged, thatched buildings on stilts provide the exotic decor. But
the environment is not the only picturesque part of Torajah. Death
is also colourful, curious and exquisitely arranged.
funeral ceremonies are a social and religious necessity in this
Christian-Animist society because families have to impress the gods
with the importance of the dead. If not, the soul of the dead person
may not be able to enter heaven and will walk the earth instead,
causing trouble for the relatives. Families keep the corpse of their
kin in their strangely shaped three room houses for two or three
years, while they save up for the sumptuous wake.
fond and funky farewell involves the construction of an entirely
new village of bamboo out of town, sometimes with more than a hundred
rooms, in which to entertain thousands of guests for up to seven
days. A life-size effigy of the dead person is also carved - often
topped with the dead one's hair.
Stage One of the event is the transportation of
the red and gold covered coffin, and the effigy, from the relatives'
home to the funeral village. The coffin and effigy are first put
into biers with winged roofs - in the same style as their traditional
houses - which then travel to the party on the shoulders of shouting,
bouncing, jumping, young men. These and other helpers are fueled
by generous quantities of rice, pork, and rice wine drunk from bamboo
In Stage Two guests arrive at the village to pay
their respects to the dead and the living, bringing gifts of live
pigs on bamboo poles or water buffalo if they are affluent. Excitement
is provided by organised buffalo fights or the escape of pigs and
buffalo from captivity, as they run wild through the crowds.
Hundreds of pigs and twenty or more buffalo are killed and eaten
during this phase of the celebration.
buffalo is Torajah's number one status symbol, and some think that
the curious shape of the houses mimics buffalo horns, though others
believe that it is related to the shape of the ships that brought
the original settlers to Indonesia's Sulawesi island. Whatever the
reason, the final resting place of the buffalo horns is on front
pillars that support local houses.
from eating, drinking, and chatting, guests chant and dance hand-in-hand
for hours in a circle around the two biers, a dance that symbolises
the human life cycle and at the same time bids farewell to the dead
is popular Indonesia male pastime, and foreigners are welcome
at this kind of event if they present a carton of cigarettes to
Women, on the other hand, chew tobacco, and large amounts of it
- so much so that dark brown lumps of tobacco can often be seen
protruding grotesquely from their mouths. They are also fond of
chewing the narcotic betel nut.
Stage Three is the last day of the funeral when
the guests carry the biers for two or three kilometres to the
burial site. This will be in a hole cut high in a limestone cliff.
Workers climb a bamboo frame, put the coffin into the hole, seal
it with stone, then traditionally leave the effigy to guard the
body at the entrance to the cave, looking out over the fields
of Tana Toraja.
Unfortunately, in the last few years many effigies have been stolen,
probably for sale to foreign collectors, so these days the effigies
are usually sealed inside the cave with the body.
Nevertheless, there are still many limestone outcrops pocked with
holes and dozens of weird, worn faces staring out.
The poor cannot, of course, afford to pay for these kinds of lavish
celebrations. They make do with small parties, a minimum of one
buffalo , no effigy and coffins left to rot in natural caves.
In some favoured spots piles of bones and skulls testify to the
many years that this method of burial has been used.
Although the bigger funeral ceremonies are a financial disaster
for the families concerned, they play a great part in stabilising
and preserving Indonesia's Torajah society.
The wealthier they are, the more spectacular will be their funeral,
and the more poor people will be employed and fed for several
weeks. The event gives everyone a chance to meet, talk, party
and generally blow off steam with guests from all strata of society,
in a relaxed atmosphere, while at the same time giving the dead
person a rousing send-off and a guaranteed heavenly after-life.
Long live Death in Toraja!
Pictures - Tana Toraja or
for more Indonesia weirdness try: West Papua Pictures - Balim Valley