In the land of the Toraja
In Indonesia there are over 300 different ethnic groups. One of them are the Toraja, who live in the highlands of South Sulawesi. Tana Toraja, the “Land of the Toraja”, is known for its good coffee but also for the – for an outsider rather strange (or, more accurate, strangely fascinating) – funeral ceremonies of its people. The ceremonies are huge events that last several days. Hundreds of guests attend and in order to accommodate and seat them all, temporary pavilions are built. It’s a whole industry. The events are filmed with professional equipment; we’ve even seen a drone recording the whole ceremony from a bird’s-eye perspective.
Funeral ceremonies are held throughout the year. Most, however, take place in July and August to coincide with the holiday period in Indonesia since many Toraja live in other parts of the country. You may ask yourself now, how can they time the funerals? It’s not as if people could or would usually time their deaths… Well, in Torajan culture, the dead aren’t buried immediately. They keep on living (sort of) in the family’s home for months, sometimes even years. They are brought food and drinks, receive visits, and family members and visitors talk to them – just as though they were still alive. During that time, the family gathers money for the very expensive funeral ceremony.
The funeral ceremonies
The ceremonies usually last four days: On the first day, the deceased is brought to the ceremony compound. Then he or she is carried through the village and after that some buffaloes are sacrificed. On the second day, the guests arrive. If it’s a very big funeral, this part can take up to three days. The day after that is the day when the animal sacrifices take place and the last day is the actual burial of the deceased.
Tourists are very welcome to attend the ceremonies and, like all other guests, they are expected to bring a gift. Not a pig or a buffalo, as is the norm for the Toraja, just something small. “What should we bring?”, we asked our guide. “Cigarettes”, he said. “Cigarettes are not good. Can’t we bring something more healthy?” – “Sugar. But they already have enough sugar, so you better bring cigarettes.” Sounds logical. Kind of.
Attending a ceremony
We went to two different funeral ceremonies. The first one we attended on the ceremony’s second day, when the guests were received. We arrived, thanked the ceremony master that we were allowed to come, handed over our unhealthy gift, and were seated in one of the visitor’s pavilions. Coffee, tea, and sweets were served and we watched the reception of the guests.
When a group of guests enter, their names and what they brought for a gift is announced over a loud speaker. If a person cannot attend the funeral, they still send a gift. Everything is noted so the family of the deceased knows what they have to bring if there’s a funeral in one of their guest’s families. The gift has at least to be of equal value. That’s how every family is in constant debt to other families and debts are passed on to children and grandchildren. Pigs and especially buffalo are expensive (much sought after albino buffaloes can cost up to 8000 USD) so many Torajas work just to be able to pay the gifts for funerals.
The second ceremony we attended was bigger than the first one and it was just starting. After greeting the ceremony master and handing him our gift (guess what) we were seated in a pavilion. It was lunchtime and they served white and red rice, vegetables, eggs, and pa’piong. Pa’piong is meat and other ingredients such as onions, vegetables, and spices stuffed in a bamboo tube and cooked over fire. It’s a typical Torajan dish but it’s also a traditional dish in other places as far away and different as for example Brunei and Papua. The cooking method is the same (thanks to the slow cooking in the bamboo tube, the meat is really juicy and flavorful), but the ingredients vary.
After lunch, the deceased is carried out of the ceremony grounds and through the village. Hundreds of people (and some buffaloes) follow the coffin. Once the people come back, the ceremony master recounts the deceased’s life. This he does in a special register of the Torajan language, which almost nobody understands. After that, some pigs and buffaloes are sacrificed, though not as many as will be on the third day of the funeral. The slaughtering of the buffaloes takes place a little further away and anyone who’s interested (mainly tourists) can go and watch. I didn’t; the squealing of the pigs bound to bamboo poles by their feet was already too much for me.
Torajan funeral ceremonies are interesting and fascinating to watch. However, even with the guides’ explanation (information varies from guide to guide), for an outsider it’s impossible to even begin to understand these complex rites and the meaning behind everything. The Torajan universe is miles from ours. Everything is different here, and that’s probably what it makes so intriguing and why people from all over the world come here.