Our contributor Taufan Wijaya took a trip to Toraja and revealed its unique ritual to respect the dead...
Rainfall made the soil damp and the scent of wet earth lingered in the air. Green paddy fields pleased my eyes. A number of Tongkonan (Toraja traditional houses) adorned the landscape with their exquisite ornaments and buffalo horns. This is the beautiful scenery that welcomed me in Toraja, an area in South Sulawesi that is also known as the “Land of The Heavenly Kings.”
Toraja is famous for the way local people see death differently than any other region in the Indonesian archipelago. The Torajan burial sites, mummification and rituals for the dead are the most unique and attractive traditions for visitors to see. However, a friend of mine told me that Toraja is more than all that. It didn’t take me long to agree with him once I arrived there.
Livestock For Life
My journey in Toraja started at Bolu Traditional Market at Rantepao in North Toraja. The market is known as a livestock market. It is the center of buffalo exchange for the entire Torajan people. Here, buffaloes are valued by their shape, size, color, and horns. The special buffaloes are saleko and bonga that have a combination of white and black color. The price of these dual-color buffaloes is about ten times higher than regular black buffalo of the same size.
There are hundreds of buffaloes in the market. The government provides a special holding lot for the herd. Men wearing sarongs with a cigarette between their fingers were roaming around in the market, some are selling their stocks while others are checking out to buy some. Some colorful painted kiosks stand along the buffalo market selling daily needs and meals. On the other side of the market is the pig market which is filled with the sound of their squeals as they are transferred from one vehicle to another. It is as if they know that destiny awaits them.
It is heart breaking to see these animal transactions, but livestock plays an important part in the Torajan life. Buffaloes have a crucial role in the tradition – they often become an offering in Rambu Tuka and Rambu Solo’, a funeral ritual where family and relatives take the body or the remains of the deceased to their last resting place like a grave, a cave or a silo. The Torajans believe that the dead people are in a state of illness, and they will become eternal beings when they are taken to their last resting place. Rambu Solo’ ritual costs a lot of money, thus it can take months to years for a family to hold this ritual after a family member passes away.
Story of the Dead
In Toraja, a buffalo can also be used as a token to pay a debt or other transaction. Buffaloes also symbolize hierarchy, and that’s why many of the Tongkonan have buffalo’s horns. The more horns they have, the higher position they sit in the society.
Tongkonan is a boat-shaped traditional Toraja house made of wood and bamboo. Tongkonan is derived from “tongkon” which means “to sit together.” It is actually more like a private complex consisting of a main building, several smaller ones for family members and a rice storage building which is the smallest one. The main building is where the body of the deceased is kept before the Rambu Solo’ burial ceremony is held. It can be easily recognized by the stack of horns at the center of the house. Members living in one complex are of the same ancestor line from their grandmother’s side (Nene’) – the Torajan people practice matriarchy. Each Tongkonan is beautifully painted in red, black and orange, and decorated with carvings. This iconic structure is also often applied to government and public building design, like those in Rantepao.
I visited a Tongkonan in Kete Kesu, one of the best well-known Tongkonan with a burial sites, situated on a hill. Kete Kesu complex is nestled away from the main road, and is surrounded by rice fields that makes the air so fresh and clear. The buildings have a grand structure, and the thatched-roofs have vines sprawling on them. There is also a small museum where travelers can learn the history of Toraja, including how they used to live and dress in the past.
From the entrance, we can already see that Kete Kesu is very well maintained. The area is clean with cobbled pavement for easy access. The burial site at the back of Kete Kesu Tongkonan belongs to family members from one lineage. There are also several permanent silos there, which are homes for the deceased. Some have a photo of the deceased hung in front of the silo, while others have a memorial monument that represents the deceased. Next to these houses or silos, stands a mountain where the remains of the deceased lie. Skulls are neatly organized and stacked. People often leave some drinks and cigarettes near these remains, perhaps to show respect as they believe the deceased continue on living. The area is quite humid, so some of the coffins are covered in mold.
Most burial sites in Toraja are well preserved – and several have souvenir shops for visitors. Some of the most interesting sites are Londa where coffins are planted in caves and Lemo where coffins are kept within the mountain walls. There are many more burial sites in Toraja, but the few I mentioned here are easy to access and remarkable to see for travelers who have limited time.
Having seen enough of the burial sites, next on my agenda is to find some tenun (traditional fabric) in Galugu in the north of Rantepao. Here, the weavers are middle-aged mothers who work in their workshop which is also their showroom. At the end of my trip, I visited the statue of Jesus at Buntu Burake, which somewhat looks like Christ the Redeemer in Brazil. He stands in glory with His hands wide open. I was pretty lucky to get the chance to see this statue because by early January 2017 this site is closed to the public until further notice due to infrastructure development – which is much needed, as I found it quite challenging to drive up the hill through the rocky road.
For me personally, a trip to Toraja is a cultural journey that imprints many memories in my mind. Its traditions, customs and culture are so unique to see from up close, especially the way the Torajan people prepare for death and respect the dead. To modern people it may seem odd, if not unconventional, but perhaps it is just a different perspective or approach about life and death from a different culture, which actually makes Indonesian culture so rich.
Contributor : Taufan Wijaya
Magazine issue > Beyond Bali