Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Day of Contrasts

So, we went to a Toraja funeral today. We were told that this is not the high season for funerals in Tana Toraja. Most people have funerals during July and August. Not that more people die at that time. They just keep the deceased in the house till then. In fact, the body could be kept in the house for years, even as many as 20 years, while the family works to collect money to have these elaborate funerals.

Depending on which of the four classes you are from (the highest being gold class, the lowest slave class), you are required to sacrifice a certain number of water buffalo for the event. Someone from the gold class has to sacrifice minimum 24 water buffalo, but there have been some funerals where as many as 100, even 200 were slaughtered. Someone from the slave class would not need any buffaloes slaughtered.

It's odd. The Toraja people are mostly Christian, but their faith is interwoven with many animistic rituals and beliefs. For example, they believe that the deceased never really leave. Hence, if someone dies but there's not enough money to bury them right away, you not only keep the body in the home, but you converse with them, you ask them permission to come and go, you serve them meals... And even after they have been buried, you keep taking gifts to the grave, such as water and cigarettes, even items they would have used in their office, or money.

But at the same time, they believe the person does go to heaven, but the water buffalo is needed to escort them to heaven...

They do not fear the spirits of the dead, but they do fear that if they do not do the right things for the men who come to slaughter the buffalo, that spells can be put on the animals, which have been said to run around after their necks had been slit open.

Today's funeral was for a middle-class man. They had brought nine water buffalo to kill, but kept two to give away to a future funeral. I have no idea how long it has been since the man had passed away, but no-one seemed sad. In fact, it was quite the party. There may have been more than 500 people at the event, all sitting around, waiting for meat. Some were singing traditional songs. Community announcements were being made. And a lot of blood was being spilled...

Fortunately, we didn't see the actual killings. But we saw plenty of guts and as much blood.

Then we left and had a delicious lunch.

And went on to do more sightseeing, including the hanging graves. Now, these were something really, really bizarre! The original Toraja tombs were wooden ones which were hung high against rocks as to prevent grave robberies. In later years, more people got buried in rock graves. Nowadays, most people get buried in house graves, meaning that a house is built to keep the bones.

In all cases, these are family graves. The bones from the entire family is put into one coffin. Hence, in the case of the hanging graves, the coffins have been eaten by bugs over the years and the bones just lay around...

In some cases, effigies are carved out of wood or made of clay. These are made to look like the family members who have passed, and are placed by the grave site.

The photos show a much clearer picture of all of this.

First thing this morning, we visited a Toraja village. The traditional Toraja homes are built to look like the horns of a water buffalo. Yip, they love their water buffalo. These animals are considered the strongest, yet in this culture, they do not work. They are only kept for funerals, or for trading

Inside a Toraja house

I bought a piece of Toraja art, an actual panel from a Toraja house

A vendor on the side of the road, selling vegetables. To his right, you can see how people sell gasoline around here, by the bottle

Original rock graves. You can see the effigies of the old man and woman in front of the grave, along with their dog

We stopped for coffee at this spot where you had a view of the entire valley with its rows upon rows upon rows of rice terraces

My colleague Marion and I, enjoying a cup of famous Toraja mud coffee. Nope, they didn't have any milk at this store, so we enjoyed it black. And I can actually say I did enjoy it, though I had to add sugar

Spotted water buffalo are highly revered. They trade for Rp150 million (about $17,000). All they are used for, though, are to be slaughtered for funerals... People was their buffalo with soap, and rub them with coconut oil to make them look even more beautiful. The men washing this buffalo do not own it, they'd only be employees of the owner

At the funeral. The buffaloes are slaughtered in front of the room where the coffin lays. Pigs were being slaughtered in other places. People were sitting around in buildings all over the property, patiently waiting for more food

After the intestines were removed, the pigs were charred on bamboo fires. You can only imagine the smell...

This is the registration table, where guests have to register what they brought for the funeral (a buffalo, or a pig, or money). They are issued with a receipt, and when they have a family funeral later, the hosts of today's funeral will be expected to give at least as much, if not more. There are also government officials at the table, keeping track of the gifts, and charging the hosts funeral taxes

These boys were playing on the road on the way back to our car. What you do not see in the photo, is that one of them had the hoof of one of the slaughtered buffalo tied to a string, and was dragging that behind him as his new favorite toy

After a delicious lunch, we stopped by another Toraja village, where we watched this carver in action

We then proceeded to the cemetery behind the village, where we saw this elaborate house grave

Next, we walked up this little hill and voila! there were hanging graves and coffins all around...

Since many of the coffins were completely weather worn, the skulls were out and about. It's eerie to think that these belong to real people

This was a cave full of effigies, carvings that look like the original people, dressed up like them, and wearing their real jewelry. It is kept behind lock and key because of grave robberies. We named the grandma in purple Ethel

Here you can see the bones spilling out of the hanging grave, as families are buried together in one coffin

This grave on the right belongs to a government official, and 100 buffalo were slaughtered at his funeral. Connie decided his name was Winston. We named many of the effigies...

Finally, we went to a place where we watched ladies do ikat weaving

Beautiful ikat weaving. One piece like this can take months to complete

The Art of Planting Rice

I'm on the island of Sulawesi, one of the more than 10,000 islands that are part of the Indonesian archipelago, and one of the country's provinces. The island is K-shaped, and currently, we are about halfway up the vertical line of the K, high up in the mountains, where the Toraja people live.

It took almost nine hours to drive here from Makassar, the capital, but the journey was a beautiful one, for the most part.

Once we entered Tana Toraja, we stopped and watched a community plant rice. It seems like quite the process: prepare the muddy soil (burn off the stalks from the previous harvest, then plow the soil and finally, tread through the mud barefoot), separate the bunch of seedlings, and painstakingly plant them.

It's a community project, and seems to be done with much joy!

The green on the left is rice that has already been planted

These tufts of green are seedlings that had been grown for the past month

A Toraja lady. It's hard to imagine that she can look so happy after an entire day of back-breaking labor!

Saturday, March 26, 2011


I was catching up on some personal reading this morning, and learned about a Japanese concept called gambaru. Says Garr Reynolds, "The concept ... is deeply rooted in the Japanese culture and approach to life. The literal meaning of gambaru expresses the idea of sticking with a task with tenacity until it is completed—of making a persistent effort until success is achieved." (Read more here.)

Whatever it is that you are striving for today, friends, may you tenaciously stick to it until you succeed. I'll do the same. Deal?