Sunday, February 1, 2009

Tana Toraja

Tana Toraja is a region in Sulawesi Island, Indonesia that looks like a picture postcard of Nature's ideal home. Terraced rice fields carpet the ground, limestone cliffs form the walls, and extraordinary winged, thatched buildings on stilts provide the exotic decor. But the environment is not the only picturesque part of Torajah. Death is also colourful, curious and exquisitely arranged.

Extravagant funeral ceremonies are a social and religious necessity in this Christian-Animist society because families have to impress the gods with the importance of the dead. If not, the soul of the dead person may not be able to enter heaven and will travel the earth instead, causing trouble for the relatives. Families keep the corpse of their kin in their strangely shaped three room houses for two or three years, while they save up for the sumptuous wake.

This fond and funky farewell involves the construction of an entirely new village of bamboo out of town, sometimes with more than a hundred rooms, in which to entertain thousands of guests for up to seven days. A life-size effigy of the dead person is also carved - often topped with the dead one's hair.

Stage One of the event is the transportation of the red and gold covered coffin, and the effigy, from the relatives' home to the funeral village. The coffin and effigy are first put into biers with winged roofs - in the same style as their traditional houses - which then travel to the party on the shoulders of shouting, bouncing, jumping, young men. These and other helpers are fueled by generous quantities of rice, pork, and rice wine drunk from bamboo tubes.

In Stage Two guests arrive at the village to pay their respects to the dead and the living, bringing gifts of live pigs on bamboo poles or water buffalo if they are affluent. Excitement is provided by organised buffalo fights or the escape of pigs and buffalo from captivity, as they run wild through the crowds.

Hundreds of pigs and twenty or more buffalo are killed and eaten during this phase of the celebration.

The buffalo is Toraja's number one status symbol, and some think that the curious shape of the houses mimics buffalo horns, though others believe that it is related to the shape of the ships that brought the original settlers to Indonesia's Sulawesi island. Whatever the reason, the final resting place of the buffalo horns is on front pillars that support local houses.

Apart from eating, drinking, and chatting, guests chant and dance hand-in-hand for hours in a circle around the two biers, a dance that symbolises the human life cycle and at the same time bids farewell to the dead person.

Smoking is popular Indonesia male pastime, and foreign travellers are welcome at this kind of event if they present a carton of cigarettes to the relatives.

Women, on the other hand, chew tobacco, and large amounts of it - so much so that dark brown lumps of tobacco can often be seen protruding grotesquely from their mouths. They are also fond of chewing the narcotic betel nut.

Stage Three is the last day of the funeral when the guests carry the biers for two or three kilometres to the burial site. This will be in a hole cut high in a limestone cliff. Workers climb a bamboo frame, put the coffin into the hole, seal it with stone, then traditionally leave the effigy to guard the body at the entrance to the cave, looking out over the fields of Tana Torajah.

Unfortunately, in the last few years many effigies have been stolen, probably for sale to foreign collectors, so these days the effigies are usually sealed inside the cave with the body.

Nevertheless, there are still many limestone outcrops pocked with holes and dozens of weird, worn faces staring out.

The poor cannot, of course, afford to pay for these kinds of lavish celebrations. They make do with small parties, a minimum of one buffalo , no effigy and coffins left to rot in natural caves. In some favoured spots piles of bones and skulls testify to the many years that this method of burial has been used.

Although the bigger funeral ceremonies are a financial disaster for the families concerned, they play a great part in stabilising and preserving Indonesia's Torajah society.

The wealthier they are, the more spectacular will be their funeral, and the more poor people will be employed and fed for several weeks. The event gives everyone a chance to meet, talk, party and generally blow off steam with guests from all strata of society, in a relaxed atmosphere, while at the same time giving the dead person a rousing send-off and a guaranteed heavenly after-life. Long live Death in Torajah!

So, what do you waiting for? Let's Go visit Indonesia Year 2008 !

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