A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi

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First published 11th February, 2011

Anywhere else, you probably wouldn't spend a full day of your vacation at the funeral of a 100-year-old woman you'd never met. But in the highlands of South Sulawesi, the weddings and funerals of the Torajan people are as much of a draw as the ancient wooden houses, improbable rice terraces, and white water rafting.


In the traditional religion of aluk todolo, or "the way of the ancestors," until a funeral is held, the deceased was considered merely sick, with the body kept at the house. It was the funeral, and the slaughter of as many as 100 water buffalo for a wealthy high-born family, that allowed the deceased to pass on to the afterlife. Although Torajan culture absorbed Christianity in the early 1900's, and then a flood of tourists (and government tourism consultants) in the 1980s, traditional ceremonies still play an important social and spiritual role.


Boy at Toraja

And so, outside Kete Kesu, I watched arriving guests manoeuvre massive black pigs off the roof of a van. They carried them on poles up to a family compound, stopping to pay a tax on each animal at a makeshift government post.

My guide Enos and I followed them into a courtyard. On the left, wooden rice barns on pillars provided shade for respected guests. Along the right ran more barns and the tonkonan, a traditional house decorated with painted carvings and buffalo horns. In the courtyard was a tube-shaped coffin on a platform, and a buffalo tied to a stake. On every structure, including the platform, a Torajan-style roof curved upwards front and back like buffalo horns.


A bull about to be slaughtered at Toraja

The first step was to meet the family. We sat cross-legged in a raised bamboo structure behind the barns and I presented a carton of cigarettes as a token gift. Neighbours brought us coffee, cookies, and a palm sugar snack, and one daughter opened a cloth bag holding the ingredients for chewing betel nut. The offer was largely symbolic and I accepted the alternative of a clove cigarette.

Their mother had died six months before, and the five siblings had organised the funeral quickly. Families often wait a year or two to accumulate funds: a single prime buffalo, such as a male with broad horns and a white head, might cost US$20,000.


Funeral goings on at Toraja

"Let's go," said Enos, "They're starting!" We hurried between the rice barns to the courtyard, where a man in rubber boots approached the buffalo. He expertly cut its throat with a short knife, holding a rope attached to the nose-ring as the animal staggered, fell to its knees, and came to rest on its side.

The massive bulk was covered with palm leaves, attracting a pig that had freed its hind legs from its bindings. As the animal rooted around, Enos muttered that city people just didn't know how to tie a pig properly.


Pensive at Toraja

Soon after, the coffin was carried up a bamboo ladder to the tonkonan balcony. Family members in black walked slowly to the far end of the courtyard to formally receive guests. Groups continued to arrive from around Torajan Land, the pigs they brought hanging on poles, and were escorted in by two children in traditional dress.

Meanwhile, behind the compound knots of men killed some of the pigs, singed their bristles off over open fires, and expertly butchered them. In the courtyard, kids stopped running and laughing long enough to watch as men began to butcher the buffalo as well. Nearby, two more pigs were dispatched with a stab to the heart.


Coffin being lifted at Toraja

We decided it was time to go, but for the guests things were just getting started, with three more days of speeches, feasts, buffalo fights, the slaughter of more animals, and the distribution of meat according to careful rules. Then the funeral party would accompany the coffin to a small mausoleum, an alternative to the graves traditionally cut high into the rock face and marked with wooden statues of the dead.

Ceremonies are common from May to October, after the rainy season and the harvest. Even in the rainy season, over just a few days I witnessed the funeral, a raucous post-ritual cockfight, and a celebration marking a marriage agreement between two families high in the mountains.


Traditional houses, Toraja

To find a ceremony, visitors can ask around in the hub of Rantepao or hire a cultural guide for a fixed price of about 250,000 rupiah a day. They can help you pay your respects to the family and understand the relevant customs, although the most important thing is simply not to block the view of other guests or otherwise get in the way. Guides can also help find local sites of interest (though most are well marked), and lead hikes through nearby rice fields.

Enos the guide can be reached at enostoraja@yahoo.com or (0852) 5572 5432. The town has many guides, but they're in high demand come high season.



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