Return to Tana Toraja / by Debra Wallace

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After twenty years I returned to one of Indonesia's most beautiful places in the highlands of South Sulawesi, Tana Toraja.  Though now deeply Christian animist beliefs remain and are most visible in customs surrounding death. 

Traffic grinds to a halt in an unexpected place far from town.  Trucks, packed with family and friends bring water buffalo and pigs, as "gifts" to honor the deceased, jam the road.

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"Whose pig is this?' is repeated over the loudspeaker as large groups of people enter the funeral grounds.  In response, guests identify themselves, their village and the number of "gifts" they have brought.  This includes an elaborate system of recording the "gifts, as they become debts to the family of the deceased.  

Funeral ceremonies take place weeks, months or even years after a death. This gives the family time to raise the money needed to cover funeral expenses. The richer and more powerful the individual, the more expensive the funeral.  A large part of these expenses includes purchasing water buffalo and pigs. A particularly prized pink and black buffalo can cost the family up to two thousand dollars.

As I enter the funeral grounds I spot the location where the water buffalo and pigs are being sacrificed. Torajans believe these animals help carry the soul to the afterlife. A large group of people form a circle solemnly chanting. School groups perform in a more celebratory tone.

Finally, the deceased is buried in either a cave carved by hand into a rocky mountain or in a wooden casket hung on the underside of a cliff.  Wooden effigies keep watch over the burial site.

Although Tana Toraja is most well known for these spectacular burial rites the surrounding landscape is stunning. Productive and expansive rice fields edged by jagged mountains produce three crops each year instead of the more typical two providing the resources for their elaborate customs.

Clusters of traditional Torajan houses with their dramatic boat shaped roofs are found throughout the region.  These roofs plus the red, black, yellow and white carved motifs is a striking image against the lush landscape.

In recent years global markets have created international recognition for Torajan coffee that flourishes in the cooler climate of these highlands.  Well worth a try if you come across some.

After twenty years traditional culture remains strong. I hope it doesn’t take me as long to return next time. 

Enjoy the images I've selected in my gallery.  

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