Attending Rambusolo at Tana Toraja

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May 16th 2014
Published: May 17th 2014
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Over a Vesak long weekend holiday, I had a window of opportunity to visit the long waited destination of Tana Toraja. As usual, all the arrangements were made at the last minute: my tour (with Indonesia Adventure), accommodation at Makassar and also Garuda plane ticket from Jakarta. The thought of going to Tana Toraja was quite remote, and the destination was not in my 'near future to go to' list. Many of friends kept mentioning about visiting Toraja but were daunted by the idea of going to an unknown and remote place, so they must have been glad that I decided to check out the place!

After all the arrangement was done, I decided to go without knowing if there were any funeral ceremony (most sought after event in Tana Toraja) or not.

On Friday afternoon, I took Garuda flight from Jakarta and reached Makassar in the evening and had an overnight stay at a small but cozy Santika hotel. The next day I was picked up by my guide, Ithos, and off we went.

The eight hours car ride to Tana Toraja didn't seem long at all as we stopped by at a fisherman town, Pare Pare, to have lunch and enjoyed the view of the town. It's relatively painless as the road condition was good and flat. Along the way, I could see the colourful traditional wooden houses of the Bugis people next to its shrimp farms ("Tambak"). The Bugis people in this area made a living from fisheries, rice and shrimp farming but are most famous for being seafarers for hundreds of years (as of today, Bugis descendants are found in Singapore and Malaysia and are famous for sea voyage with their Schooners or "Kapal Phinisi").

We had lunch at a scenic Bukit Kenari Restaurant, overlooking the town and Suiawesi strait. This is a common stop-over place for those who visit from and to Tana Toraja. Alternative shorter route is through Palopo although it is not recommended as the flight schedule can be irregular depending on weather (the runway is short which made it difficult for a plane to land in bad weather).

After early lunch, we drove for two hours until we stopped for an afternoon break where we got to taste the local Toraja coffee and banana fritter while enjoying the magnificent hilly view of Bambapuang Mountain at Enrekang. The restaurant was simple, but the view was stunning (it reminded me of the view at Terelj National Park, Mongolia!). The last part of the drive took approximately 3 hours as the road was curvy, and I could see the gradual changes of the style of the houses from the Bugis style wooden houses to the buffalo-shaped roof Toraja houses ("Tongkonan")- among the pine trees and rice fields.

The first town we reached at Tana Toraja Regency was Makale where the Bupati or the Regency Head resided. I could not help comparing this place with Ubud as we passed through endless rice fields along the way. Unlike Bali, locally, Toraja is not yet a famous destination which could be a blessing as the town remains peaceful and original (there were not many cafes, small shops and boutique hotels). I arrived at a three-star Luta Toraja Resort - by the river - at Rantepao right before dark and was relieved to find the hotel neat and clean.

My tour started the next morning at 8:30 am. My guide, Ithos, suggests that we spent the whole day sight seeing as no activities held on Sunday while the locals went to Churches. The majority of the people in this Regency is either Catholic or Protestant; the missionaries penetrated this area approximately a hundred years ago.

The first destination was a cotton weaving village of Sa'dan where I could see a few Tongkonan ("the traditional Toraja houses") for the first time in my life and could not help asking the guide if people actually lived there (it looked small so I was curious how people fit in the small space). Each carvings on the wall has a meaning; the dagger symbolises royal family, the wheel below the cock represents the moon and earth as the Toraja people believe in the purity of the universe. A few houses have wooden buffalo heads or stacks of buffalo horns hung at the front of the house. All Tongkonan face North as the people believe that their ancestors came from the South. Sa'dan is a village where we can see the women weave cotton clothes traditionally. The more recent Tongkonan often had more similar but smaller shaped barns located across the Tongkonan, reflecting the social status of the owner as the more rice barns they have, the more rice fields they own.

From this village, we went North and up towards the mountainous area of Batumonga, passing through various villages where we could see many burial sites of the locals on large boulders. The Toraja natives believe that the earth is pure and is not to be contaminated. Whenever possible, the natives would burry the corpses on the wall of karst cliff, in the absence of which (in the Southern part), they would use large boulders as a burial site. A rectangular-shaped cave would be manually carved (it took months to complete one. Some build a funeral house to put coffins inside; none is buried on the ground).

We had lunch at a scenic restaurant and hotel, Mentirotiku, at Sesean, where we could see the magnificent view of Rantepao from a distance. After lunch, we visited a traditional grave site, Londa, where the royal family was buried. Here, we could see the effigies ("Tau Tau") hung on the wall of the cliff, of which size and faces resembled the deads (they were carved near perfection and looked so real, with the expression on the faces).

The last visit for the day was Kete Kesu, a more modern wood carving village, behind which was a small, heritage burial site used historically by the royal family. A few skulls were in tact, and wood carved effigies were safeguarded to avoid them being looted.

The next day, I was pleased to learn that there was a funeral ceremony("Rambusolo") at Tembamba village. There is no centralised information about the date or locations of the funeral ceremonies; each guide must be skilful enough to find out the information from their contacts throughout the Regency. It was a a privilege for me to attend the ceremony as it did not happen every day. There are a lot more ceremonies held during school holiday in June - July as out-of-town or overseas family members would return to the village to attend it). There is no certain rules that determines the date of the ceremony after the death or how long the mummy i seeing kept; after death, corpse was being mummified and kept at the back of the house until the burial date usually held once the family had sufficient funds to hold one. To hold a Rambusolo, family members need to have sufficient funds as it can be costly (the more the number of buffaloes being scarified, the higher the status of the family) and preparation can take months.

Before heading towards Tembamba village, we went to another burial site called Lemo, which was scenic as it is located next to rice field. Unlike the previous burial site, the effigies in this locations were brightly dressed, recently changed held under 'Manenek ceremony'.

After 45 minutes drive and numerous checks along the way regarding the exact locations of the ceremony, our driver managed to reach the location. We still had to walk and to go through a village passing through a few Tongkonan, and were lucky enough to be able to visit one of them. The house was owned by a family came from the royal family as shown by the dagger carvings on the wall. The 76 year old lady who lived in the house had five children who live in Papua, Makassar and this village. She did not speak Bahasa Indonesia as she hardly went out of the house and did not even attend the funeral of her relative. While speaking to her, we could see her neighbours busy carrying boars while some drank rice fermented drinks ("Tuak") from bamboos.

I didn't expect any other overseas visitors as the place was quite remote, but slowly we were joined by a few other groups. We followed the locals heading towards the Rambusolo location and found the place was packed by the relatives and neighbours. The Toraja people were hospitable; we were seated in one of the temporary made huts and were served coffees and cookies. In return, visitors would bring a slot of cigarette for the family as male visitors were handed out a pack of cigarettes upon leaving the ceremony. The boars were taken to the rear area of the house, near the kitchen, where they were slaughtered and roasted (the meat was cut and put inside the bamboo and was grilled - a local delicacy in this region). I didn't stay throughout the entire ceremony which could take days and left after the buffalo was being slaughtered. Ithos had warned me to standby with my camera given the speed of the action. Indeed I had my camera ready yet still missed to capture the moment when the young man swing the machete so fast that it slit the throat of the buffalo literally in a split second. All I could see the blood squirted from the neck of the poor buffalo, and only then I heard a burst of cry inside the house when the family turned the corpse from facing South to the North, officially letting go the soul to eternity.

To ensure the buffalo sacrifice process went smoothly and the soul of the buffalo went back to the Almighty, mantras were being read to the buffaloes throughout the night (often tears came out from their eyes while mantras were being read!). Close relatives would typically donate either a boar or a buffalo to the family. A two coloured (semi-albino) buffalo was more precious and was typically being sacrified by the higher status family.

After the ceremony, we had lunch at Panorama restaurant, overlooking rice field before continuing our trip visiting the last burial site at Suaya. Unlike the two burial sites visited earlier, this one was not well kept. I was lucky to see a cock fighting ("Bulangan Londong"), a local tradition held prior to the cliff carving as part of the series of events in preparation for the funeral. This was my first time witnessing a cock fighting, within five minutes from the start, one of them was badly injured, leading to the crowds cheering. The next stop was a baby grave of Kambira. In this village, the people believe in burying the dead babies inside a hole in a Tara tree. It is a tradition where they believe the soul of the babies do not die as long as the tree keep growing.

The last stop was the visit to Kopi Toraja Cafe, which sells traditional brewed and roasted coffee. The owner was nice and patient enough to explain the origin of the coffee from the Northern part of Toraja called Awan ("Cloud"). His grand mother was a coffee trader from Pinrang, and his dad got married to someone from Toraja which why the family moved to Rantepao. He used to be a guide and used to take guests to the coffee plantation himself until a Starbuck representative suggested that he opened a cafe himself. It's a modest one but all I can say was that he made one hell of good coffee! He bought the semi processed coffee beans from the coffee farmers, processed them further, and selected same size beans before roasted them traditionally using a clay pot to preserve the aroma of the coffee. I have never tasted traditionally brewed coffee as good as in this place!

The drive back to Makassar the next day was relatively easier even though it was raining throughout the drive. We had a delicious seafood lunch at Pare Pare and reached the airport one and a half hour before my departure. I was glad I made the decision to visit this place but regretted I didn't stay longer to try the white water rafting of visit other places like Tilanga. It looks like I have to come back for the second time to explore the Southern part: visit the floating village, Bulukumba or Phinisi making village and also cotton weaving village of Sengkang and if I get lucky, go all the way to Wakatobi and explore all the smaller islands for an underwater experience.

Additional photos below
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Boar Boar

A typical gift from relatives to the family

17th May 2014

What an interesting place you've visited. Thanks for taking us along.

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