Thursday, February 21, 2013

Dem Bones

For two and a half years, I've had Tana Toraja on my list of 'must sees' before leaving Indonesia. Every time I heard mention of this village in central Sulawesi, the descriptions always played out like a National Geographic special. The place is well known for its manic funeral ceremonies and creepily life-like effigies. Add to that tales of babies buried in trees and claims that the original Torajan's descended from 'starships', and who could resist?

No matter how many stories I heard or wiki pages I read, I just couldn't get a grasp of just what goes on there second-hand. Amazingly, within minutes of getting out of the cramped tour van with half a dozen other Fellows, all of the stories I had heard of the place were validated with startling un-clarity.

If it weren't for the fact that Toraja is squarely located in the archipelago, I would be tempted to think that I, myself, had taken a starship to reach the village instead of an 8-hour, cockroach-infested charter bus ride. Swooping bamboo roofs decorated with water buffalo horns and ornate carvings store everything from rice, to families, to corpses awaiting their final burial (often times the latter two under the same roof). The buffalo horns are all that remain of sacrificial water buffalo that are slaughtered during funerals in order to feed all of the family and community members who attend. The carvings are hand-made with each symbol representing some aspect of Torajan life.

We were 'lucky' because there just happened to be a funeral going on the first day we arrived. Being that funerals are central to the culture and that they have become a huge tourist attraction, anyone can attend them. The only requirement, we were told, was to wear black and bring a small gift of tobacco. So, we bought some smokes and headed the outskirts of the village where many temporary seating structures had been set up around the main swoop-roofed building containing the guest of honor (i.e. dead guy) and a small dirt court-yard with one hitching post. We took up residence in one of the temporary seating platforms with some other tourists. While we waited, our guide explained that funerals are social events almost on the same scale of Indian weddings.

They are so expensive that the normal waiting period between death and funeral is two to three years while the family raises the money for enough buffalo and pigs to feed everyone who will in return help build the temporary funeral structures.  And...AND...during that time, the body remains within the family's home. So there we were, cross-legged on a bamboo platform, and the procession began led by three squealing pigs hogtied and ready for sacrifice. Behind the pigs were the immediate family members. The family sat in another platform where distant relatives, community members, and government officials took turns bringing them gifts of tobacco, tea, and coffee. Meanwhile, the pigs stayed in the courtyard on their side. Our tour guide assured us that they would be taken out of sight for the actual slaughtering. Oh good. No sooner had the pigs stopped their heinous squealing, than loud chanting and stomping could be heard from the structure housing the remains. Apparently, the coffin had to the moved from the back room to the front room with much fanfare. The move may have been prompted by the arrival of a large water buffalo. The beast was tied up to the lone hitching post in the courtyard. We looked anxiously to our guide to tell us that the buffalo would also be taken out of sight for the slaughtering, but this was not so. Instead, a man with a large machete swiftly slit the buffalo's throat, causing thrashing and blood splattering that will be imprinted on my memory forever. That's when we decided we had seen enough of this particular cultural tradition. It was time to move onto something slightly less morbid, like graves.
There are several different types of Torajan graves depending on the deceased's class. The very rich can be interned in 'modern' graves which are cement structures much like window-less houses. These grave's occupants are denoted by either portraits of the deceased hung at the top of the grave or by effigies wearing the deceased's clothes. If the family cannot afford such luxurious housing, their loved ones might instead be placed in a coffin and placed high up on a cliff or in a cave. The lower the class, the lower the placement. Our guide told us that the coffins, exposed to the weather, eventually breakdown and fall - cradle and all. We found ourselves face to...skull (?) with an amalgam of human bones and old coffins.

Any bones that fall out of place are either tossed into the nearest coffin or placed in neat piles. My favorite moment of the whole trip may have been when we were descending from some cliff graves and a lone human skull was knocked loose and came tumbling past us. Just in case you were wondering, a bouncing human skull sounds just like a whiffle ball.

The very poor do not get lofty placements away from grave robbers. Instead, they usually take up residence in caves at the bottom of a cliff. Here, family members honor the dead with photos, half-full drink bottles, and anything that represented their life. We saw one teacher's grave surrounded by textbooks. You can't take it with you, man.

We left the cliff graves and traveled to a large cave hidden beyond some rice fields. This place was filled with similar wooden coffins and armies of effigies standing guard. It was like a cross between The Goonies and Disney World's Small World ride.

Hey you guys!!!

It's a small world after all...
Dem Bones, Dem Bones...

Even babies have a place in this strange death-obsessed culture (throwing me back to dead-baby jokes that were popular with my brothers in the last 1990s, but I digress). Babies who die before getting their first tooth are given a special spot in a tree. A square just large enough for a standing baby is cut out of the tree. The baby is placed in standing up (so his or her spirit can go straight up to heaven) and then covered with a palm tree door. After a few years, the tree grows over the opening completely, and the baby becomes part of the tree.
Baby graves

The last graves we visited were those of past kings and queens of the various Torajan tribes. Royalty is reserved stone graves that are pain-stakingly chiseled out of a sheer cliff. Their striking effigies are placed directly in front of the grave, usually whole families being placed together in the same spot. The bodies are carried to their final resting spot on top of the shoulders of their family members. Their transport structures resemble the same swoop-roofed houses in the villages. Each coffin carrier can only be used once, so they are left at the base of the cliff after the body is safely deposited.

To get the taste of death out of our mouths, we finished our trip by taking a walk up a high hill overlooking the beautiful rice paddies of Toraja. We sipped on Torajan coffee and contemplated the ethics of ordering buffalo and pig off of the cafe's menu after having recently witnessing the violent death of their brethren. (It was delicious).

That's Tana Toraja in a nut-skull, but don't take my word for it. Jump on the next starship heading for Central Sulawesi and satisfy your own morbid curiosity. You won't be disappointed.

1 comment:

  1. Glad you finally made it out to Tana Toraja! It's definitely a trip you'll never forget.