4 bemos and a funeral.

Rantepao Travel Blog

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Boy at the funeral

Sulawesi looked amazing from the air, a weird shaped island surrounded by tiny tiny little islands which studded the turquoise see below. We landed in Manado the city in the North. The town was surrounded by rolling green hills covered in coconut plantations and overlooked by volcanoes. We got a taxi into town and nearly every vehicle on the road was a light blue mini van called a Bemo, the major form of public transport over here. After a brief stop over and another flight delay we arrived in Makassar, the largest city on the Island of Sulawesi.

Cave burial
It was not all that pleasant, dirty, congested and punishingly hot and the aroma of open drains heavy in the air. We were glad to get out and we took a 10hr bus ride to the region of Toraja travel guide">Tana Toraja.

Tana Toraja is a fairy isolated set of valleys in a mountainous region and its many inhabitants are renowned for their fascinating culture. The people of Toraja are predominantly Christian but blended with older animist beliefs. The populace are predominantly rice farmers and the valleys, indeed every available space are terraced to support the rice. Various other plants are grown on the steep mountainsides including cocoa, bananas, cassava, sweet potato, tobacco and betel nut.

Baby graves
The architecture is spectacular. The traditional houses are stilted and have huge soaring roofs some say they resemble the horn of the buffalo and others say they resemble ships (the ones which brought these people to Sulawesi). The houses were often surrounded by rice barns which are like tiny miniature versions of the main dwellings. The wooden walls and pillars of the houses were carved intricately with strange repetitive designs and styalised chickens and buffalos. The horns of buffalo often decorate the central supportive pillar of the main house. It was a breathtaking landscape. 

Tana Toraja is most famous for its burial rites and these are huge ceremonies of great importance. Being asked if we would like to attend a funeral ceremony Suzan and I apprehensively agreed as we had read about what might be in store for us but thought that this might be a good chance to get to meet the locals and see something new.

Cliff graves

Up early and we met Amos who had agreed to act as a guide for us and so would hopefully prevent us from making any social errors. The first task of the day was to buy some cigarettes to offer the family of the deceased. Shopping done we hopped into a crowded bemo, the first of many we would need to take to get to the funeral and headed south through the stunning landscape. After much bumping and jolting through pot holes we reached our destination the village of Durian. We negotiated a slope slick with mud for hundreds of trampling feet and past people garbed in black on their way to the funeral.  Funerals in Toraja are such extravagant events and more is spent on them than weddings! When someone dies their body may remain in the house for several years until enough money is saved to give the burial fitting to the deceased and their social standing (the body is preserved with formalin).

Market day
Amos informed us that the dead person is not treated as dead until the funeral and the family continues to offer the deceased food and water daily and treat them as if they are sick.

The common theme of the funerals is feeding of guests and animal sacrifice. The sacrifices are intended to transport the deceased to the next world and this is what we were anxious about. In Toraja it’s not a case of ringing a neck but entire herds of Buffalo and scores of Pigs may be slaughtered at the funeral of someone extremely wealthy. Tana Toraja is bursting with lumbering buffalo. Some individuals (pie balds and fighting buffalo) can cost as much 0f $8000!

Suz and I clambered up to the funeral area a little apprehensively not knowing what to expect. This was the 2nd day of the four day ceremony and we were told was the day of pig sacrifice.

Scaring the children!
We entered a clearing amid traditional rice barns and a huge traditional dwelling and there were hundreds of people neatly sitting. It had the air of a village fete except for the two buffalos, throats slit collapsed on the grass. We sat and observed the proceedings which included various processions of people offering food and the arrival of the pigs screaming their lungs out; they were tightly strapped to bamboo poles and were lugged up the hill and dumped on the grass. In the mean time the slaughtered buffalo were being expertly butchered and the meat divided between the people attending the funeral. The pig sacrifice was carried out at the back of the buildings as it is quite messy, just a quick knife thrust to the heart and it was all over, the blood collected in hollow bamboo tubes for cooking later. The funeral was all a bit much to take in and so we left.

Our next stop were some cave graves dating back 400 years. We caught another bemo and had a bit of a walk through the baking sun to the cave system. We were met with a jumble of human bones which over time had fallen from the ancient coffins hanging from the roof of the cave. It was a strange site made even weirder by the carved representations of the dead people which lined the walls, their white eyes staring out at us. After the cave graves we walked to an area of baby graves. This was even more bizarre. The burial site we were viewing is reserved for very young babies not yet teethed. A cavity in a huge tree is hollowed out and the baby is buried standing up inside the tree, eventually the cavity is closed off as the tree grows. The reason for this strange burial is that the people believe the baby will continue to grow with the tree; the tree itself has white sap and is thought to be very much like the mother’s milk and so therefore have the ability to nourish the infant. The practice of tree burial is dieing out and now only used by the very few animist people left in Toraja.

Our final stop was the hanging graves, and you guessed it, required another bone jarring bemo. This site was spectacular. In a cliff face were various small doors, behind these were the tombs. The bodies are buried in cliffs and caves so as not to take up valuable agricultural land, pretty efficient use of space if you ask me.... This cliff also had the carved figures representing the deceased lined up like spectators at a football match in special carved balcony like areas, there hands were held out to us almost as if they were pleading and it is said this is so that they look welcoming. To place a carving on the cliff the family of the deceased must sacrifice 24 buffalo! The animals these people must get through is staggering.

The following day was market day and we caught a bemo north to the market town. It was an incredible site, hundreds of buffalo of every shape and size were on show and hundreds of pigs were either squealing in pens of tied up to bamboo poles. Men lovingly stroked their fighting cockerels and elderly women hunched over their betel nut and tobacco leaves. We even saw some other tourists; an elderly American couple immaculately dressed sliding through pig shit with a disgusted look on their face, priceless :)  It was hectic and so we left the town and hiked down a mountain through some beautiful countryside.

Tana Toraja had been a real eye opener and we were excited about what lay ahead for us in Sulawesi.

 

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Boy at the funeral
Boy at the funeral
Cave burial
Cave burial
Baby graves
Baby graves
Cliff graves
Cliff graves
Market day
Market day
Scaring the children!
Scaring the children!
Rantepao
photo by: vidalibre