Tag: Toraja


Postcards No.8: living for death

Traditional homes of the Tana Toraja people

As this next postcard instantly reminds me, they were holding a funeral the day I arrived in Tana Toraja; and the corpse was six months dead.

To mark the occasion, two splendid white buffalo were slaughtered (quickly and cleanly), dozens of pigs were butchered (slowly and noisily) and there was hour after hour of singing and dancing by the thousands of mourners gathered in this luscious green valley in the heart of South Sulawesi.

A somewhat heady mix of gore and gaiety.

It was, however, a comparatively small affair. Or so I was assured by an Australian missionary on service in the area.

Only a week before he had been to a funeral where the corpse had been held in waiting for twenty years and the celebrants had killed 80 buffalo and 1000 squealing pigs.

Such happenings are very much part and parcel of daily life in this still reasonably primitive region of Indonesia. Those who venture there will undergo some unique experiences but need to be prepared for a certain rawness; little is toned down or adulterated for sensitive Western stomachs expecting package tour cosseting.

South Sulawesi, previously known as the Celebes, is one of the many islands that combine to form Indonesia and was a fairly late arrival on the tourism scene, especially when compared to places such as its famously popular neighbour, Bali.

Its main attraction is the southern region peopled by the Torajas, believers and followers of animism which was neatly summed up by one local who told me “we live only for death”.

The Torajas’ earthly life is a simple agrarian existence in which wealth is measured not in rupiahs and dollars but in pigs and buffalos.

Death is a joyful event, the beginning of the true life and an occasion demanding great celebrations and immense expenditure. Thus the sacrificing of so many animals. The bigger your funeral, the greater your standing in the community and so an entire life is spent working for one’s final send-off.

Great expense and effort go also into home-building – huge multi-family timber dwellings of high-pitched, high-prowed roofs that use not a single nail in their construction.

Several days of feasting singing and dancing are held on the infrequent occasion of the completion of a new house. One such celebration I saw was a splendidly colourful and ritualistic affair. Celebrants came from kilometre upon kilometre in all directions. They thronged the roads bearing canopied pigs, decorated stretchers borne on villagers’ shoulders, dressed in bright and fantastic attire, singing and dancing non-stop.

The singing of the Torajas is deeply resonant and richly lilting. When I first entered the Tana Toraja – the Land of the Torajas – it was this singing that greeted me. It was dusk. The road led over across a narrow bridge over a deep ravine. Torchlight lit the village ahead. The last rays of the sun was casting a golden glow across hills and valleys.

From the other side of the ravine came this steady, rhythmic bass chant. Rising and falling. Melodic and rich.

The chanting came from as circle of villagers, slowly circling, hands linked, in a shuffling hopping movement. They broke the circle,  inviting me to join them, link hands and try to maintain the intricate motion of their dance.

It was Lost Horizon, Shangri-La and the Welsh valleys all rolled into one, a heady mix of deep male voices, ancient cultures and a treasured inaccessibility. Something that has lingered long in the memory and been greatly vividly revived by a single old postcard.

[A generation or so ago it took twenty-seven hours in a four-wheel drive to get to Tana Toraja from the city of Ujung Padang (formerly Malacca), the main entry point into South Sulawesi.  A sealed road now provides smoother travel and a journey of around ten hours and a once hidden gem is gradually being dragged into the modern world.]