From Makassar we were heading to the heart of Sulawesi, to Tana Toraja. This region lies a good 300 km north of Makassar, which meant a 9 hour bus trip for us. This long time is necesary, because traffic jam, bad and / or small, winding mountain roads keep the speed down, though it is often faster than one would like.
Since we decided to take the day-bus for the trip, to see the countryside, we arrived at Rantepao, the commercial centre of the region, at about 8 pm. There we quickly organised a guide for the following day and a hotel for the night. In this mountain region the nights are cooler (for local standards) so there is no need for A/C.
Tana Toraja is a unique region und the day here was goint to be one of the best on our whole journey so far. The area is surrounded by mountains and this seclusion has helped to remain the culture so unique. The Toraja, who speek their own language, have reached the shores of Sulawesi a long time ago by boat from Indo-China. Other groups that arrived later made them fall back to the mountainous regions, but their traditional houses still look a bit like boats. In the beginning of the 20th century they were converted to Christianity by Dutch missionaries, which still shows in the over 80% of Christians in this region. Nevertheless, some of the old rituals survived, most prominently their funeral ceremony.
When a family member dies, the family saves until they can arrange a great celebration. This celebration can take 1-3 days in the lower and middle class and up to one week in the upper class. During the time up till then, which can take months or even years, the dead (today preserved with formalin, earlier with natural ingredients) stay in the family house.
The funeral ceremony will be attended by family and friends, which can add up to 1000 people for a big ceremony at the upper class. The guests will give buffalos, the status symbol of the Toraja, and pigs to the family as presents. The family then decides, how many animals will be sacrified during the ceremony and how many they will keep or sell. Especially the number of sacrified buffalos is however a symbol for the status of the deceased. The gifts given are carefully written down each time and because the family is afterwards in debt toward those giving the presents, a gift giving circle develops. This can, however, also lead to high financial risks at big celebrations.
We were lucky and had the chance to actually witness such a ceremony of the upper class for a few hours on its second day. For this purpose, they had build and decorated some kind of houses over the last few months. The open rooms within, without walls, from where you can watch the activities have numbers, so that guests can easily find their assigned place and the host knows, where each guest is located.
At our arrival there were still to buffalo heads from the previous day to be seen in the centre. Moreover the “butchering place” was busy with handling the pigs, that had not had the luck to be kept or sold. Here small groups of men would, under the eyes of guests and children, first literally stab the pig and afterwards burn of the hair with a flametorch, before gutting them and cutting them to smaller pieces. Especially the later is by itself nothing special, but in the context of a funeral celebration with a coffin nearby something completely new for us. In addition this work did not seem to disturb any of the guests from eating and we as well liked the food that was offered. (Have a look at these videos.)
Pigs on the central square
Gutting the pigs
But how did we as tourist got offered something to eat? Well, it did not seem unusual, that also strangers would give their condolescens, bring a present (in our case cigarrettes were explained to us as costumary) and afterwards get invited to coffee or in our case rice, buffalo curry, pork satay and fish. Since it was explained to us that tasting everything and eating a lot is a sign of respect for the host, we were glad we got served such tasty dishes.
Our eventful day in Tana Toraja included, however, not just the funeral ceremony, which is the biggest of the 4 remaining ceremonies from Toraja tradition (the others are house opening, wedding and thanksgiving). In addition we have visited three burial sites, to get an insight into the 6 different burial methods of the Toraja. These are stone grave, hanging grave, house grave, natural grave (cave), tree grave and earth grave (graveyard).
In one of the most famous burial sites at Lemo (9 km south of Rantepao), we could see impressive stone graves, that each belong to one local family. Here, we also saw the first “tau tau”, wooden figures resembling the deceased, that stand on a balcony in the stone wall.
In Londa (4 km south) we visited cave graves at the foot of a cliff in which coffins and sculls are buried. There was a mix of old white sculls of more than 100 years age and coffins as recent as 2010.
Another most interesting site was Ke’te Kesu (4 km south), where besides a village with traditional houses you can see graves hanging in the rock wall behind the village, though most of some have already fallen down due to their age. In this place we also encountered the modern version of the house grave (from concrete).
Eventually we finished this eventful day by dinner in a small restaurant for locals, with buffalo (for me) and eel (for Natalia) in black sauce and a beer. We also used the opportunity to talk a bit longer with our great guide Manda about the local traditions.
Well fed, we took the night-bus back to Makassar to spend another evening with Martin, before travelling on to our Christmas destination, the island of Lembongan.
More pictures are as usual available on my travel blog.