Amazing customs of a Megalithic people as seen in 1995......................Ramdas Iyer
02.02.1996 - 08.02.1996
My first visit to Indonesia in 1996 opened my eyes to the beauty of this magnificent archipelago of 17000 Islands, 300 ethnic groups that range from the highly evolved Javanese court culture to the tree-dwelling Korowai stone-age peoples of Papua. This was a time when globalization had not quite reached the far corners of this earth and one could see ancient cultures in the cusp of slowly adapting modernity while still offering the outsider a glimpse into their societies.
Over the next few years I had made it a point to visit as many cultures in Indonesia as time permitted and managed to visit Sulawesi ( Celebes Islands), Kalimantan (Borneo), Java, Bali, Lombok and Papua in four separate trips to this trans- continental nation of 250 million people.
Here I wish to share my experience I had with the Toraja people of Central Sulawesi. I had read about their unique funeral ceremonies and of a culture of elaborate funerary celebrations that even UNESCO granted World heritage status to their cultural landscape. These were pre- internet and pre digital camera days, so travelling was a little bit more challenging especially for me who was stationed in India on assignment.
Upon reaching Ujung Padang (known as Makkasar to the Dutch colonists) from Jakarta, I took a rickshaw to a travel agency; one with absolutely no posters or advertisements but only an album with some pictures of Tana Toraja. After some negotiations I had settled on taking a 6 hour drive to the highlands with a guide in tow. This was also a time when the Rupiah and reached an all time low of 14000 to the dollar after the famous Asian Financial meltdown. To put things in perspective, a room in 5 star hotels in Jakarta could be had for $40.
My guide would remain with me for the 3 days and I would eventually fly back on a pre WWII aircraft back to Ujung Padang. One particular observation in Makassar has still left an indelible image in my mind. It was that of one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen; one that could launch a thousand ships. It was a face that could write the history of the coming together of Polynesians, Chinese and the Malay people. Eighteen years later, last month I happened to have dinner with my son in Utah and the lovely receptionist was also from Makkasar , reminding me to tell the story of these unique peoples.
Extracted from UNESCO’s citation “The Tana Toraja Traditional Settlement is a living tradition. It is a heritage that has been handed over from generation to generation for at least 700 years or even longer back to prehistoric time. Torajans, who are used to live in an isolated hill, had moved to low land. Burial customs had also changed especially since the seventeenth century when the Buginese from the coastal area to south invaded Tana Toraja. Prior to that time, human remains and precious burial gifts were stored in elaborately carved wooden coffins. During the invasion, lots of the precious gifts and beautifully decorated coffins were destroyed. Since then, Torajans began to make less decorated coffins and placed them high on the cliff-face vaults, reserving more intricate carving for the tomb doors and portrait statues of the deceased, tau-tau.
However, all of these changes should be understood as a dynamic process that commonly occurs within a living culture. These changes are part of the historical stratification... The Toraja burial custom and ceremonies are exclusive. Such complicated and expensive ceremonies sustain many aspects of prehistoric megalithic culture which cannot be found in any other part of the world today.”
The World Heritage nominated Tana Toraja Traditional Settlement consists of 10 sites which are dispersed in an area of 100 square miles around Rantepao, capital of Central Sulawesi.. Traditionally, a Toraja settlement consists of a compound of houses (tongkonan) and granaries (alangs), burials (liang), ceremonial grounds with menhirs (rante), rice-fields, bamboo forests, and grazing ground or pasture for buffalo and pigs.
With so many exciting sites to visit, I first needed to understand the reasons for elaborate funeral ceremonies. Torajans traditionally believe that death is not a sudden, abrupt event but a gradual process toward Puya (the land of souls, or afterlife). It is based on a strong belief that the soul of the deceased travels to the land of the south and in this land of eternity, he will need all the requisites of everyday life in the hereafter just like when he was alive in this world. The death ceremony is often held weeks, months, or years after the death so that the deceased's family can raise the significant funds needed to cover funeral expenses. During the waiting period, the body of the deceased is wrapped in several layers of cloth and kept inTongkonan.
I visited one such traditional Tongkonkan home where there was one such pre burial coffin inside the small 12 ft by 10 ft living quarter. I was quite surprised to hear about the actual post death ritual ;The departed one is wrapped in a cloth and kept in the corner of the house until all the body fluids drained into a pan. The whole place reeked of death, yet something the Tor get used to daily ( similar to living next to the nightmare of the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, NY in the 80’s, a name very similar to the Torajan experience!). After the body mummifies and dries out they assemble it in sitting position and sometimes seat it with the family during meals with food offerings before returning it to the coffin...This is due to a firm belief that the soul of the deceased is thought to linger around the village until the funeral ceremony is completed, after which it begins its journey to Puya. Even after burial they feared that if the deceased started missing their living relatives they would take them away too. So they built effigies with similar facial features and mount them on platforms on cliffs high above the villages, giving the deceased “companionship “after the funeral ceremonies. They offer food, drinks, and cigarettes and annually change the clothing inside the graves and reassemble scattered bones.
It is custom that funerals may take place only after the harvest and before the first sowing of the rice seeds, which normally falls between July and September. Toraja Funeral Ceremonies are occasions for entire families to gather from around the globe, and for villagers to participate in communal events, renewing relationships and reconfirming beliefs and traditions in the way of the ancestors.
In preparation of the Funeral Ceremony, villagers and family members build a tower on the designated ceremonial site where the meat of slaughtered cattle will be distributed during the event. In the centre of the ground is planted a stake where the sacrificial buffalo will be tied to and stabbed. Around the large site are built temporary shelters forming balconies where people can watch proceedings below. The next day the coffin of the deceased is moved down from the Tongkonan to the floor of the rice barn where decorations are made around the bier.
The first official day is dedicated to the seemingly endless formal procession called Ma’passa Tedong where persons, families, groups, bring with them their gifts and contributions ranging from water buffaloes to pigs, rice or alcoholic drinks. All gifts are meticulously registered and announced while donors will show off their gifts by walking around the ceremonial area. Everyone watches who gives what, so that the occasion is not only to confirm one’s status and wealth in society, but also to express former debts repaid, or even new ones made. In the evening, the coffin is brought by hundreds of people to the ceremonial site - called Rante and placed on the high house. After the procession, start the exciting and rowdy buffalo fights, where a lot of betting goes on.
The next day the committee tallies all gifts, and the family then decides how many buffaloes and pigs will be slaughtered and distributed to guests, and how many given to charity to neighbouring poor villages. Most expensive are the prized pied buffaloes. Every Torajan Tongankkan is decorated with Buffalo horns; those that were slaughtered to respect the family. The one with the most horns naturally has a high standing in their society.
The following day comes the actual slaughtering of the cattle for their meat to be distributed for meals to the thousands attending the ceremony that lasts for over a week. The slaughter of the sacrificial buffalo is done in public. This happens very fast and sure, where the buffalo is stabbed directly into its heart and collapses immediately. The buffalo is then hacked and its meat distributed from here, where each part is allocated to a specified person or group whose name is called out, with prime cuts given to the most important in status.
The Torajans believe that aristocrats must be buried between heaven and earth - hence their spectacular grave sites. High up in the limestone cliffs are set tombs, carved out of solid rock, and guarded by human effigies called Tau tau watching sightlessly over the rice fields.
The coffin may be laid in a cave or in a carved stone grave, or hung on a cliff. It contains any possessions that the deceased will need in the afterlife. The wealthy are often buried in a stone grave carved out of a rocky cliff. The grave is usually expensive and takes a few months to complete. In some areas, a stone cave may be found that is large enough to accommodate a whole family. The coffin of a baby or child may be hung from ropes on a cliff face or from a tree. This hanging grave usually lasts for years, until the ropes rot and the coffin falls to the ground. If a child dies prior to teething, it is placed in a small niche inside a tree and eventually the tree envelopes the child. (See my pictures on baby graves laid inside trees)
Aside from Toraja, living megalithic cultures still exist in some places in Indonesia, mainly among the Batak (Sumatra), and the islands of Nias (west of Sumatra), and Sumba (in Lesser Sunda Islands). All of them have been influenced by modern culture to varying extents. There are indeed some basic similarities among these living megalithic cultures, especially in cosmology, settlement pattern, ornamental design, and subsistence, since they have a common root in the prehistoric culture of Early Austronesians. However, none of them are identical and each demonstrates peculiarities of its own.
The Batak people who live on Samosir islet in the middle of Lake Toba in the interior of North Sumatra still maintain their traditional houses, settlement patterns, and ornamental design. But they do not construct stone monuments anymore and practice less elaborate secondary burial custom. Ceremonies for the dead as well as thanksgiving festivals are conducted, but are not as complex as in Toraja. Upright stones are erected only occasionally within the housing compound. The people of Sumba continue to build megalithic structures, but elaborate and expensive ceremonies for the dead have been abandoned.
Tana Toraja Traditional Settlement and culture differs in many aspects to other living megalithic traditions in Indonesia. Toraja burial customs with their elaborate and complex ceremonies, numerous water-buffalo sacrifices and varied burial methods (hanging coffins, rock chambers, cave burial), have no other living comparison.
This article is mostly edited from data garnered from the net together with my own 35mm scanned pictures hopefully offers an opportunity for the reader to get a glimpse of the uniqueness of such cultures. In 1975 only 50 people reached Toraja. From 1985 to 1995 only 40000 per year people made it to Toraja, far less than the amount of people visiting Antarctica today. However in 2007, my plane stopped at the spanking new Ujung Padang International Airport while transiting from Jayapura, Papua and I finally realized that this remote part of the world has now access from all over Asia bringing in tourist dollars but quickly eroding a way of life. I was fortunate to see one of the last megalithic cultures (where stone menhirs are planted on the ground as a death memorial). The End
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