Tana Toraja

We hired a motorbike in Rantepao, $6 for the day, and sped off through the hills. One of Toraja's famous funerals was underway somewhere to the southeast. It seemed there was at least one funeral a day in Toraja, you just had to know which village. Today it was La'bo, and after just twenty minutes through the rice paddies we were unmistakably there.

In the wet fields along the drive were only a handful of farmers and buffalos mired in mud, but here were over a hundred guests, a dozen watching me awkwardly park the bike and struggle to remove my helmet while dozens were milling about both side of the road--family, friends and a smattering of foreigners. Most of these were quickly herded by their hired guides into bamboo boxes. Encircled by towering tongkonan, each intricately carved with curved, sweeping roofs of split bamboo, was the casket. All were waiting for the funeral to begin.

In my broken Bahasa I asked where to find the head of the household and was pointed towards a tiny old woman in black. We approached her and took out our gift, handing it off with both hands. It was a carton of kreteks, and she smiled as she took them, then offered a frail handshake before turning away.

Stepping around the dozen or so tied, squealing pigs laid out in the grass, all waiting to be slaughtered, we were ushered into one of the bamboo huts. The women chewed on sweets while the men chain-smoked kreteks and sipped arak. We chatted with the family members until the first wave of food arrived.

We remained in the hut for several hours, stepping out only briefly whenever the ceremony turned raucous. First it was the lifting of the coffin, as men surrounded the carved box that was painted in red and yellow like most everything else, then carried it in a wandering circle around the patch of grass, shaking the box wildly enough to force out the lingering spirit, and, it seemed, to break some of the corpse's bones. The smiling widow, trailed by a handful of elderly, black-clad peers, led the haphazard procession under a long piece of red cloth tied to the coffin. Somewhere amid the confusion she lost her tail of women and ran ahead into the grass all alone. All eyes were on her the moment she sensed that no one was taking up the rear: she stopped abruptly and the red cloth fell over her in a heap. After struggling with it for a long moment, her face finally emerged from the red cloth. I expected a collective gasp, but it was roaring laughter that rose up from the funeral crowd. Irritated rather than embarassed herself, she trotted back to join the procession that was anything but solemn.

Next came the eulogies. And then more food. And finally, one of the buffaloes was dragged into the patch of grass. Leashed to the ground, its entire body squirmed in agony after its throat was slit, lifting its head high several times before dropping for the last time slowly to the ground. It was at this point in the several days of funeral rites that the old animists of Toraja believed the deceased had finally passed on.

It wasn't long after the buffalo that Joanna was ready to leave. After a round of goodbyes in the smoky hut, we headed out the back way towards the road. The tied-up pigs were shrieking louder than ever, headed the same way as us. Before finding our bike we glimpsed several strewn across the hill in various stages of butchery.

The final resting place for the deceased would be in the limestone caves that dotted the surrounding hills. Some would be buried in stone graves and others hung inside their coffins from the cliffs, often taking years to rot and break onto the rocks below. In a few villages, even this isn't the end: the bodies are dug up each year for family members to be washed and reclothed, the old clothes embedded into decayed flesh or clinging to bones.

Before leaving Rantepao, we rode to a couple cliff sites around Rantepao to see the bones ourselves, finding piles of skulls in the shadows at the mouths of deep caves. Around them were strewn the wreckage of fallen coffins. At Londa, a few meters up the cliff face from the burial site was a shelf crammed with wooden tau tau, effigies of the deceased. From crudely carved faces, the painted eyes stared blankly across the rice paddies below as we headed back down the trail to our bike.




1 comment:

ann said...

Wow! Another world.