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Boathouses and Buffaloes
"Incline your ear to me, hear what flows from my mouth. For cupped in my hand, I hold the golden breast of the substitute for the ladder to heaven".

So begins a sacred litany that, for followers of Aluk Todolo, the traditional animistic religion of Indonesia's Toraja people, symbolizes the close connection between the realm of the living and that of the dead. Direct belief in this faith may have declined drastically, but a preoccupation with matters of life and death has remained.

Tana Toraja, the Toraja heartland, is located on Sulawesi, an island whose very shape-a spastic letter K to some, a Rorschach blot to others-hints at the special nature of its diverse ethnicity. Occupying the highland region located in the northern part of South Sulawesi, the Toraja maintained for centuries a precarious independence, alternatively trading with or fighting their neighbors to the south, the Bugis. When one travels the region's back trails and roads, something best done by pony, or on foot, the ruggedness of the topography suggests how the Toraja were able to remain in relative isolation. Lush river valleys are highlighted by terraced rice fields and dotted with numerous steep limestone and granite outcrops. Nearby hills assert themselves and larger, more forbidding peaks of a bluish hue seem always to hover in the distance. To the Bugis, the inhabitants of those highlands were to ri aja, 'people of the mountains'.

Independence came to an end in 1906 after a brief war with the Dutch who had decided to take complete control of Sulawesi. The missionaries who followed in the soldiers' wake found that Toraja animism was dualistic in nature, divided into aluk rampe matallo (life rituals) and aluk rampe matampu (death rituals). The former, which were largely concerned with agriculture, emphasized fertility and therefore had sexual overtones. This offended the prudish morality of the clerics, and those customs were de-emphasized. Death ritual behavior, on the other hand, was allowed to flourish, and evidence of this is everywhere.

From Makale, the administrative center of Tana Toraja, it is eight kilometers by road through flourishing paddy fields to the village of Suaya. Just before the settlement, there begins a path that quickly leads to a vertical limestone rockface. A grotto has been dug into the rock and placed inside it are the carved effigies of deceased Toraja nobility. Known as tau-tau, which means 'little person', these haunting figures can be over a meter in height and are carved, usually from the wood of jackfruit trees, by special woodcarvers.

Attempts are made to capture, as realistically as possible, the physical and facial features of the people they represent. Detail is also paid to dressing the statues, and garments are often replaced every few years. It is believed by believers of Aluk Todolo that the spirit of the deceased resides within its effigy and certainly the effect produced by the artists does nothing to detract from that notion. The faces of the tau-tau appear to be gazing off at some distant transcendent reality.

Although Toraja, whether Christian or adherents of Aluk Todolo, treat tau-tau with the utmost respect, some effigies have unfortunately been stolen by outsiders and have found their way onto the international art market. In some areas of Tana Toraja, replacements have been carved, and at other sites, tau-tau thought to be at risk from theft are locked in their grottoes at night.

Not much further on from Suaya, near Kembira village, is another striking example of Toraja mortuary ritual. A large tree has been set aside to contain several baby graves. Reserved for children who had died before their first teeth appeared, the graves consisted of hollowed out sections of the tree which were then covered with the fiber from sugar palms. In the past, Toraja parents would make every effort to keep their infants' feet from touching the ground, as it was thought that, in the eventuality of death, the child's spirit would ascend to heaven faster. Placement of the corpse above ground thus both symbolized and aided this process.

If tau-tau and baby graves exemplify the abode of the dead, the abode of the living is well characterized by the traditional Toraja house, or tongkonan. The word derives from a Toraja verb that means "to sit". Tongkonan are constructed upon square wood piles, are rectangular in floor plan, and have roofs turned upward at both ends. They are often decorated in elaborate motifs and have become a symbol of the region and its people. The overall shape is immediately suggestive of ships and, indeed, Toraja myth postulates that the earliest inhabitants arrived by sea from the north, and overturned their vessels to use as homes.

As well as symbolizing an ethnic foundation, these structures also commemorate a kinship one. Families trace their genealogy through particular houses and an extended relationship is noted when Toraja say to each other that, "our houses meet". Tongkonan are situated throughout the region and the growth of a money economy, combined with a blurring of class distinctions (previously only higher-class families could build them), has meant that more are being built today.

One good place to see these houses is in the Palawa area, some ten kilometers north of the main tourist accommodation center at Rantepao. At one hamlet, several tongkonan are lined up, with each facing a rice barn. The barns, or alangs, are constructed in the same style as the houses, albeit on a smaller scale and with rounded wood piles used as stilts instead of square ones. The effect of the two rows is one of symmetry, and one that blends in perfectly with the landscape. A good place to rest, and to meet villagers, is on the elevated floor situated below the rice barn storage area.

West from Palawa, towards the upcountry town of Batutumonga, there are several tongkonan whose north sides are supported by pillars festooned with rows of water buffalo horns from top to bottom. These horns represent strength, fertility, prosperity, and are reckoned to repel evil influences. They are the remains of buffaloes sacrificed in the dramatic funeral ceremonies of the Toraja that have brought tourists in their tens of thousands to the region each year.

Funerals have an enormous significance in Tana Toraja. For followers of the old belief, death is not an abrupt change but rather a passage from one realm to the other, as can be inferred from the symbolism of the ladder in the sacred litany. A body might be kept, wrapped in cloth, and in the family house for years before the final ceremonies are completed. For all Toraja, these funerals also serve to demonstrate the social status of families and to provide a forum to allocate inheritance, as relatives come from far and wide. Visitors are welcome, as this also acts to confer prestige.

In recent years there have been problems with the behavior of some foreign guests. Many have dressed poorly, wearing shorts and singlets for example, or have declined to bring appropriate gifts for the deceased's family, such as sugar or clove cigarettes. Others have insisted that ritual activity be speeded up for their benefit. "Can't you ask them to hurry up; it's hot here', were the words of one bored middle-aged American woman to her guide. Usually these problems are avoided when Toraja guides are used as they are more in tune with local sensibilities than outsiders, for whom monetary compensation is more motivating, are.

The ceremonies, which are complicated in nature, culminate in the dramatic sacrifice of water buffaloes and pigs. The more buffaloes sacrificed, the quicker the journey will be, it is thought, to Puya, the Aluk Todolo afterworld, or to the Christian heaven. Buffaloes piebald in color are especially valued for these ceremonies and are accordingly very expensive in the region.

At the village of Banga, I attended a ritual slaughter to conclude the funeral of an eighty-year old grandmother who had died two years before. In an open field, a lakke-lakkean, which is large structure resembling a tongkonan, had been built to hold the grandmother's coffin. In front of that edifice was a white flag. The presence of this flag signified that the family had sufficient wealth to have at least ten buffaloes killed. A makeshift pavilion of wood for guests was erected in front of the lakke-lakkean to create a courtyard.

The ritual began with buffalo fights. A pig was then killed and sections of the meat were distributed to family and friends. A group of elders sitting on mats started singing and this was shortly followed by a ceremonial parade around the courtyard of the ten water buffaloes to be sacrificed. After an extended discussion concerning the distribution of buffalo meat and gifts, the slaughter commenced. This was accomplished by a slash to each animal's jugular vein with a long knife. It was definitely not a sight for the squeamish, but the rather large Eurovideo tourist crowd seemed entranced and moved in as close as possible. Toraja men then carved up the animals to conclude the ceremony, and apportioned the meat by previous arrangement. Burial would occur within a few days.

The rhythms of daily life in Tana Toraja also provide a fascinating attraction and nowhere is this better seen than in the great market at Rantepao, held every six days. A muddy entrance way opens up to rows of stalls where there are separate areas for sellers of rice, vegetables, and fish, and assorted sundry items. Locally-grown coffee is a prized commodity and, in its arabica variety, is also exported to world markets. Beyond the stalls lies a large paddock where scores of water buffaloes are appraised and bargained for. An adjoining covered structure contains the pig market where there are rows of large porkers bound at the feet and resting upon bamboo stretchers. Customers slide long bamboo poles between the animals' legs and heave them onto nearby pickup trucks. Smaller piglets are tied with straw or rope and carried away as one would a handbag.

The visual effect of the emporium is that of a large country festival. Nonetheless, its primary function is economic and some might argue that monetary concerns have come to play too large a role in Tana Toraja. The increasing numbers of visitor arrivals and the infrastructure needed to accommodate them has generated wealth which might not be spread evenly enough. Important decisions are often made in Jakarta by outsiders.

In one revealing example, the authorities in Jakarta decided that Toraja animism (animism is officially illegal in Indonesia) was in fact a variant of Hinduism (despite the animal slaughter), thinking that as Bali was Hindu and tourists went to Bali, the same thing might draw visitors to Sulawesi. It is not uncommon for children to ask for money or for sweets. One youngster, no more than five years old, and thinking I was French, like many other visitors, serenaded me with his rendition of "Alouette", hoping for a payment. Also, and perhaps more understandably, many Toraja expect payment for photographs. This aside, Torajaland remains culturally vibrant and secure even as it faces a more complicated future.

Used and edited with permission of R. Humphries/Photostoryworld


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