“It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens” – Woody Allen. Death can be scary, death can be a relief, death can be sad, death can be sudden but I never experienced it as being the main focus of somebody’s life.
When we landed in Makassar on Sulawesi island, we found a night bus to Rantepao, located in the Tana Toraja. After we found (again by chance) a cute cottage to stay, we took a well deserved nap. Night buses can be great but they can also be exhausting. It didn’t help our beauty sleep to have our driver play loud music for 7 hours. Once we caught up on some sleep, we were ready to talk about death, spend time with death and learn more about the Torajan traditions. A guide, living next to our cottage, came over, smiling and bluntly asked: “do you want to go to a funeral? A powerful woman’s funerals are taking place this week. I could take you there”. Anywhere else in the world, I would have looked at him like he was a mad man. However not in Tana Toraja, over here, death isn’t taboo like it could be in Switzerland and France and for the Torajans, strongly attached to their traditions, death is not an occasion for sorrow but a celebration. A funeral marks a family’s status: the wealthier you are, the longer the funeral will last, the more guests will come over, the more Buffaloes and pigs you will sacrifice.
As much as we were intrigued and wanted to soak the local traditions up, the sacrifices worried us. Luckily when we arrived, the first buffalo had already been sacrificed. For this funeral, our guide estimated that 10 to 15 buffalos and 100 pigs would be slaughtered. As animists, the Torajans believe that the soul of the sacrificed animal will carry the soul of the deceased to Puya, a second life. It sounded insane to us that so many animals would be killed within a day. Many people had come to attend day #2 of the funeral and pigs and water buffalos kept being brought in. The sound of the hundreds of distressed pigs was very overwhelming and we were grateful to be taken to a tent where some relatives invited to join them for tea and biscuits. Slightly away from the action, the family told us about Cornelia, the deceased. She had passed away 6 months ago but according to the Torajan believes, she was still alive, simply sick. Her death would be final once the funeral was complete. She had been embalmed, wrapped in cloth and kept in their tongkonan (their traditional house). This belief is combined with a practical and financial aspect: a funeral is expensive and the family must gather the funds before the burying ritual can happen.
As the sacrifices were about to start again, we moved on to go ahead our exploration into the Torajan culture. From Rantepao, it was easy to explore the south on day #1 and the north the following day. Our guide took us first to Suaya, a cliff grave, exclusively used to bury royals. As the royal family of Sangalla strictly kept the site for themselves, only 50 wooden effigies, known as Tau-tau, could be found on the balconies. Every effigy was placed on the balcony after a body was buried. Located among rice fields, the site was less impressive than what we expected but it was an interesting first introduction to the Torajan burial traditions. We jumped on our scooter and headed next to Tampangallo, a burial site with hanging graves in a natural cave. The place was quite spooky, less touristy than Londa, we were the only ones to visit the cave. Coffins had been placed on wooden frames but with the time, wood disintegrated and a stack of skulls now covers the floor. While leaving the site, we bumped into a villager who clearly was afraid of the cave. Our guide translated for us that this man was asking us whether we were scared. I laughed until I realized that this man was serious: he believed that spirits were haunting Tampangallo. After we assured him that we were fine, we left for Kambira, a (live growing) tree burial site. It was for me quite emotional, mostly because the deceased were only babies (who haven’t teethed yet and therefore still pure – another Torajan belief). Once the baby is placed inside, the grave is covered with fibres of the palm tree bark. Over the years, the baby blends in with the tree and the grave slowly disappears. It was a relief to leave the site and visit the village (finally something not related to death!) next to it. The tongkonans have a very special roof looking like a reversed boat and are always built with three rooms. The buffalo horns on the front of the house mean that funerals already took place.
Day #2 was also focused on death but this time in the north of Rantepao. We had rented a scooter for two days so we decided to go on a road trip, without a guide. As we somehow got lost (or took a scenic detour, as M put it) and after crashing a village party, we bumped into our Dutch neighbors. The 4 of us headed to Bori’, a burial site with graves in granite boulders and ancient megaliths. The latter, called by Torajan simbuang batu, were erected over the centuries and reflect the families’ status: the higher, the better! Who said the size doesn’t matter? It was one of my favorite sites. While in Bori’, we found a tree with a few baby graves but this village seemed to have less infantile deaths, which made us feel much better. The next site, Lo’ko’ Mata, was also a burial site with boulder. Surrounded by a few mausoleums, the site was under construction as a grave was being dug inside the boulder. On the way to Batutumonga, which was supposed to offer a lovely view over the valley and surrounding mountains, we stopped at a “warung” on the side of the road. The view was absolutely stunning and after so many hours spent with death, it felt delightful to sit there and look at the peaceful scenery. Batutumonga was ridiculously touristy, four buses were parked and the view was blocked by trees. The only decent view point was located in a touristy restaurant and we quickly moved on! Our last meeting with death was in Pana where we visited the (supposedly) oldest graves in Sulawesi. The drive back to Rantepao turned into very adventurous ride: the paved became a slippery dirt road and several times, I had to walk down a steep hill. Tana Toraja has culturally been very interesting but it was good to leave death behind and head north to central Sulawesi. Next stop: Tentena…