Surprising Discoveries –
- Funerals are big social events in town, families save for years for funerals, and spend much more on funerals then weddings, and as many as 1,000 people can attend funerals
- Funerals can last for a week
- Sometimes over a hundred pigs and a dozen buffalo can be slaughtered at a funeral
- When a Torajan dies, the person is not considered technically dead until the corpse is laid to rest in either a burial cave or corpse house
- The corpse of a Torajan can be stored in a family’s house for over ten years before it is laid to rest in its final resting spot, during this time, family members still bring the corpse food and talk to it, as if it is alive
- Effigies are created in the image of the deceased and placed in front of their coffin
- The bones of Torajans are scattered around burial caves
- Deceased babies are buried in trees
- Torajans are Christian, yet still practice their centuries-old morbid traditions
- Torajans speak two languages - Indonesian and Toraja-Sa'dan, their local language
- There are roosters everywhere, yet roosters are not owned for eggs or poultry, they are merely
pets, and sometimes used for cock fighting
- Torajans have four categories of house in their village – one from the husband’s family, one from the wife’s, one for corn, and one for corpses
- The roofs of houses are shaped like the boats, to symbolize the boats in which Torajans’ ancestors arrived to Sulawesi
- Families have been living in the area for generations, and typically live in a small village made up of 6-8 traditional houses; each family has a burial cave, or “burial” house, for their deceased
- Any family that has lived in Tana Toraja for generations can build a house in their village area – no land or permits are needed to be purchased
Brief History –
Around 11000 BCE, Asians traveled by boat from north eastern Asia and settled the island of Sulawesi. In the northern mountainous region of Southern Sulawesi, known at Tana Toraja, settlers developed an animist religion, in which they worshiped plants and animals. Their belief system was called Aluk, or The Way.
Islam spread throughout the western Indonesian island of Sumatra and Java due to trade routes with India, and by the end of the 16th century, most people on these islands had converted from Buddhism and Hinduism to Islam. When the Dutch colonized much of what is now Indonesia, they avoided the mountainous Tana Toraja due to difficulty in accessing the region, and instead established trading posts in the southern city of Makassar. As Makassar became increasingly Muslim, the Christian Dutch became concerned, and looked for Indonesians who could potentially convert to Christianity. The polytheistic animists in Tana Toraja became the Dutch's candidates for Christian conversion, and in the 1920s, the Dutch Reformed Church began missionary work in the area. The Dutch imposed high taxes and abolished a profitable slave trade. These actions angered the Torajans, who consequently strongly opposed the Dutch. By 1950, only 10% of the population had converted to Christianity.
Starting in the 1930s, Muslims from the lowlands of Sulawesi began attacking Tana Toraja. Despite the harsh Dutch actions on the Torajans, the Torajans looked to align with the Dutch for protection, which led to some Torajans converting to Christianity. Then, between 1951 and 1965, Southern Sulawesi faced a turbulent period known as the Darul Islam, during which there was a movement for a separatist Islamic state. The 15 years of guerrilla warfare and Torajan resistance led to massive conversions to Christianity. Today, most Torajans are Christian, and Christian Torajans see themselves as Christian first, and practice their Aluk traditions as tradition only.
Prior to the Dutch missionaries, the Torajans practiced specific life rituals and death rituals, and it was a religious law that these rituals be kept separate. They believed that if these two rituals were combined, it might ruin their corpses. During the Dutch missionary period, Christian Torajans were prohibited from attending or performing life rituals, but were permitted to practice their death rituals. Thus, their death rituals are still practiced today, while their life rituals have diminished.
What I Saw and Experienced –
***Warning: This post contains images of slaughtered animals and bound pigs***
Visiting the Torajans was a morbid, disturbing, bloody, hospitable, and delicious experience. The Torajans are a people of contrasts; they embrace life while celebrating death; they practice Christianity while fervently upholding their polytheistic animist rituals; and they connect to the modern world, while still living in traditional villages.
Getting There -
To get to Tana Toraja, you need to take a 9-hour bus ride from Makassar, the main city in Southern Sulawesi. You can either take a day bus or overnight bus. I decided to take an overnight “sleeper” bus. The buses are quite comfortable. I had ample leg room, and the seats recline all the way back. I met a French couple on the us who became my travel companions for the next two days.
We all decided to stay at the same hostel. Upon arrival to the hostel at 7am, we were greeted by a guy who offered his services as a guide – we decided to hire him for the day, which cost all three of us $800 IDR, or $20.50/person, including a driver and van to take us around.
Our first stop was a traditional Torajan village. What stood out to me was the ornate geometric design on the houses. Reds, blacks, and yellows all had symbolic meaning for buffalo, corn, and family.
Also, curiously, in front of each house there was a rooster. Each rooster was shackled by a string tied to its foot, the other side of which was planted in the ground. The guide explained that cock fighting is popular, even though it was illegal. The village we were in was a tourist spot, so it is still unclear to me why there was a rooster in front of each house. Perhaps just for decoration.
We walked past the houses and came to the corpse houses. In front of each house, or in the window, was an effigy of the dead person.
Past these houses, there was a large rock face with a staircase and a cave. This cave was the burial cave for the family of this village for generations. As I looked up, I was startled when I saw a row of skulls. The skulls were resting on an old large wooden box, which was a coffin. There were also wooden coffins attached to the side of the rock facade 15 ft to 20 ft and higher. The guide explained that coffins were elevated to these heights to keep them safe from animals and rival villagers who may try to interfere with their burial site. Over time, these wooden coffins collapsed, emptying out the contents around the cave. Over the years, the family had come and picked up the bones and skulls and placed them around the cave and on the wooden tombs.
The more I looked around, the more skulls and bones I saw. There were also effigies behind bars in the caves, making the atmosphere even creepier. Cigarettes, books, and bottles were laid by bones as donations to the deceased. I was struck by how many skulls and bones were laying around in the open – clearly having been moved around over the years. Coming from western culture, this seems far from what one would consider a “final resting spot”. Exposed to the elements and thousands of tourists each year, it also didn’t seem respectful to the deceased. Yet, to the Torajans I spoke to (I also stayed with a local for a day, which I’ll get to), this was normal and it didn’t faze them at all.
Following the burial caves, we drove to a traditional funeral. Funerals are the biggest social gatherings and most lavish affair in Torajan tradition, and they are held in the center of a family’s village. Families hoard cash for years, sometimes for longer than 10 years, to save up for funerals that can host over 1,000 people. While the family is saving up for a funeral, the corpse of the deceased stays in the family’s house, wrapped in the deceased’s clothes, and is injected with embalming fluid to preserve the body. That means that if it takes a family 10 years to save up for a funeral, the corpse is in their house for ten years.
At these funerals, each line of the family brings pigs and buffalo as gifts and presents these animals in front of the casket. Following the presentation, the animals are killed through a slash to the neck, butchered, and cooked. Family, friends, community, and visitors are all welcome to the funeral, and are given a proper feast. It is customary for guests to bring a gift, such as a carton of cigarettes, to the funeral.
While I knew there would be the slaughter of animals, I was shocked by the volume of animals killed, the treatment of the animals prior to their slaughter, and the haphazard nature in which animal flesh and parts become strewn across the village, while small children ran about, tiptoeing between shackled pigs and heads of buffalo.
When we arrived, I immediately noticed a tied-up pig on the ground. I assumed it was dead, but when I saw its stomach moving, I realized it was alive. After several minutes, the pig began squealing and kicking its feet in a futile attempt to escape. Following the site of this pig, I discovered there were dozens of pigs all laying around the village, with red letters painted on their sides. Our guide explained these letters indicated which part of the family presented the pigs. I saw at least 25 bound pigs.
I initially reacted in a self-righteous way about what I was seeing. In America, we value life much more and wouldn’t treat animals like this is one thought that came to mind. But, I realized, this was a hypocritical thought. In the US, everyone who eats meat, dairy, and egg products, is a patron of factory farming. Factory farms treat animals much worse than the bound pigs I observed. The difference in the US, is that these factory farms are out of site and out of mind. Here in Toraja, they know exactly how the pigs they eat were treated and killed. They are honest with what they eat, and they don’t turn an eye to the butchering process. While I think many would be disturbed by what I saw at these funerals, I think observing scenes such as this enables one to be a more honest consumer of animal products.
We followed our guide to a sitting area, where we took off our shoes and all sat cross-legged on a mat. A man dressed in black then served us coffee, tea, and crackers. We learned that this man was the son of the man who passed. Following the coffee and crackers, bowls of smoked pork, fish, and tofu with anchovies were served. This was a delicious feast! All the while, there was the constant sound of pigs squealing, while a man’s voice bellowed out of a speaker. Our guide said the man was talking about the deceased’s life.
Following the meal, we walked toward the center of the village, walking over dozens of bound squealing pigs. In the center of the village was the coffin, ornately decorated in red and gold, with a canopy that resembled the traditional Torajan house roof. A man then hammered a wooden stake in the ground. This was for the buffalo slaughter. Another man then walked to the stake pulling a buffalo behind him. When he arrived at the stake, he attached the rope, which ran through a septum piercing in the buffalo’s nose, to the stake. He then pet the nose of the buffalo, as if to calm it. And with a sudden and swift gesture, he slashed the throat of the buffalo. The buffalo squealed and sputtered around in a circle, until collapsing on the ground.
After the slaughter, a procession of people lined up behind the coffin and carried a red ribbon above their head. The coffin was picked up and marched out of the village in mirthful song. The coffin was raised and lowered in a movement which reminded me of when a bride and groom are lifted on chairs at a Jewish wedding.
We walked out of the village area and hung out by the street for a while. In multiple areas around the street, there were groups of two to four guys huddled around pig carcasses, smoking them with blow torches, and carving them up. Dogs were running around picking up the scraps of pigs. And the squealing of pigs continued to be a constant buzz in the background.
We left the funeral and drove to the “baby graves”. These graves are for children that don't live longer than a few years. They are buried in a tree – a slice of the tree is removed and the baby corpse is slotted in. The Torajans believed that these babies were pure due to their short life, and that when they were buried in the tree, their soul would continue growing with the tree. This was the one Torajan practice that I found somewhat tolerable and even nicely symbolic.
Following the baby graves, more burial caves, this time from a different village. The scenery when driving around Tana Toraja is gorgeous - there are vast rice paddies that carpet the landscape, buffalo are commonly found grazing, and dragonflies hover above the fields. It’s an area that is teeming with life, which seems to contrast with the morbid caves and funeral ceremonies.
Water Buffalo Market –
The next day we went to the Water Buffalo Market, which is only open once every six days. At this market, people buy livestock with cash. The market was filled with buffalo and pigs! The stench of animal urine and feces was in the air, and the sound of squealing pigs was again a constant auditory backdrop. The market was not the most pleasant place to walk around, to say the least.
Here are some men selling roosters. A guy was making announcements in the microphone about the roosters for sale. I still don’t get why roosters are such popular pets in this town.
We then walked to a food market. This was a fun market where all types of food, meat, and fish were sold.
Staying at a Traditional Village -
I decided to couch surf for a night. Couch surfing is when a traveler stays with a local. The local hosts the traveler for free. The website couchsurfing.com is a network that connects hosts and travelers, and is where I found my host for the stay.
I stayed with a woman named Meyske who is 28, and her grandmother Ruth, who is around 90 (they aren’t sure exactly how old she is, but Ruth believes she was a teenager during the Japanese occupation in the 40s, which puts her close to 90). Meyske explained that her grandmother had eight children, all of whom have moved around Indonesia. After Meyske’s grandfather passed in 2000, (or as Meyske describes it, “My grandfather died in 2000, and the funeral was in 2002”), Ruth was living alone, and so Meyske decided to move in a few years later. They are currently living off her grandfather’s pension. Meyske loves her village and culture and hosts travelers simply because she enjoys it. I also think she earns some money sometimes by giving people tours, but she never once asked me for any money.
The house where they live has the traditional roof, but is not designed as a traditional house. The house was built in 2002 solely for family guests who came to their village for her grandfather’s funeral in 2002. (Meyske mentioned her grandfather’s funeral several times, indicating that it was a pivotal event in her life and the history of her village.) The house has no insulation or screens, and so bugs and mosquitoes fly in and out freely. Their bathroom consists of a traditional Indonesian toilet and a small well with a large cup. To use this toilet and to shower, brush your teeth, etc, you need to scoop water out of the well. The guest accommodation I stayed in was upstairs in a makeshift room whose walls were only about 6 feet tall (the space above the wall connected to the rest of the upstairs attic area), there was a thin bed mat with a mosquito net canopy overhead. I was so tired that I actually slept very well.
That night, Meyske and I went to a small shop across the street and picked up some noodles and sardines. Meyskey then cooked a fantastic spicy Indonesian dinner.
The next morning, I rented a scooter, and Meyske gave me a scooter tour around town. First stop: Another funeral. It was “slaughter day” at this funderal. When we arrived, the slaughtering had already been finished. Now, there was a large area with heaps of freshly killed buffalo meat. In the area, men with large knives and axes were hacking away and cutting up the meat. This was one bloody site. There was a constant sound of machetes hacking through bone and flesh. Random buffalo body parts were everywhere.
Meyske and I then sat down in the food area. I met a woman who is the daughter of the woman whose funeral it was. Then, rice and food were brought out. A long bamboo stick about an inch and a half in diameter and three feet long had pork in it that was smoked in its blood, and was from a pig killer earlier in the day.
Following the funeral, Meyske brought me to her Uncle’s house. Her Uncle’s father had passed away three months earlier, and therefore, this man’s corpse was still in her uncle’s house. She showed me the corpse room.
Before leaving, she pet the layers of clothes and said something in Indonesian.
We then set off to find the original traditional house, which is estimated to be as old as 900 years. After driving some time off the main road, we found it, but it turns out the whole house was getting renovated, and so there wasn’t much to see. Just as we had arrived, though, it started to torrential downpour. We rushed for shelter. Some guys who were in the area saw us and came over. We started chatting with them. It turns out they are members of the family who owns the original house, and so they were telling us all about it. We hung out for a while while it rained. They gave me some traditional palm wine, which is served in a bamboo stick!
Meyske and I then drove back to her place in the rain, and we get drenched!
I was touched by Meyske and Ruth's hospitality. While Ruth didn't speak any English, she was lively and interactive.
Visiting Toraja was an experience that aroused my senses and emotions. Their bloody and celebratory funerals confront death with eyes wide-open, while their unique hospitality accentuates an appreciation of life and connectedness with the world; qualities that perhaps we could use more of in western culture.
This is one experience I highly recommend, if you can stomach the sites, scents, and sounds.