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Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

Written on: Tuesday May 27th, 2008

A journal entry from: Southeast Asian Adventures!

We just came back from Tana Toraja, a region that is 9 hrs north of
Makassar. Tana Toraja was AMAZING!! Definitely one of the highlights
of this entire trip. The tourist attraction in Tana Toraja is the
entire culture, which revolves around farming (rice, cocoa and
coffee), and death. That sounds morbid, but it really isn't. The
Torajan religion is based on ancestral belief, meaning they believe
in life after death, which is supposed to be paradise, and that they can still communicate with those who have died. For this reason, Torajans bury their dead with items they can use in the after life - water, cigarettes, clothes, and other valuable things. To prevent pillaging of graves, the dead are not buried in the
ground; instead they are buried in coffins in the side of cliffs - it's someone's job to chisel the cliff face into a large square where the coffin will fit into.

They make effigies of the dead (wooden statues made to look like the deceased) and place them in front of the coffins to guard the grave. When the grave is complete, it looks like there's a balcony in the cliffside with statues of people staring out at you. It's so neat! Our first day in Tana Toraja we took a tour
around to different small villages and to sites where we could view these graves.

When someone dies in Tana Toraja, they immediately hold a small
funeral ceremony. Then, months or even years later (however long it
takes for the entire family to gather), they hold a huge funeral
ceremony, which seems more like a celebration. On our 2nd day in Tana
Toraja we were able to attend a funeral ceremony, and it was
definitely the most fascinating cultural event I've ever witnessed.
At the funeral we went to there were about 700 guests on the first
day. The family who is holding the funeral builds temporary houses in
the special field where the ceremony is held, and the guests sit in
these open houses for the funeral. We were served food, tea and
coffee. The highly decorated coffin is carried down to the field by
family members, who are dancing, singing and ululating while carrying
the coffin, sometimes dropping it in their excitement! Dancers in
elaborate Torajan costumes lead the funeral procession as they parade
the coffin around the field, dancing and singing the entire time.
After the coffin is brought out, the master of ceremonies speaks for a
while about the traditions, etc (none of which we could understand, of
course). Then guests come bearing gifts for the family - there was a
procession of people carrying huge pigs for the family. The most
prestigious gift that can be given is buffalo, as they are the sacred
animal in Torajan culture. Buffalos are a sign of wealth and
leadership, so all Torajans want to have as many buffalo as possible.
The family hosting this funeral must have received over 100 pigs while
we were there!

Then the slaughtering begins. We didn't witness any slaughtering, but
we could certainly hear it happening. 1 buffalo was slaughtered before
we got there, and they were butchering it in the field. The family
then divides the meat up between guests and family. Same thing happens
with the pigs.

The last event of the day was the buffalo fight. This was crazy! A
human ring formed around the 2 buffalo that were to fight, and then
the gambling began. Our guide made sure I was perched up in one of the
temporary houses, as the fights can be dangerous, seeing how there's nothing between the angry buffalo and the audience. It was very exciting to see! The 2 buffalo approached each other and started fighting, while the crowd went wild, screaming and shouting and placing their bets. The buffalo would sometimes run towards the audience and people would run chaotically in ever direction. Alan was
right in there, taking pictures and running from the buffalo. So neat.

All of the people at the funeral were really friendly too. We brought sugar, tea and cigarettes for the family hosting the funeral, and were met with many smiles and some hilarious kids.

Our final day in Tana Toraja we went on a trek through 6 different tiny villages through rice fields. It was tough going in flip-flops, but definitely worth it. We saw many of the traditional Torajan houses, which are still widely used today - they are built up on stilts and the roof is boat shaped in memory of the ancestors who arrived in Sulawesi by boat. Some of the villages we trekked through had never seen tourists before, but they were all so nice. My favourite was the first village we reached. There was coffee, cocoa and rice laid out on the ground to
dry in the village, and a group of old women and kids were hanging out by the houses. They wanted us to take their photos, and laughed hysterically when we showed them the pictures. So cute!

So that's almost an entire novel about Tana Toraja!