Tana Toraja: A journey through Celebes Highlands

The valley of the butterflies seemed a nice place to spend a Sunday. The valley is nestled in a deep limestone gorge, just an hour from the hustle and bustle of Makassar, and I was looking forward to some peace and reflective solitude with the butterflies.
However, I had forgotten that Sunday means family picnic day everywhere in Indonesia.
By 10:00 a.m., there were already loads of people spreading rugs, juggling rice cookers and playing loud music from speakers.
uckily the portable speakers (all playing different music) remained stationary and I found an escape route. I followed a small trail along the river, which led to a series of waterfalls, and to my delight I found plenty of brightly colored giant butterflies, which are attracted to this scenic valley.

My journey continued on the long highway leading north out of Makassar — the road that takes you on the timeless journey into Tana Toraja.

The Torajan culture, with its elaborate sacrificial funeral rites and sacred burial cave sites guarded by effigies, has fascinated people for centuries. The colorful hand-painted houses called Tongkonans are beautifully decorated in tribal motifs and buffalo horns from past sacrifices.

Torajan culture is said to date back to celestial time as the Torajan people believe they descended from the stars and arrived in starships. It is believed the shapes of their houses resemble those very starships.

I stayed overnight in the town of Pare Pare overlooking the magnificent Makassar Strait, in a hotel perched on top of a hill that offered fantastic views. I was up bright and early the next day for the long, slow drive into the highlands. About five hours later I arrived in Rantepao, the heartland of Toraja country.

At the summit is a place called Buntu Kabobong, which means “erotic mountain”. Why erotic mountain? Well, laid out before you, welcoming you to Toraja, are two enormous geological landmarks that resemble genitalia. To the local people they are known as “Most Holy Penis” and “Most Sacred Vagina”.

This is the place to where the Torajan people claim their first ancestors descended from the Pleiades in starships. Another belief is that the Tongkonan houses resemble a boat-shaped design to allow the soul of a dead person to be launched back to the stars.

The Tongkonans are built without nails and are slotted together with precision, making them strong enough to last a lifetime. The houses stand on stilts enabling a cooling air to circulate; the stilts double as a shelter for the family water buffalo. The slatted floors allow the animal droppings to be collected and reused for crop fertilizer.

The next day my local Indonesian (English-speaking) guide Sada called into an Internet café to check his email. He appeared five minutes later with a big smile on his face.
“We are lucky, Miss,” he said. “Even though the funeral season is usually June and July there is a funeral in progress only 30 kilometers from here.
“It is day three of the funeral and will be the most interesting day: the day of the animal sacrifice.”

Torajan funerals are held only when the families have saved enough money to host the elaborate event. It is necessary to build a complete village to house hundreds of guests over the five-day period. The temporary village is dismantled afterward. The other major cost involves buying animals for sacrifice.
One healthy buffalo can cost up to Rp 40 million (US$4,370) and a pig can cost up to Rp 3 million. It is not uncommon for more than 50 pigs and several buffalo to be sacrificed. For this reason, the dead body may end up being kept in the house for five years or more to await the accumulation of finances.

One of the traditional villages I visited actually had a five-year-old mummified body in the family lounge. The corpse was that of an elderly woman; her husband’s death preceded her own and the family was unable to pay for a second funeral even five years later.

Some of the preserved bodies are stored in ornately decorated sarcophaguses and if you are a man of royal descent, then your royal widow must stay in the same room as the body until the time of burial. It is also not uncommon for a widow to stay there for five years or more.

The widow must stay with the disintegrating corpse and sympathetically “rot” herself, living on a special diet for the entire period, excluding rice products. She must become symbolically dead and is not permitted to leave her husband’s side. Lesser widows and slaves tend to her needs.

To make sure the soul is not neglected, a bowl of food is replenished daily and palm wine poured plus an offering of betel nut or chewing tobacco is made at regular intervals. The Torajans believe it is only through this intense rich ritual that the deceased will always be “a free soul” and become richer in their next life.

It was already 35 degrees when I arrived at the funeral at 10.00 a.m. Sada escorted me along the 1 km trail to reach the temporary bamboo village, which had been erected for the sole purpose of this burial.

If foreign tourists come to a traditional Torajan funeral it is seen as a sign of good luck. In the hierarchical order of status, a foreign tourist is seen as a dignitary, and therefore treated as an honored guest. I had many offers of coffee (homegrown Torajan coffee), for which the area is well known, local cakes and other sweets.

The Torajan society is a highly structured one, with four classes of people, from the nobility down to the peasant class.

Depending on your ranking in the village, you must offer a certain number of pigs or buffalo, which are then slaughtered and the meat distributed evenly among the guests, depending on their ranking in the village society.

A government official records in triplicate every animal given for slaughter and a tax is imposed accordingly.

When a funeral is in process, family members come from all corners of Indonesia; many of the local guests spoke fluent English. In Toraja a nobleman’s son or daughter will have an assistant assigned from birth to accompany him or her throughout early childhood and into young adulthood.

The animal sacrifice had already begun when I arrived. It took place in a specially designed area where pigs and other animals were hauled in to the “circle of death” and killed with great speed and efficiency.

Blood flowed through the middle of the common area and huge chunks of meat were weighed and divided throughout the day according to the ranking and status of the recipients.
A few bamboo pipes went past me, filled with animal blood, but I didn’t dare ask what they were for, or where they were going. I checked my tea was actually tea.

I felt very privileged to attend this ceremonial funeral. In the afternoon I returned to the luxury of the Toraja Heritage Hotel, a magnificent 160-room 4-star property featuring villas designed in the shape of Tongkonan houses.

The hotel had all the finishing touches including a welcoming meet-and-greet service with cold towels and a relaxing head-and-shoulders massage.
Next on the agenda was a visit to several of the death cliffs in the area. This is another fascinating aspect of Torajan culture. The dead are placed in chiseled coffin slots in hillsides, rocks or cliffs.

Some have effigies placed in the open doorways to guard the spirit of the dead body. Others are left open, exposing the bones for all to see.

On day five I decided to take a two-hour drive to a traditional village and experience a homestay with a local family.

Sada made a couple of phone calls and organized an overnight stay in a “real” Tongkonan longhouse in a small village perched high in the mountains.

It was late afternoon when I reached the high road that would lead me to this village.
As it was a school day, a procession of children dotted the side of road. It is not unusual for children to walk between 8 and 12 km to and from school each day.

The children were friendly and inquisitive and tried out their schoolbook English with me. It was a very lively and humorous exchange, which led to a series of fantastic photos.

Though these rural people have very basic standards of living with scarce resources, they are always happy and relaxed, seemingly without a care in the world.

In terms of materialistic acquisition, which many of us in the West aspire to, the Torajans seem happy to live simply, not wanting for much. Their most important asset is a large healthy buffalo.

When I arrived at the Tongkonan house for the night, I had a choice of which attic I wanted to sleep in. I was told the room rate would be a grand total of $4 including a pancake breakfast.

Terraces of rice paddies.

The owners of the homestay cooked a delicious dinner, and I dined that night overlooking the beautiful mountains of Toraja with an exquisite view of the valley below. To enhance the scene, the full moon appeared, bathing the landscape in its light.

It was more than enough to make up for the slight discomfort of sleeping on a simple mattress on the floor and taking a traditional stand-up cold mandi (bath).

The next morning I awoke to find I was above the clouds. I descended down into the misty valley where the next adventure awaited me — white-water rafting.

It was a one-hour walk through a series of rice fields and a small village to the “put-in” on the riverbank. As we paddled downstream, I lost myself in nature.

Only the occasional swooping of eagles soaring above interrupted the quiet serenity of the deep gorge.

As the river narrowed, its energy changed as we passed by a series of large waterfalls cascading from the steep mountainous terrain. The rapids appeared in small bursts, but mostly it was a trip down a lazy river — just the remedy for finishing a spectacular seven-day trip into Torajaland.

For anyone who wants to experience a fascinating culture, set in an exquisite mountain environment, then Tana Toraja is a gem worth exploring.

by; Stephanie Brookes , Contributor ; Source: http://www.thejakartapost.com