Nestled amongst the highlands of South Sulawesi, lies Tana Toraja. A mysterious land of exceptional beauty where buffalo graze placidly along cascading rice terraces and breath-taking vistas embrace plantations of cocoa, coffee and bamboo. The indigenous people of Toraja possess an ancient culture so mysterious, so uniquely tribal that an almost otherworldly aura enveloped us as we descended one dark night on this surreal landscape.
We were here to discover the secrets of “Aluk to Dolo” or “Way of the Ancestor” – the ancient death rituals of the Toraja.
For those who practice “Aluk to Dolo” death is very much a part of life. After a person’s physical death, their body is placed in a special room in the traditional residence called the tongkonan. Until the funeral ceremony, the deceased is referred to as “to makala,” a sick person and symbolically fed and cared for. The family will then let the community know that a member of their family is undergoing the transition from this life into the afterlife, known as Puya. Strange but true! These people actually live with the dead until the extended family can agree and get together the resources, money and of course buffalo, to hold a funeral! Crazy!
Believed to carry the souls of the deceased to the afterlife, buffalo are an important part of these rituals. Those with distinctive markings and colourings are highly prized and given by children of the deceased as repayment for all the years their parents cared for them. The higher the status of the family, the more buffalo are required and they don’t come cheap! Some can fetch up to $30,000!
The slaughter of buffalo and pigs ends the climax of an elaborate funeral. Animal sacrifices are made to guarantee eternal life in the afterlife and to safeguard the descendants. For those lucky enough to be well – heeled, carved wooden effigies made in their image, known as tau tau, guard their graves. Dancing and food shared from the sacrificed buffalo make these ceremonies feel more like a celebration.
We zigzagged our way up a hillside to a small village where the funeral of a grandmother was only now taking place. She had actually died two years ago! We made our way through an opening of a large canopy where women cooking huge pots of food, greeted us warmly, beckoning us to the direction of the “rante” or ceremonial field. Stepping out into the muddy courtyard we were at once visually assaulted by a dead buffalo.
“They have just sacrificed the buffalo a few minutes ago” said our guide Enos. “Come. Let’s sit with the family”.
We followed, quickly shuffling past the buffalo who lay on a bed of blood spattered palm leaves. There were about fifteen ceremonial bamboo huts or “Langtang” surrounding the courtyard – prepared for receiving the many hundreds of guests typical of Toraja funerals. Removing our shoes we climbed into the hut where we were served delicious Torajan coffee and sweet snacks.
The grandson – a boy of about eighteen, came over to welcome us. Strangely Enos gave him cigarettes as a customary offering. What struck me the most was there was no sign of grief. No crying or wailing! There was an air of celebration. Children played and people chatted casually. It felt beyond surreal.
“Funerals usually take place over four days or more if the family is very wealthy” said Enos. “Over there you can see the coffin. The spirit is believed to linger here until the completion of the funeral”. We looked over to the right and saw a tower with a circular coffin placed at the top. A picture of the deceased was placed on the side.
“Many circumstances will dictate when the person will be buried” continued Enos pushing a plate of sweets over to me. “It’s not only money but bringing so many people together is difficult as many Toraja now live and work all over Indonesia and abroad. Once the burial proceedings are agreed upon, the deceased is bought to the rante and placed into a tower. On the second day as in today, the guests are received and the sacrifice of pigs will start. The third day brings yet more sacrifice, mostly buffalo and the final day is reserved for the burial in mountain caves”. I looked at Asad who sat there with eye-brows raised and a look of astonishment on his face.
A while later, grabbing my camera, I excused myself and left the hut, making my way across the muddy courtyard to a discreet area where I could capture the scene without getting in the way. I decided I would record as much of this experience as I could. Gruesome or not, it was strangely fascinating.
I watched as the scene suddenly unfolded in front of me; There was an area where the family received guests. Every so often a gong would go off, reverberating through the trees and huts – drawing expectant looks from those around me. It sounded almost primitive and I felt it’s vibration go through me as it signalled the arrival of guests. They walked in slowly, ceremoniously led by an elderly man who I later learned was the husband of the deceased.
The grandson beckoned us over to where he was sitting with some children. He told us he was studying in Java and had aspirations to leave Tana Toraja to one day work in Singapore. “This is the old way” he said. “We only come home for these occasions or to see the family and it is hard to come so far. But now people are moving away from Toraja and from this culture”. His words left me thinking – how long would such a distinct culture survive the inevitable onslaught of social change?
My thoughts were interrupted by a commotion on the far side of the rante, followed by a shrill squealing sound. I knew what it was. Pigs. They were carried into the rante – trussed up by their legs on bamboo poles. I took a deep breath. My heart had started to race a little as I knew some poor animal was about to be slaughtered. Too late – it had already begun.
I saw the knife plunge into the side of the pig, just above the front leg. A quick stab and the result was an excruciatingly painful death. One by one I saw more pigs being laid out in the courtyard. Stress and fear rippled through their skin as they sensed their own death, writhing and squealing uncontrollably. I was shocked at how quickly this was all taking place. Whilst one man slaughtered pigs, another blow-torched the hair off whilst others gutted and butchered the rest, ready to be cooked and given to the guests. It was a production line of efficiency. No sentiments or emotions involved. It was just something they did. Something they believed in. The buffalo we spotted an hour earlier had already been butchered, ready to be cooked and given out to the guests, the elderly and those in need. The head was the last thing to be chopped up and separated from its horns which would inevitably adorn the Tongkonan of the family.
It was a raw experience. Everywhere we looked, there were chaotic scenes of dead or dying pigs. Frequently we had to jump out of the way as a pig was thrown only a few feet away from us and slaughtered. I was conscious of how the blood spurted out and didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire! The sound of suffering was shocking. An hour or so later it was getting too much. Squeals and shrieks followed by the sound of the blow torch were replayed over and over again. We stayed until we couldn’t watch the suffering any longer. When the smell of death took over. It had been a crazy morning and we’d experienced so much. Our heads were spinning and we wondered what tomorrow would hold when the grim reaper was going to pay a visit to the buffalo!
The man held the knife in the air for a few seconds before skilfully slashing the throat of the unsuspecting buffalo.
It was day two and we were back in the rante.
It reared backwards sending a spray of blood across the mans face then stood, shocked for a second or two before the full extent of the damage took hold. Blood gushed from its throat – a crimson waterfall.
The buffalo staggered to one side, then fell with a heavy thud – its front legs spasmodically cycling in agony. Lifting its head to the heavens, it let out an almighty sound that ripped through our conscience and left us stunned and shocked.
And so the massacre started.
One by one, more buffalo were sacrificed. Held by their nose rings, their necks exposed ready for that one movement with the machete. It was efficient, without hesitation and followed by cheers and encouragement from the crowd. One buffalo fought so hard to live that he took over ten minutes to die. It was painful to watch. It kept trying to stand up even though it was in such pain and the blood loss was so huge. I found myself wishing it would die quickly. Finally it managed to stand on all fours for a few seconds before stumbling over the rest of the buffalo writhing on the ground. Succumbing to its injuries, it fell hard on the moist earth sending spatters of blood into the air and allowing death to end its excruciating suffering.
Meanwhile a lone pig wandered around foraging for food, apparently oblivious to what was going on around it.
So that was our experience of a Torajan funeral. In twenty minutes, eight buffalo were slaughtered with three spared the butcher’s knife and donated to the needs of the community. It was an intense, bloody affair. After the sacrifice, we watched as men skillfully cut up the meat. Nothing was wasted and the blood collected in hollow bamboo tubes ready to be used later for cooking. We however politely declined on the food, thanked the hosts for their hospitality and bid farewell to one of the most strangest experiences we had come across on our travels.
You may be wondering what made us want to gate crash a funeral. Why?
I guess it’s not everyone’s cup of tea! My curiosity got the better of me and I don’t regret it one bit. Yes its a barbaric sight and yes its overwhelming at times to see the suffering of the animals but it’s a culture which is so mind-blowingly different that not going was not an option. Isn’t that what travelling is all about? Experiencing new things that don’t particularly fit into your own concept of what is right or wrong?
In fact I first saw this ritual on Globe Trekker where they showed a few snippets of the funeral on TV. The presenter was visibly affected by the experience. Since then I’d always wanted to really experience it all to get a better understanding of why they do it. I badgered Asad for ages to go and even he admits that it was worthwhile and you know what? I’ve been there and seen it. Isn’t that amazing! I’ve got a greater understanding of the culture there now, though coming from a religion where we hold cows in such high regard, i don’t agree with the aspect of slaughter. But this was a glimpse of an ancient culture from different times and not from this century, so I can’t apply my ethics to it. It seems to be the older generation that are still practicing it whilst the younger ones have their sights on other things. As most Torajans are Christians the way they bury is also changing and those that are Muslim are only slaughtering one buffalo instead of twenty, so religion is definitely influencing aspects of it.
In the end it was an amazing insight into an ancient culture. A culture where death was a transition to an afterlife and not a permanent end. The biological death of a person was not something to be afraid of or repulsed by. Instead the Toraja preserved the deceased and treated them with love and care ensuring they were still part of the family, part of daily life until the funeral was held. Even if that was years later!
I wondered how much of this helped the grieving process. Did it make them emotionally stronger or were there generations of Torajans walking around emotionally scarred! From what we learned through the people we spoke to, keeping a dead family member in the house didn’t seem to have a negative affect on them. There wasn’t a line drawn between the living and dead. It was blurred or even non-existent.
For me the funerals were a ritual tribute of what the deceased meant to the family and that although their time in this dimension was fleeting, it was permanent in the afterlife. It was a social event that brought family and community together, where food was shared and relationships strengthened.