Toraja graves

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June 5th 2018
Published: June 7th 2018
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Today we are off to see some of the various burial sites used by the Toraja. Their belief system is complex. Most of them are Christian, and their Christianity seems to combine seamlessly with their ancient beliefs. They are not animists by and large; they are not into spirit worship. Christianity came to Toraja when the Dutch came to the area in 1906. Only about 15% of the population are Muslim, unlike the rest of south Sulawesi which is heavily Islamic.

However, first we are going to see the twice weekly livestock market in Rantepao. This is where buffalo and pigs are traded. Buffalo are imported from elsewhere in Indonesia to satisfy the almost insatiable demand for buffalo for sacrifice, and the traders bring them here. There are hundreds of beasts in several rings, on the open ground and in the stalls. Little knots of men crouch on the ground and money changes hands. Other men have their fighting cocks and seem to be arranging contests. There are massive piles of buffalo poo everywhere, sometimes with straw mixed in, and slurry squelches under and over our boots. Dear Lord, please do not let either of us slip and fall over.

Then we come to the pig stalls. These are generally for immediate sacrifice. You come along in your truck or on your motor bike, select your already trussed pig, and take it away to the funeral or whatever to have its throat slit. Nice.....this culture is not for the faint-hearted. Reeling from the sights and the smells, we walk round the “ordinary” market, with the usual Asian array of fish, poultry, and weird and wonderful fruit, vegetables and dried who knows what? Fortunately Enos is very good at explaining what everything is.

We drive south to find some Toraja graves. First we find some cliff graves. Here people have been buried in holes hacked out of cliff faces. If you were of the higher classes you had a wooden representation of you made that stands in the front of the grave and looks out for all eternity over the landscape. There are mostly hundreds of years old. If it is a 20th century burial it may be supplemented by a little “chapel”. There are usually clusters of these graves, and wooden people, grouped together, as other family members die. They are put in the same grave and a new statue added. Often the wooden carrier made to carry the coffin to the grave is left nearby as it cannot be reused for a later family death. We see little workshops where carvers are making various sized wooden people, some for modern graves and some as souvenirs for visitors.

Next we move on to see some rock graves. These are a series of cavities hacked and carved out of large rocks, rather than cliffs. Here there are no wooden people, just these cavities peppering the rock face with wooden doors, and the coffins behind. In one the door has rotten away and the bones can be seen protruding through the hole.

Enos shows us a baby grave. We find this somehow rather disturbing. In a tall and stout tree (which must always be a tree with white sap) there are a number of square holes cut, and hollowed out behind. Some of these holes are covered with bamboo matting. The ritual was that if a baby dies and is of an age where it is yet to grow teeth, the body is put into the tree by way of burial. Eventually the tree grows new bark and closes over the body.

On now to the hanging graves. No one knows for sure how old these are, but some are reckoned to be at least 1000 years old. These are found in natural caves, or on cliff faces with natural cavities. Wooden platforms were built on the side of the cliff or cave, sheltered from the weather, and the elaborately carved coffin was left on the wooden platform. However the climate eventually caused the wood to rot and the coffins have mostly fallen down to the ground, though some have rotted on their platforms. Bones and skulls have fallen out and litter the ground, many falling out of some coffins as whole generations were buried in one box. In places skulls and bones have been neatly piled up and the sight looks like an ossuary or a charnel house where some dreadful slaughter has taken place. There are also areas where the wooden people, where they were used, have been gathered up and put behind grills to stop them being stolen. They look very creepy staring out from the gloom.

One myth has to be dispelled about the dead bodies. We had read, and seen pictures, that suggested the bodies were taken out of once a year, and paraded around town. This is not strictly true. Whilst they may once a year be taken out and redressed, they don't get taken around. And once they are formally committed to the grave, as opposed to being kept in the coffin in the home (where they can be kept for years) they would not be taken out again. Apparently the story arose because last year a Belgian photo crew came to Toraja to make a documentary. Enos our guide was one of the fixers for this, and one of his friends took his mother out of her coffin, dressed her up, put some sunglasses on her and took her about town on his motorbike, while the crew filmed it all. He was clearly a bit of a show off, but justified it on the basis that his mother had always nagged him to get a motorbike so he could take her around town. He did not get one until after she died, so he said he was just fulfilling his promise to her!

The heat is building and we stop for lunch at a tongkonan cooked by a local family. We sit on a wooden platform under a rice barn while the family dogs look wistful as they peer onto the platform. Feeding them is not allowed as they will start fighting if we do. On the front of their house is a big collection of buffalo horns and on the side is a collection of buffalo jawbones.

Back on the road and we visit another group of clan houses. Suddenly the skies open and the rain hammers down. Fortunately we have just about finished our sightseeing for the day so it’s back to the hotel. We need a bit of down time as the unremitting pace of this trip is getting to us a bit!

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