Shake that body!

Toraja, oh Toraja, where can I start?? Spectacular nature, beautiful artwork, a fascinating building style and an intriguing mix of ancient rites and Christian practices – Tana Toraja is a region that made a profound impression on me. It is situated in the northern part of southern Sulawesi, in a mountainous area around the town of Rantepao.

To my surprise, these words echoed in the loudspeaker:

We particularly welcome all the tourists! You have come from all over the world – it’s an honour to have you as our guests. By joining us here today, you will get a better understanding of our culture and our way of life. Mutual understanding and respect make for a world in peace.

Those who understood English cheered and applauded as the master of ceremonies finished his speech. I was at a funeral.

This was a very important ceremony, lasting one full week, where no costs had been spared, the deceased being a lady who had been something like the head of her village. Bamboo podiums, the construction of which takes a couple of months, had been put up for the very numerous friends and relatives. They had to be numbered so that people knew where to go.

People were welcomed by a huge banner.

Some entrepreneurial people had set up stands where they sold snacks, or drinks, or shoes, or other things that funeral visitors might need. The Indonesian tax authorities were also present with a stand where those who brought animals (pigs or buffaloes) as gifts had to register them and pay tax.

Not all Torajan funerals last one week, the duration can vary between one and seven days, and it is not uncommon to invite several hundreds of guests. Tourists really are most welcome. Since it is an expensive affair, the preparations may take years: money needs to be raised and relatives and friends need time to save money for the flights back to their homeland – Indonesia is a vast country and many Torajans have moved to try to make a better living somewhere else. In the meantime the deceased, who is said to be “sleeping”, not dead until the funeral has taken place, is still in the house with relatives, is talked to and given food. The body is preserved, of course. Nowadays this is done with formalin, but in ancient times magic was used.

I was warmly welcomed in one of the bamboo podium rooms by one of the sons of the deceased. The guide had suggested that I bring a luxury pack of cigarettes as a gift, and this seemed to be appreciated. As guests arrived and handed over their gifts, they were all offered coffee or tea and a large choice of cookies and sweets. One of the daughters-in-law rushed on to my podium to say hello, turned to me and said with a big smile “Oh, I’m so tired, it’s such a busy day”. Yes, it certainly was. In my numbered area, there were, in addition to me, some ladies that later were to dance and a flute player, not yet in action. Three more tourists also joined.

Ritual slaughter of numerous pigs is an essential part of the ceremony, and the slaughter of buffaloes the climax. Around midday lunch was served to all guests, mainly pork from the pigs that had been slaughtered on the spot. Not being a meat eater, I politely declined, although some very kind ladies really insisted and seemed to be seriously worried that I would walk around hungry and possibly unhappy. The lunch time was the calmest period of the day.

For the rest of the time it was very lively: people were happy to meet friends they hadn’t seen for years, the grandchildren of the deceased were thrilled to be beautifully dressed up in colourful traditional outfits (of course this didn’t stop them from playing, shouting and running around), people were still arriving bringing gifts in the shape of, for instance, live pigs, some were busy with the ceremonial proceedings.

Just before lunch a Christian service had taken place in the middle of it all, with some people taking part, others not. I don’t think I would have noticed this at all if I hadn’t heard psalm singing in the loudspeakers. Add to all this the cries of pigs knowing they would be slaughtered or that were actually being slaughtered, flute music, chanting and singing and other noise that you normally associate with big gatherings.

The deceased herself was omni-present: there was her coffin, obviously, bright red with golden decorations. Next to it were her effigy and a huge framed photo. Some, as this group of male dancers and singers, wore t-shirts with her portrait and name.

It was popular to take selfies with the coffin or with the effigy.

Just after lunch the coffin was to be paraded, together with the effigy and the portrait, through the village, through the rice fields. The effigy was meticulously tied onto a portable chair and her hat carefully put in place.

When the parade returned to the main ceremony area, the coffin was violently shaken by jumping and singing men and hauled onto a podium where the master of ceremonies gave a traditional sermon while holding the hat of the deceased. Take a look at this short video clip to get an idea:

Transfer of the coffin to the podium

It was now soon time for the buffalo slaughter, the thing everybody except me had been impatiently waiting for. I sheepishly took a few steps back in order not to see and thus only heard the great excitement of the crowd. It was time for me to leave, I couldn’t possibly take in more impressions.

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