16. Tana Toraja

As most of you probably know, I’ve now come to the end of my journey, having returned to Canada a few weeks ago. Many of you may have been wondering what happened to my blog updates after Alor. To some extent, I just ran out of steam. For me, the idea of blogging from the capitals of Europe somehow didn’t have the same pizzazz as punching out an update from a dusty internet cafe in the middle of nowhere.

More than that, though, I’ve been sitting on this last story from Indonesia for quite a while, unsure of how to tell it, and unable to move beyond it. However, after some positive feedback from some friends in Canada, I’ve decided that it’s worth telling, and worth bringing this blog to a more satisfying conclusion. As a result, I’ll post this one update, and then, I think, one more. Just to warn you, however, the subject matter of this particular post is a bit morbid, and the descriptions somewhat graphic. Now just pretend it’s still back in the early days of summer, around mid-May, and you’ve been following my adventures for about four months…

After leaving Alor, I found myself in Kupang, the capital of West Timor, and the regional transport hub for the Nusa Tenggara province of Indonesia. Only after I left did I begin to appreciate and even miss some parts of Kupang, particularly their incredible night-market, where delicious fresh fish could be purchased from a huge array of food stalls, and visitors from all over the region mingled in an outdoor eating area. At the time, however, it seemed hot, humid, and oppressive, and I wasn’t keen to stay there for long.

Indonesia is one of the last countries in the world which offer almost unlimited possibilities for exploring relatively uncharted territory, but most of the out-of-the-way destinations involve long journeys using unreliable transportation. With only a limited amount of time left on my Indonesia visa and a slightly injured knee, (but an undiminished sense of adventure!), I decided to take some advice from a total stranger, and head to a region known as Tana Toraja, a remote but still readily-accessible destination in Sulawesi (an island well-known for its coffee). To some extent I thought I was getting off the beaten track; in my mind Sulawesi was a place that you just couldn’t go to ten years ago. Only later, however, would I begin to appreciate the complex history of the place, and discover just how touristy Tana Toraja is, and was.

Sulawesi is an octopus-shaped island, one of the largest in Indonesia, situated between Kilamantan (Borneo) and Papua. I flew into the capital of Makassar, a sprawling, rather unpleasant port town, and two days later caught a bus that drove ten hours North to Rantepao, a small city at the heart of Tana Toraja.


Surrounded by lush hills and rice paddies, Tana Toraja is undeniably beautiful. Unfortunately, in terms of independent exploration, Rantepao was a bit of a disappointment. Although it can boast of great views and a cooler climate than the rest of Indonesia, it lacks the two chief requirements for good hiking – a system of trails, and a decent map.

Sadly, I could find neither. The only map available (and the one recommended by Lonely Planet), was produced 15 years ago, and is hopelessly out of date. All the trails near Rantepao shown on that map have now been paved, so just relying on walking was not a very pleasant option. The only saving grace was that motorbikes could be rented for about five dollars per day, so I was still able to do some exploring, just not in quite the way I had planned.

Ultimately, the best combination proved to be riding as far as was practicable until the roads disintegrated into rocky swaths of hard-packed stones (see the photo below), then parking the bike and continuing on foot. Lacking a decent map, I never quite knew where I was, or where I was going, but it was still a lot of fun.




Until the start of the 20th century, Tana Toraja was relatively isolated. Over the last 100 years, however, the region has experienced a rather turbulent political history, beginning with Dutch missionaries that sought to bring the region under greater control. In terms of their objectives, the missionaries were quite successful in their work, as a majority of people in the area now identify themselves as Christians, despite the fact that Indonesia as a whole is almost 90% Muslim. In fact, while walking down the street, I happened to hear the following coming from what turned out to be rehearsals for an upcoming celebration of a century of Christendom in Toraja. (Fortunately they still had a few weeks to practice).

[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/rehearsal.ogg]

The full story, of course, is much more complicated, and the identities of both the region and the people who live there are inextricably bound up with the history of colonialism, narratives of Indonesian nationhood, and the impact of modern tourism. Moreover, most people in Toraja still hold very strongly to more traditional beliefs and practices, despite being ostensibly Christian. As a result, the area has received a lot of attention, and it experienced a huge boom in tourism in the nineteen-seventies, eighties and nineties, a boom that was only interrupted in the early years of the twenty-first century by an eruption of violence along religious and geographical fault lines in Sulawesi. As the violence has subsided over the past few years, so the tourist industry has returned, and in a big way.

Obviously, by visiting Toraja (and perhaps even more so by writing about it!), I’m contributing to this industry, and I certainly wouldn’t argue that the effects of tourism are entirely negative (how could I, having been a professional tourist for over five months?). However, in this particular case, things are a bit more complicated, and I can’t help but feel somewhat conflicted, which in part explains the long delay in getting this post online.

The most salient aspects of Torajan culture, and the main reason tourist come here, are practices centered around death and the disposal of human remains. Bodies are commonly interred in coffins, but these coffins are often placed either in caves, or high up on a mountain ledge. Coffins can be seen on cliff faces all around the region, hanging precipitously from high places, often in a near-complete state of disintegration. Although family members will sometimes relocate the bones of ancestors, they otherwise remain in place, wherever they happen to land.



In the case of infants, bodies were sometimes  buried in trees. A few of these so-called “baby grave” trees have become dedicated tourist attractions, complete with a ticketing system. This provides both a way of generating income, and a means of controlling to some extent the areas which tourists are allowed to visit.


In the network of deep caves and caverns in the area, you can also find a multitude of coffins, many emblazoned with crosses or other Christian symbols, literally piled on top of each other. In the photo below, you can also see cigarettes piled up in a corner of one of the coffins, left as an offering. In some cases, these grave sites are guarded by “tau tau”, carved figurines representing the deceased. Again, several sites have been designated as official tourist attractions, in part because the theft of these sculptures was becoming a problem.



As unusual as all of this may be, it is nothing compared to the elaborate funeral ceremonies which take place before burial. The tradition in Torajan culture is not to bury a dead person right away. Historically, dead bodies were preserved using whatever herbal means were available, and the corpses were kept in the family home as long as necessary, in a place of honour in the bedroom. Today, more modern methods of embalming are used, but bodies are supposedly still kept in the home until a family decides to hold a funeral ceremony.

Most of these ceremonies are held in July and August (which not-so-coincidentally coincides with a major boom in tourism). Given that I was arriving in May, I wasn’t sure what I would find. As luck would have it, however, a rather large funeral began the day after I arrived, and took place over the next five days. Before I had even got my bearings, a guide found me, and convinced me that the first day was the best day to go. I had no idea of his credentials, but he spoke reasonably good English, and was invaluable in helping me understand what was happening.

The most permanent element which remains after a Torajan funeral ceremony is a complex of buildings built around a central courtyard, to accommodate neighbours and relatives who come to participate in the ceremony. There is a very particular style to these buildings, including the architectural elements, colours, and motifs, and I found very similar ones everywhere throughout my later exploration of the countryside. With a sitting platform below, and space for sleeping or rice storage above, the most distinctive feature is the horn shaped-roof. This may or may not relate to the horns of the water buffalo, a very important animal in Torajan culture, both practically and thematically.




The ceremony I attended was for a relatively important person in the village who had died about a year and a half ago. As I negotiated a price with my guide, he included a line item for a carton of cigarettes, to be given as a gift to the brother of the deceased. I politely suggested that perhaps a different gift could be substituted, something less associated with addiction and disease, but my guide insisted that no other gift would do. It turned out to be the first of many ethical dilemmas that day in which my shaky principles were bulldozed by compromise.

We arrived around 10:30 in the morning. There were a few hundred people there, including a few dozen tourists, most of whom had come as part of a package tour group, traveling directly from Makassar airport to Rantepao. There were also several dozen buffalo, and an equivalent number of pigs. All of these would be sacrificed over the next five days.

The photo below shows the general layout of the area, with the tourists on the left, a prized water buffalo on the right, and a platform in the middle where a Master of Ceremonies spoke through a microphone hooked up to a set of giant speakers, and where the body was eventually to be moved, to sit for the five days of the funeral.


The sitting spaces in all the buildings were mostly occupied by men, all of whom sat chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking arak (palm wine). The women were mostly out of sight, apparently preparing food. My guide had a first cousin who was somehow connected to the deceased, so we joined his group in one of the buildings, and were given a tasty meal of rice, meat, greens, and chilies.

As things got underway, guests entered in processions, dressed in elaborate costumes and carrying symbolic objects (trays, pillows, kettles, etc). As they entered, the emcee called out their names and the animals that they had brought for the family.


In between these arrivals, a group of older women started a phenomenal musical accompaniment, using bamboo sticks to strike an old hollowed out tree. (In the photo below, you can also see the speakers being used by the emcee).


[audio http://www.dallascard.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/drumming.ogg]

After a number of these processions, the body was brought out into the central courtyard, carried in a large litter shaped like a miniature Torajan house. The closest family members formed a circle around it and performed a ritual song and dance, with the emcee occasionally joining in over the loud speakers.

After this ceremony, things started to move. A lengthy procession was formed, with the women leading, holding a long red cloth over the heads, and the men lifting, pushing, grunting, and shoving the litter through the village, out onto the main street, and then back again. This task was made all the more difficult both by the closest female relatives, who clung to the side of the litter, and by the bystanders, who continuously tossed small, sealed cups of water high into the air, which would then explode upon whomever they struck, to the general amusement of all concerned.




The strangest part of the whole thing, however, was a quadracopter incessantly buzzing in the air above (which you can see in the photo below). By this time, I was already asking myself serious questions about the nature of this event. How much of it was in the authentic traditions of the Torajans, and how much if it was just for show? How was my presence and that of other tourists affecting the people participating in the ceremony? To what extent was all the photography and videography exploiting a private ceremony, and how did the family feel about the presence of all these tourists?


The whole thing was undeniably theatrical, from the costumes, to the props, to the layout of the buildings, which provided stadium seating around a space which functioned as a central stage. The man with the quadracopter seemed like a microcosm for the absurdity of this particular spectacle as theatre. It turned out, however, that the flying machine contained a video camera, and the man controlling it was part of a team of people from South Korea making a documentary about Torajan culture. I had taken the quadracopter to be the epitome of rudeness, but some of his collaborators went much farther in getting up close and personal with their professional video cameras. The filmmakers obviously had permission from the family to film (though not from bystanders, such as myself!), but moreover, according to my guide, the family was very proud that their ceremony was being captured on film, and that it might encourage greater interest in Tana Toraja among South Koreans!

In any case, there is no doubt that the influence of the filmmakers was far from passive. Although I assume the ceremony was in general conducted essentially as it would otherwise have been, I could see individuals becoming more self-conscious and theatrical as they came into close proximity of the cameras. By this point, I had long-ago lost track of who was the spectator, and who the spectacle. Then, the animal sacrifices began.

At first it was just pigs, who were killed very unceremoniously (brutally, I would say) with knives. They died quite quickly, and as soon as they had been killed, the men traded their knives for giant flamethrowers to scorch the skin so that it could be scraped off with sticks. The pigs were then gutted, and tossed into a pile, to be carried off to the food preparation area.

The transition from live animal to raw meat was so fast, that to my mind, at least, it almost seemed to make a mockery of, or at least call undo attention to the fact that such an elaborate funeral ritual was being performed for a different being, a human, let alone one who had died over a year ago! On the other hand, this was presumably to some extent the point, to make clear the distinction between humans and other species.

Later that afternoon, two buffalo were also killed, their throats cut in a somewhat more ritualistic fashion, just two small ones, as this was only the first day of the funeral. The buffalo took much longer to die, and it was a grim and gruesome spectacle for those who, like myself, had stuck around for their own Apocalypse Now experience.

Obviously there are complex things going on here. I wondered again how much my presence encouraged this sort of practice, as traditional as it might be. My guide assured me that this was the way things were done, no matter who was present, and that moreover, it was a huge expense for the family to hold the ceremony. According to my guide, the only people making significant money off the whole affair were the owners of tour companies in Makassar. Still, I was left with many doubts in my mind.

As it happens, I had just finished reading David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”. I thought the book had an interesting premise, but found it somewhat incoherent overall. Nevertheless, it did provide a useful reminder that debts in more traditional societies are binding in a way that they are not in our larger, more impersonal societies. In line with this idea, family members in Toraja are liable to be called upon in all kinds of ways whenever a relative dies, from helping with the construction of buildings, to bringing animals as gifts.

This is more complicated than it seems, however, as it turns out that these offerings were not exactly gifts. In fact, the value of each animal and its donor were carefully recorded in a ledger as they were being announced by the emcee, and the family of the deceased will apparently be expected to repay the gift some day, by donating an animal of equivalent value when the time arises.

Not really knowing what I was getting myself into when I booked myself a plane ticket in Kupang, it’s hard to say to what extent I owe a debt to the person who recommended I go there, the people of Tana Toraja, or the animals that died as part of the spectacle. Officially, of course, I discharged that obligation through the purchase of a carton of cigarettes. Perhaps, in some sense, I added to the prestige of the ceremony through my attendance. And there’s even the remote possibility that blog will in some small way encourage tourism to the area. Or perhaps it’s precisely the opposite.

In any case, there is obviously nothing novel in the death of animals, (or the death of anything, for that matter), except in so far as such things have been largely banished from public life in Western societies, pushed aside through the power of wealth. And if all I wanted to see was a bull being killed, then I no doubt could have stayed home and found something on YouTube, rather than travelling half-way around the world. But being present, being part of something like this, does seem to me to involve something that cannot be so easily captured, quantified, or repaid. Ultimately, I think, the gift for me was to a chance to see life and death a little more for what they are, or at least to be forced to think about the distinction, if only for a little while. And in the end the only appropriate response seems to be to tell about it, to share what I experienced, and thereby to keep the gift in circulation.



2 thoughts on “16. Tana Toraja

  1. Dallas, that is fantastic writing. I found the post very interesting and exceptionally well written. What a wonderful, insightful gift you have given us; the readers with this ongoing blog. I really appreciate it. 🙂

    Best wishes, Jeff.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s