Saturday, October 8, 2011

Our Visit to Tana Toraja

From Wokatobi we made our way to the old city of Makassar on the southwest corner of Sulawesi.  While there we took a three day trip to the highland region where the people known as Tana Toraja live.  This post is all about that trip.  I am sure I’ve been far too verbose – but I really enjoyed the trip and could have written far more.

Like proper, pukka chappies on safari, we took a driver and a guide – having first appointed a guard for the boat (... and just in case of accident we always took our Mum).  Much of the first and last days were spent driving to and from the highlands, although we made frequent stops along the way to look at points of interest.

The Torajan people are migrants to Indonesia, arriving during the Han dynasty sometime between 2500 and 5000 BC.  There are three main aspects of the Tana Torajan culture of specific interest to tourists:
  • the very distinctive architecture of their traditional houses
  • their distinctive crafts available for sale, including weaving and carving products,  and
  • the elaborate death rituals traditionally observed.

The traditional Torajan house, called a tongkonan, is suggestive of an upturned boat hull, with a layered bamboo roof, low in the centre and sweeping skywards at each end, and featuring elaborately decorated wood work.  Precisely orientated with respect to the sun, tongkonan are first thought to have hung from jungle trees, high up the mountains (this might explain their distinctive roof form as the bottom of a catenary).  We have been told that with the coming of Dutch missionaries the people were forced to settle in the lower valleys and place their houses upon the ground.

the ancient tongkonan (on the left), and rice barns (on the right - basically smaller versions of tongkonan) seen in the village of Palawa

our fantastic guide Rusli, explaining some of the symbology embedded in these structures

some of the elaborate detailing and ornamentation of the tongkonan and rice barns

Crafts include beautiful woven textiles using a variety of natural fibres and elaborate carvings, such as tau-tau (see later explanation).

Torajan artisans at work

Death Rituals
The death rituals of the Torajan people are complex, and have evolved over time, particularly one assumes, under the influence of the Dutch Christian missionaries.  Many rituals and beliefs of the animist Torajans were disallowed by the missionaries, but the death rituals were permitted to continue and have been incorporated within church practice.

When a person dies the body is laid in state in a specific corner of the house (NW corner??).  The body is embalmed and contemporary practice is to inject it with formalin.  It is then wrapped in many layers of cloth to keep odor to a minimum.  The body may lay in state for ten or twenty years while family members decide when/how to hold the funeral service ( a committee is established) and to save up the necessary cash.  During this time the body is treated as still alive, but perhaps sick and each day is offered food/drink/cigarettes and the like.  A white flag flying outside the house signifies a body in state.

Final interment may take place in one of three places:
  • in a natural cave formation – the cheapest form of funeral,
  • in a liang pa or hollowed out artificial cave, carved out of native rock, sometimes high upon a cliff face, or
  • in a patane or purpose built concrete shrine building.

In ancient times the body was placed in a wooden coffin and hung from an overhanging cliff (erong).  We were told this system dates from the 11-12 century and erong can still be seen at selected sites.

coffins hung from cliff overhangs (erong) at Londa

cave interment at Londa

liang pa or purpose made interment cave

a concrete tomb or patane

The point of a funeral is to send the spirit of the deceased to the spirit world (now heaven?!!).  The higher a corpse is interred the quicker the ascent.  Hence the interment of nobles very high up on cliff faces.  The spirit may also continue to inhabit a tau-tau (a carved effigy of the deceased), placed here on earth, although it is unclear whether this practice still continues.  If proper custom is observed the tau-tau will look out over the village and will bring blessings to the direct family and the broader village.  Coffins, liang pa, patane and tau-tau are all actively maintained by the deceased’s family and offerings are frequently made of food, cigarettes and the like.

even coffin-less ancients are honoured with offerings

 the enigmatic tau-tau at Londa, looking, for all the world, like box seat occupants at the opera

tau-tau and liang-pa at Lemo

cliff details, Lemo

 The price of a funeral varies enormously.  The funeral proceedings may span 3 weeks or a month with a multitude of guests, speeches, eating and drinking.  These are important social occasions and often courtships take place at funerals. Central to the ceremony is the offering of buffaloes and pigs and the drinking of a strong spirit prepared from palm wine.  Spotted buffalo are the most highly prized and are very expensive to buy.  Many of the beasts are slaughtered during the ceremony and eaten by the assembled family/guests (we understand it can get very gory).  The buffalo are believed to assist carry the deceased on their passage to the spiritual world.  A big funeral my involve the direct family offering upwards of 300 beasts – although nowhere near all are slaughtered.

being central to their death rituals buffaloes, including the prized spotted buffaloe are reared with the utmost care by the Torajans

According to our guide buffalo surplus to the ceremony are offered up for auction within the community.  The money collected becomes a direct social dividend to the broader community, being dedicated towards the construction of things like a new church, school, bridge or some other community need.

Our Itinerary
We stayed two nights in the town of Rantepao, in the heart of Tana Toraja country.  From here we went to various sites obviously developed for tourists, each with many art, artisan and trinket sellers competitively offering their wares.  We have been told that many of these sites have been inscribed on UNESCOs World Heritage List.

like so many Indonesians, our great driver Rul really took a shine to Zeke and Nina

Places visited included:
  • the village of Palawa where we saw very old tongkonan (houses) and rice barns that are thought to date from 1600 AD, although they have been continuously maintained from that time.  
  • the village of Sa’dan, which we were told was the centre of Torajan weaving.  
  • Batu Tumonga (1300metres ASL), a hill top ascent high over the main valley.  On the ascent we passed through many small Torajan villages, past beautiful terraced rice paddies, grazing buffalo, coffee, clove, palm and cocoa plantations.  We saw many liang pa and patane.
  • Londa, a natural cave and cliff overhang site featuring tau-tau, erong and liang pa.
  • Lemo, a cliff overhang site with many tau-tau and liang pa.

rice paddies, , churches, buffaloe, tongkanan, liang pa and patane combine to create the unique Torajan landscapes

a unique cultural landscape that somehow continues to survive and reaffirm itself into the 21st century

Our visit to Toraja Land remains an important highlight of our time in Indonesia.

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