15 August 2009

Tana Toraja, Sulawesi: A Sacrifice....or Two.

(This week I am back in Vancouver for a family emergency - S is still touring Indonesia with the ever pleasant Bran. The following is a guest blog by S about his visit to Tana Toraja.)

Traditional Toraja grave site - behind are ribbon displays that look as though they're congratulating the class of 1987...

Sulawesi is a dream for many travelers. Without going as far as to say that it has something for everyone, it does have an exciting mix of established tourist trails and sparsely inhabited, difficult to reach regions (and consequently, regions free of the tourist parade) that have amazing beaches, dive sites, river rapids -- pretty much a bountiful variety of natural attractions. It's not all trees and water, though. The highlight of the island for culture vultures like us is undoubtedly Tana Toraja, the home of some of the most unique traditional arts and ceremonies still practiced in the world today.

Traditional Toraja Houses

Upon entering the region, the divergent cultural heritage from the rest of the island (and Indonesia proper) becomes immediately apparent in the architectural stylings. Torajan people live in houses that have roofs resembling boats, and these houses are everywhere. They are used in the construction of everything from rice barns and traditional family homes to municipal buildings and banks. The building style is extremely varied. The more traditional varieties are made of wood and sod, which creates the effect of a house that looks partially alive, and the modern ones use a variety of materials including concrete and aluminum siding. As a tourist it's easy to disparage the more modern incarnations, but considering that this area is drenched in rain most of the year, aluminum siding is likely the most functional building material, although it's good that the others are still around.

A closer look at one of the houses. The main beam is decorated with bull horns -- a sign of wealth.

It is thought that they've been built in this shape to pay homage to the Buffalo, and it's easy to see how this lazy animal attained its status. The buffalo is everywhere in Toraja - it tills the rice patties, it is used as a form of currency, and it is used for meat. The buffalo's image decorates everything and it is said that certain kinds of buffalos, specifically albino ones, can cost upwards of 8-10,000 USD. The reason for the hefty price is their symbolic importance in Torajan death ceremonies, which are probably the biggest reasons that tourists make the trek from Java out here.

I wonder if Torajan ladies gossip about buffaloes, like "Look at the albino buffalo - what do you think they're trying to prove next door?!"

Torajan death rituals are incredibly elaborate. After a family member dies, there will be a brief mourning ceremony held within the week. Sometime after that, anywhere from a few months to a few years, the family will hold a huge funeral with dancing, hundreds of guests, banquets will be held. During that span between funerals, the body will be kept in the house and treated as though they are a living member of the family (and given that they are likely elders, one is expected to act as one would towards one's elders at home - asking permission to sit, leave, etc.). When they are finally buried (or more appropriately laid to rest in a coffin -- either in a cave or hung from a beam above a cave and left to rot), an effigy of the living is placed somewhere in the family home or at the grave site on a balcony, or in the case below, built into the door.

I think this guy looks like Jerry Seinfeld.
(Editor Violet's Note - Agreed, S.....)

We were fortunate enough to get invited to one of the funerals, although this wasn't very hard. Provided it's the dry season (May - August) any tourist in the main town will invariably get approached by a tout at their hotel, walking down the street, or when reaching for the ketchup at a local restaurant and get invited to a funeral that's going on. Apart from bringing a gift (cigarettes, condensed milk) and wearing dark clothing, there aren't really too many rules about funeral etiquette, at least compared to the rituals at home. When we were there, the family came and chatted with us, some old ladies offered us food and coffee, and we were made to feel welcome. Fortunately we didn't get any 'honored guest' treatment, which can be awkward as an outsider. It bears very little in common with a Western-style funeral. There's food, drink (palm wine), music, dancing, animal sacrifices, which is more like a Winnipeg or Vancouver block party (okay, so there are no animal sacrifices... in Vancouver.....)

Funeral goers from the rear -- this was the only photo I really got of the guests without dead pigs in the frame.

While being an interesting experience, one thing that's slightly difficult for a couple of Canadian vegetarians was the constant parade of animal sacrifice. The Torajan people believe that one's possessions go with them into the next life and that includes livestock, so the final days of the funeral are a bloodbath. The number of animals killed while we were there was probably around 20 or 30, and the screeches of pigs became deafening at various points. I don't pretend that this is more inhumane than the way we treat livestock at home, but the reality of it is rarely a part of daily life in Canada, but after Brandon got pig's blood on him we decided it was time to go.

Far more pleasant was just simply trekking around the various sites close to, Rantepao. In a single day we managed to see two Tau Tau sites, coffin caves, hanging graves, and a natural spring, spread over a large area all without having to hire a car. For independent travelers, Tana Toraja is a dream come true. At any time of the day you can easily grab a local Kijang (station wagon with 4wd that's used as public transportation) for the equivalent of 40 Canadian cents to several of the major sites. Or you can grab a motorcycle with driver for slightly more. Most of the sites are close enough together that it's easy enough to walk between them. Although the
trails aren't always marked, there are enough people walking around that you can gesture down the road to ask if you're going the right way. We got lost once -- for five minutes. The look of shock on the faces of the people we passed at a mining site were enough to tell us we were going the wrong way. If we hadn't felt confident enough in finding our way around after the first day, there are a huge number of guides offering their services for bargain basement prices.

There are caves filled with human remains.

What's great about this kind of traveling is that you get a much better impression of how the locals actually live than if you were simply carted between destinations in tourist buses (which most people here opt for). Sometimes on this trip I've felt that some of the cultural experiences we partook in were mostly shams. The 'incense village' in Vietnam is really just a line of stores selling incense produced primarily in factories. The 'floating market' in the Mekong Delta is actually just a polluted canal with touts selling everything from postcards to tacky wooden frogs. In Thailand, a lot of the hilltribe treks that you can go on visit abandoned villages populated by people who are literally bussed in for the day and dressed up in costume. The truth is that most hill tribes in Thailand only dress up for ceremonies and dress in T-Shirts and jeans the rest of the time.

The sky here is incredible. It reminds me a bit of the Canadian prairies.

Here it's different. The rituals of death and life are the same as they've been for hundreds of years. The traditional house making and carving is persistent throughout the region, even in isolated spots where no more than a dozen tourists a week pass through -- in high season! Tourism has been integrated into the traditional way of life -- it has not defined the people, and tourist infrastructure has been built by local business people rather than by foreigners.

Closeup of the Tau Taus.

Babies who die very young are put in this tree. Our guide assures us that only if they don't have teeth are they put in here. I think he was trying to be reassuring.

What's maybe more amazing is that this has all survived imperialism and occupation from both Christian and Muslim groups. Christianity was adopted by the locals, but it never supplanted the traditional beliefs, so what exists today is a strange hybrid. Crosses decorate the grave sites next to effigies and bull horns and jaws (signs of wealth), meanwhile call to prayer is heard across the town every morning. The Boat houses are now made with aluminum siding (some are used to store grain after all) instead of sod, but they're now building them bigger than ever. The effigies are sold from roadside shops, but they also hang out in family run restaurants, pharmacies and, if you're lucky, you'll even see some hanging out on people's porches. The people are friendly but also immensely proud. It wasn't a rare sight to see young men with "Toraja" tattooed on their forearm (heavy metal and the associated lifesty seems to get adopted by Christian communities in Asia quite readily -- no clue).

A Chinese Confucianist style grave with Christian imagery next to a Torajan boat-house.

It's a breath of fresh air seeing locally run tourism provide genuinely novel experiences for people at every budget. It's easily one of the most interesting places I've been so far on this trip, and I'm glad I came. Even if we did get pig blood on us.

This guy has no idea what's coming.


Marjorie said...

Seems like a really unique place to visit. Great photos!

erin said...

I really enjoyed the account of Tana Toraja. Very interesting and entertaining writing. Traveling vicariously through you!


Hanah said...

wow i love your blog it is very interesting and i love the pictures

Strukbylitning7times said...

I love the architecture of houses; very interesting practices and culture. It seems very alien it a lot of ways, but I'm sure you noticed that.

a.mae.zed said...

Thanks for the guest post. Those houses are awesome! I think it would be interesting to live in a village where people were in competition be be the "horniest"--hehe.
Hope all is well in the fam.

kanmuri said...

That was very instructive and interesting. I'm going to Malaysia and Thailand for the Holidays; your post inspired me to look a little further than the usual guidebooks. Thank you.

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Anonymous said...

Bonjour Violet Dear

We will be in Sulawesi in November to visit Tana Toraja.
We are 60+ years old and we travel indepedant....will it be difficult?... to what degree?

Can you give me some information on Makassar? Malino (about 100 km from Makassar)? Have you been to Bira? to Danau Tempe?

"Have fun will travel"

PS: information on Sulawesi is not easy to find...but we'll go!

Violet Dear said...


It's pretty simple to arrange guides. We stayed at Wisma Monton in Rantepao (Tana Toraja - Wisma Monton is the best budget option in town), and they were able to provide us with a large array of affordable daytrip and trek options. You need about 4 days there unless there's a funeral going on.

We decided on our itinerary by looking at the Lonely Planet guidebook's description of the surrounding areas (which is very good). The two villages that specifically jumped out at us were Londa and Lemo, both very accessible from town either from public transport or private cars with drivers.

Makassar was less exciting for us. There's an old colonial fort, and it wasn't that compelling -- so it can be skipped. You can fly directly to Rantepao from Makassar, so that might be a good option if you can time the flights well. Otherwise, the bus company Litha has very good AC sleeper buses with huge amounts of leg room that run both overnight and early morning trips into Toraja.

We didn't go to the other places you've mentioned -- sorry! Our time was so limited that we just did Toraja and Makassar. The Toggeans are supposed to be amazing, though, and if diving and snorkeling are an interest to you (or even if you just want to spend some time on a beautiful beach) you should look into it.


Aurora Wibrianne said...

Hello Violet Dear.. ^^
I'm a Torajan girl, actually, a Tourism Ambassador of Toraja.
I was start my job as a tourism ambassador a few months ago, and I found ur blog and this article.

This is so cool!! totally awesome.
May I re-post your article to my blog? please... of course, I'll put your name there. :)

best regards

Aurora Wibrianne said...

and hey, Wisma Monton is behind my home..^^
its a nice place. nice to know you

gigitata said...

Nice article, dude! Maybe http://www.jakpost.travel could be a good recommendation for you to find another interesting destinations in Indonesia...

BABU said...

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I just wanted to see if you were currently interested in additional guest bloggers for your blog site.
I see that you've accepted some guest posters in the past - are there any specific guidelines you need me to follow while making submissions?
If you're open to submissions, whom would I need to send them to?
I'm eager to send some contributions to your blog and think that I can cover some interesting topics.
Thanks for your time,