Celebrating Death in Sulawesi
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
The old woman called Nee has died, yet she still lives. Her body has been injected with formaldehyde to preserve it, and an eerily lifelike effigy was carved from hardwood.
Soon she will be taken up the mountain to the village of the dead. Bulls will be slaughtered, their ghosts accompanying Nee into the hereafter.
The Indonesian rituals of the Tana Toraja, as ERIC PASQUIER discovered, rival those of ancient Egypt in their complexity and worship of Death. A fascinating reportage, illustrated with unique photography.
On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi they say that the dead are merely ill.
The dead must, in fact, wait for a very long time before they are finally buried, so until that time they’re in the twilight zone of ‘ill health’ – mummified until their interment and onward passage to the paradise of the Torajas.
We accompanied the body (and presumably soul) of one such person: Nee, a woman who died at the age of 85 but who is not really dead according to the local custom. Even though she died eight months ago, she’s still not considered to be well and truly dead until she’s received the proper send-off from the land of the living.
Toraja is a general name for the ethnic groups who live in the mountainous inland of Sulawesi – Tana Toraja is the southern tip of this region, and it is here that the Sa’dan Toraja live. Their territory covers a tiny area between the high hills, the villages linked by myriad pathways; there’s only one asphalt road in the whole area.
Small wonder that time hasn’t really passed here – well, it passed by and kept on going. The area is as untouched as ever, its people still respecting time-honoured rituals.
Before the Dutch conquered these highlands in the early twentieth century, there was no word in the Toraja language at all for ‘religion’. Instead, there was a term referring to codes of conduct in both rituals and daily life; how the people should build houses, cook rice, address children and the village head, sacrifice bulls at funerals and when to start planting the crops.
Nowadays, the Toraja call this code of conduct cum belief system Aluk To Dolo, ‘Rites of Yesteryear’, showing how important the beliefs of their ancestors are to the current Toraja. One of the most basic tenets is that constant exchange of gifts, blessing and even curses must occur between the living and the ancestral spirits.
The ancestors take care of pretty much everything: they look down on the mortal plains from on high, watch over the community and the fertility of the fields.
Appeasing them is, in other words, paramount to a healthy society and the Toraja excel at keeping their ancestors happy, especially when their souls are in transit from life to the hereafter. In terms of respect for one’s ancestors, Aluk To Dolo makes Confucianism look positively insubordinate.
As for the Toraja’s relationship with death, judging by the intricate, bloody and even joyful rituals, there is no Western squeamishness about the ultimate transition here. Children are quite happy to bathe in bull’s blood or kiss the skulls of dead relatives when the time requires, so the Torajans learn from an early age that dying is in fact the sacred counterpart to living; not a dreaded event heralded by the Grim Reaper.
Fear doesn’t come into it. And given the meticulous attention paid to the mummification, effigies, coffins and making sure the soul makes it safely to the land of the dead, it’s clear this is a belief system as complex as that of ancient Egypt.
The death rituals have withstood westernisation more than any other aspect of Aluk To Dolo, and in fact the wealth that the coffee trade brought to the people since the early twentieth century has made current rituals far more spectacular than they were, say, 150 years ago. Unlike almost all indigenous cultural practices, then, it seems that the west and its money have strengthened, not weakened, these rituals so peculiar to the Toraja.
Nee Pangallo died eight months ago at the age of 85. Her brother shows us her photograph: a white-haired, frail-looking woman wearing a light blue blouse, sitting slightly hunched over. The fact that her funeral is about to go ahead is unusually soon after her ‘death’ – usually the dead are mummified (traditionally with local herbs and leaves; nowadays, with formaldehyde), placed on the roof and left there for two to five years. Long enough for the family to collect the money needed for a really good funeral.
While the dead lie on the roof, they are thought to have a headache, and surviving family members still put food and drink out for their migraine-stricken relatives. But Nee was from a well-to-do family, and the eight months that have passed since her ‘headache’ began were enough for family to pool resources and put everything in place for the great send-off.
We are sitting in a typical Torajan house: a large, finely carved house covered with an upward curving roof, making it look oddly nautical – a seventeenth century galleon, or a giant admiral’s hat. It is one of several, lined up in a neat row, and the village looks like a harbour, with the galleons moored next to each other. Near to the village clearing a cliff-face rises from the forest, high and forbidding, while on the other side stretch rice paddy fields, lush, green and endlessly humid. The jungle covers the hills in the distance and the sky is bruised with ever-present rain clouds.
Nee’s photograph (and the mummified corpse itself) will be used by one of the most respected and accomplished men in the area: the wood carver, or to pande tao tao – he who is skilled at making tao tao. It is his job to carve an effigy – a tao tao – of Nee out of noble hardwood and it must be as lifelike as possible, because then the magic will be stronger. The tao tao must acquire the virtues of the dead woman, so the more lifelike the better. And of course, the more skilled the carver, the better – this man is one of the best. Only the well-to-do or nobles have a tao tao; the corpses of commoners don’t pose for carvers, they are instead placed straight into their coffin – tongkonan – without prior ceremony.
Typifying the intricacy of these rituals, however, the family must first consult a ‘tradition keeper’ – to minah – who is a village elder and apparently has the low-down on when the time is best for making the tao tao. He must have given the go-ahead, because the carver has already begun his work of art.
The to pande tao tao has only been carving for a few hours, but already Nee’s face appears from the wood; her nostrils, neck, forehead and mouth seem so realistic, this artist could easily work for Madam Tussaud’s. The arms and legs – the less important bits – will be carved by the to pande tao tao’s apprentices, and when it’s all finished, the tao tao will be dressed in Nee’s clothing and adorned with her jewellery.
After a few days, we hear that the tao tao is finished and we go along to the carver’s house to have a look at the final result. As we enter the house, Nee is sitting on a chair, staring blankly into space – the resemblance is eerie and we expect her to blink and smile at any moment. The carver stands back to appraise his work and mumbles to himself. He is satisfied.
Meanwhile, another carver will work on carving a stretcher-cum-hearse, a miniature replica of a small Toraja house – the deceased’s second home, as it were. It will, in turn, contain an elaborately carved coffin wrapped in brightly coloured matting – this is a box-like sarcophagus that is, at least, recognisable as a coffin to a westerner.
In some areas of Sulawesi, the carved house is enormous and acts as the grave itself, holding up to 20 corpses in their coffins. This type of house-grave is called a Tang Mare Rambo – the house which no longer smokes – and is a bit like a western family mausoleum or ossuary.
Now the real ceremony can begin: the Mapasanglo (ceremony of the first day). This involves a procession carrying Nee in her brand-new house-coffin around the village as if it were a round-trip tour for final goodbyes. Only close relatives attend the Mapasanglo, so the ceremony is more solemn than noisy. The house-grave is placed on a lattice-framework of tree branches and carried on the shoulders of around 20 young men – the wood that went into the coffin and house-grave is hard-wood and very heavy. The men shout out instructions at each other and are obviously labouring under the weight. Nee’s photograph is there again, this time on the roof of the house-grave as it jostles and bounces around the village.
The Tutaun kumu (party of the second day), when it dawns, is a very lively affair. As Nee was a wealthy woman, the guests number around 2000 and tampang – temporary houses – have been built especially for them. These houses are clustered together so that the village temporarily gains a central square; the scene for the death rites to come. Today is really the opportunity for Nee’s family to splash out and show off their wealth and social status. It’s also a good chance to have a family reunion which, like most reunions around the world, is accompanied with much shrieking, hugging, laughter and gossip.
These rituals – carrying the coffin, dancing and singing – will continue for seven days. More guests will arrive, and the party goes on until deep into the night.
But no funeral would be complete without the matundan: the liberal slaughter of a few fatted calves – or buffaloes, in this case. These animals are a local species and boast a massive set of horns; small wonder that the apparently careless murder of so many impressive beasts represents wealth. Their horns are later stacked one on top of the other outside Nee’s familial home – the more horns, the richer the family.
But this also has a religious significance: the buffaloes are sacrificed to accompany Nee safely into the hereafter and appease the powers that be who decide whether Nee will enter heaven or not. The first buffalo will lead the sacrificial herd into the right direction – a ritualistic quirk that often leads to heated discussions in the family about whose animal gift will be slaughtered first; a great honour.
The noise and general mayhem that accompanies the matundan is intended literally to awaken the dead. This is because usually, the matundan takes place several years after the first phase of the funeral, because the family has to buy as many buffaloes as it can. An expensive affair, and this particular funeral will claim the lives of around 200 buffaloes and pigs. A funeral can financially cripple the family, and although it has been increasingly fashionable to revive the old ways – ironically due to greater wealth – today’s younger generation is increasingly vocal about the cost. Often they have to sacrifice their education to hold a funeral.
The matundan begins. The whole village and many guests have gathered in the main ‘square’ for this extremely bloody event. Children mill about, already carrying bamboo trunks whose long, hollow shape serves to collect some precious blood – once it starts flowing.
The first hack with the machete, upwards into the buffalo’s throat, severs the creature’s neck with a sickening thud. Its eyes are wide with fear as the blood literally gushes over the hands of the butcher and it slowly crumples to the ground – accompanied by much yelling from the on-lookers. The stench is overpowering. It is, to us westerners, a revolting spectacle and anyone who is weak of stomach or cares even remotely for animals should not attend this part of the ceremony.
The children come rushing forwards, greedily thrusting their bamboo ‘sticks’ into the blood flow and are covered with blood from head to toe. The sight of bright-red children is common that day. The Toraja claim to drink only a few drops of this blood for ritual, leaving us to wonder where all the rest of it will go..? Litres and litres of the stuff will have been collected by the time this herd is dead.
One after another, the buffaloes are slaughtered, each to the tune of a crowd literally baying for blood. A frenzy glorifying death seems to have gripped the on-lookers and a new buffalo is struck down before the last has even sunk to the ground. The carcases are dragged off, their horns and hides removed and the meat is fed to the enormous crowd.
By the time this apparently endless ritual is finally over, the stack of horns outside Nee’s family house is very high. This was a rich family who could afford a rich funeral. But now it is time to bring Nee’s mummified corpse – lying in the coffin which in turn lies in the house-grave – and the wooden effigy up to the burial grounds.
Not just any old burial grounds either – they are chambers of 3m long by 1m high, hewn out of the cliffs by a to pande batu: a carving expert. The cliff-face is a sheer wall of hard, dark-grey rock, splattered with bird droppings. When you crane your neck to see the very top, you can just make out small balconies and what looks like people standing at the railings, as if looking out to enjoy the view. These are the effigies, and they are watching over the mortals below. The higher up the cliff-face they are, the richer their families – they are, after all, in the penthouse suites of what is essentially one enormous stone tomb. Because behind these effigies lie the coffins and the corpses.
Dragging Nee’s coffin up the sheer cliff-face is a laborious, sweaty business. The poor man assigned to the task grits his teeth and literally puts his back into it. The coffin is hoisted up with a strap of buffalo leather, and several times the man underneath looks in danger of slipping and falling to his death. Not that this would be disastrous, in local terms: in fact, falling into this abyss will earn them a place in paradise, or Puya.
After a long, back-breaking spell, the coffin is finally near the very top and, by means of a bamboo trunk acting as a winch, Nee finally tumbles into her final resting place. The effigy soon follows and is slotted into place on the ‘balcony’. Its hands are outstretched; one in benediction, the other to receive offerings. The villagers still stand below, heads arched upwards, watching this dangerous enterprise.
Every five years or so, the Torajans change the clothes and coffins of the corpses. The timing of this spring-clean is decided by the tradition-keeper, and it’s a jolly affair. Loose bones are also collected and the effigies themselves are given new clothes too – keeping up appearances is as important, if not more so, in the hereafter as in life.
The funeral is finally over. Nee has been promoted from migraine sufferer to officially dead, and the family can now rest easy. It has been expensive – especially for the buffalo, we can’t help thinking – but it has been a pricelessly memorable event to witness. Death occupies such an important place in this culture, it brings to mind other cultural idiosyncrasies through the ages. Egyptian pyramids, burning Viking ships, Hindu sati or burial in consecrated ground, the ritual of death will always capture mankind’s imagination. It is, after all, the great unknown; an awfully big adventure.