Heaven and Kings – Tana Toraja

Heaven and Kings – Tana Toraja

The people of Toraja, a beautiful mountainous land in South Sulawesi, believe their ancestors came down from heaven using stairs. It is here in the mountains complicated and expensive ceremonies sustain many aspects of prehistoric megalithic culture that cannot be experienced anywhere else in the world. For the Toraja people, life and death are as much intertwined as they are separate. Although majority are Christians while some follow Islam as a religion, a minority group still retain the local beliefs known as ‘Aluk Todolo” -Ancient Way. It practiced animism with the view that non-human entities, animals, plants, and even inanimate objects can possess spiritual essence. The rituals are strictly categorized in two divisions. ‘Rambu Tuka’, the Rising Sun or Smoke Ascending rituals are associated with the north and east, with joy and life. ‘Rambu Solo’, the Setting Sun or Smoke Descending rituals are associated with the south and west, with darkness, night, and death.

With the arrival of Dutch missionaries in the twentieth century and subsequent gradual conversion, the faiths and respective customs have influenced each other. Fertility aspects of the ancient way were stopped, as was the rare practice of offering ‘aluk mangaung’ -freshly severed human heads at the end of a funeral. Under the impact of Christianity and the growing influence of Toraja church, many of the larger sacrifices which deal with life have not been practiced for many years. But rituals has mixed in with Christian practices as well. For example, at The Feast of the Dead people attend church and then sacrifices buffalo. Pigs are slaughtered at opening ceremonies of new churches. Nevertheless, even those who follow other religions, still converge when it comes to ancient funeral customs where the entire family of the deceased, and all the members of the village take part.

The Torajans traditionally believe that death is not a sudden, abrupt event, and closure. It is not termination but alteration. The soul lives the body, which is perishable and progresses towards eternity. During their lives they work hard to accumulate wealth to afford the funeral -the passage of one stage to the next. In fact, it is the extravagance of the funeral, not the wedding, which marks a family’s status in Torajan community.

Funeral ceremonies are the most important ritual to the Tarajans and are often held weeks, months, or even years after the death of a person to give the family of the deceased enough time to raise money for expenses. Traditionally twenty four buffaloes must be sacrificed for the ritual to be completed and is an expensive affair. The spotted buffalo is considered to be the most expensive sacrifice and can cost of eight thousand dollars. It is believed that all sacrifices will accompany the deceased to eternity. The body is not buried but embalmed and kept in their residence. These day’s formalin is used for preservation. Until the funeral ceremonies are completed, the person is not considered to be dead but merely suffering an illness. This could even last several years after death, depending on how long it takes the family to raise money. During this time, the deceased family member is symbolically fed, cared for and taken out, and is very much a part of daily life. Only after the ceremony they are considered dead.

The burial aspects of the Torajan people are also varied and interesting. There are megaliths where the status of the person can be estimated by the height of the menhirs. The higher the menhir the more expensive it is. There are also chiseled graves curved high up in cliffs, often at inaccessible places where the dead are kept in their new houses. Highly decorated casket made from one tree trunk are hung from cliff faces or perched high or rocky ledges and holds the dead of a family. Infact, Torajans consider the graves as extension of theirfamily houses. Therefore, death is just a passageway from one house to the next. Traditional motifs with deep significance such as buffalo, rooster, sunrays, stripes, swirls and swastikas are carved and painted on the houses and the graves. They are now often embellished with crosses.A wood-carved effigy called tau tau, carved with the likeness of the dead person is then placed in the balcony of the tomb to represent the dead and watch over their remains.

Another unique aspect of the old faith is the burial of children who has died before teething. In such cases, there is no delay in performing the funeral ritual as the baby is believed to be innocent and part of nature. The body is wrapped in cloth and placed inside a hollowed out space within the trunk of a ‘Tarra’ tree and covered over with a door made of palm fibre. It is believed that as the tree begins to heal, the child’s essence will drink sap of the tree, grow and reach out for heaven above as part of the tree.

The ancient belief system still very much governs the life of the society, demonstrated by ceremonies, settlement arrangement, houses, decorations, the role of water buffalo, and of course, the funerary customs. It survived invasions from the Buginese in the seventeenth century, the influx of Dutch missionaries in the early 20th century, and the Japanese invasion during world war II and it still endures today.

However, the landscape is changing with modernization and the practice of ‘Aluk Todolo’ is diminishing. The functions of’ religious priest in funeral ceremonies and other rituals have been replaced by priests from Toraja church. Islam is also spreading in the area. With only oral component to carry forward the traditions and rituals, it is difficult now to ascertain the ‘real’ from the ‘tourist show’. The second most visited destination after Bali, Tana Toraja is undergoing rapid change under the tourism developers that is influencing the life of the people in both economic, social and religious terms.

©Shahnewaz Karim, 2015

  • ‘Aluk todolo” -Ancient Way
  • ‘Aluk mangaung’ -going head hunting
  • ‘Erong’ -highly decorated casket made from one tree trunk
  • ‘Liang Pa’ -chiseled graves
  • ‘Puya’ -eternity
  • ‘To makula’ -a person who is sick/hot
  • ‘Tondok lepowan bulan’ -a country round like a moon
  • ‘Tongkona’ -family houses
  • ‘To Minaa’ -religious priest

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