Some say that the most important event in the (pre-)history of mankind was the discovery of fire and how to control it. I would say that equally important, if not more so, was the day man came to understand his own mortality and it scared the bejeezus out of him. The former gave him tools, but the latter gave him purpose. Ever since then man has been trying everything in his power to escape his fate.
The most obvious manifestation of this is religion. In its myriad guises, and its various messages about ethics, lessons on how to properly sacrifice animals, what clothes to wear, and whether you can marry your first cousin the one constant seems to be a reassuring narrative of some sort of life after death, whether it be reincarnation, a hall for warriors full of wenches serving mead, or some abstract heaven. Follow us, the religions say, and we will ensure that the curse of mortality doesn’t befall you. Even Buddhism, which is seen by many to be a philosophy rather than a religion, has incorporates the idea of reincarnation.
So much of what we do is a valiant, but (in my opinion) doomed, effort to be immortal. Few places though is the concept taken to such extremes as amongst to Toraja of southern Sulawesi. Largely untouched by outside influences until the early 20th century the Toraja maintained age-old customs and rituals that have barely taken a dent despite the wholesale adoption of Christianity. For the Torajans the most import event in their lives is one that they themselves never get to witness: their funerals. It seems as if life amongst the Toraja revolves around their deaths. Funerals are hugely elaborate affairs that can last for several days, have over a thousand guests and require the slaughter of, literally, hundreds of animals. It is the final requirement that not only make them popular for visiting tourists with a taste for the extreme, but also binds Torajans into a cycle of hard work so as to be able to both afford the offerings that are routinely required of them as family members pop their clogs and also to put away some savings for their own, inevitable, demises. And animals don’t come cheap. Whilst ambling around the organised chaos of the weekly Pasar Bolu market where pigs and buffaloes are traded buyers and sellers are not shy to talk about prices. An average swine will set you back $400-800 whilst a buffalo can fetch anywhere from $1000 to $4000, as much as a car. These are not small sums of money, and on that single market day there were some 500 buffaloes and several thousand pigs going under the hammer. Evidently there is money in Toraja, but it all seems to get sucked into the vortex of sacrificial slaughter. (As an aside, despairingly low figures are bandied about when talking about average earnings of people in developing countries: $2 a day, less than $5 a day, and so on. However quantifying earnings is a very difficult thing to do, especially when there is a non-cash economy where people produce and then exchange commodities. People often do not have 9-5 office jobs and so comparisons are often meaningless. In fact people can be considered very poor and yet have tens of thousands of dollars worth of livestock. In fact the idea of not owning livestock can be rather alien to people here: I spent an afternoon talking to a young English teacher from a small village, and although she has what one might call a “regular job” she has a handful of buffalo at home and was shocked that the vast majority of people in the West do not, not even a dozen chickens in the back yard.) Talk of how much pigs and buffaloes cost and how many were sacrificed at a given funeral are staples of Torajan daily chit-chat, much like the English talk about the weather.
I was incredibly lucky that my time in Toraja coincided with a particularly ostentatious funeral of a woman who was the wife of an important village chief. She had died the previous October and it had taken until July to organise the immense logistical undertaking of her funeral that involved the erection of temporary accommodation for several hundred people, their feeding, and the pooling together of the sacrificial beasts. I counted about 75 buffaloes and probably 400 or more pigs (which, at a conservative estimate, places the cost of the animal sacrifice alone at about $250,000). During the time between death and entombment the deceased is kept within the family home in a coffin and served meals and talked to as if they were still alive. It is thought that they are just sleeping until the funeral can be held. Ten months is actually a surprisingly fast turnaround for a Torajan funeral, where cases of 10 years being required for the family to scrape together the funds necessary for the requisite send-off are not unheard of (of course not everyone receives the same sort of ceremony, and the grand ones are reserved for the Torajan elite, nevertheless even the poor manage to kill the odd beast or two). It is the astronomical cost of funerals that has led to a Torajan diaspora throughout the Indonesian archipelago as Torajans set off to make their fortune in greener pastures so as to be able to afford their oblational obligations (one young Torajan lady was telling me that she’d like to travel abroad but she can’t because every year she has to pour her savings into buying a pig or two for the latest funeral). They are particularly to be found in Kalimantan and Papua, fulfilling administrative roles, where they are seen as less colonial thanks to being a minority themselves and Christian as well.
Funeral ceremonies take place over several days. The first see the gathering of people and presentation of their offering gifts (read animals). The name of the person or family, along with the gift offered, are declaimed on loudspeakers so that everyone can know how much the Jones’s are able to afford. During this period there are ritual chants and dances and many of the pigs are also slaughtered. The method of dispatch is a quick incision with a large knife into the body behind the left foreleg, thereby cutting the aorta and leading to death through blood loss in a minute or two. The hair is then seared off with an industrial blowtorch. It sounds rather straightforward and simple, until you factor in a pig’s relative intelligence, the masses of the beasts that are lashed to bamboo poles in various stages of readiness for the final act, the many porcine bodies lying around, cut up, superficially singed, or awaiting the torch, and the rusty smell of blood from the pools that dot the surroundings and burnt hair. I bet the pigs know what’s in store for them and the high-pitched squealing can, at times, be thoroughly piercing. I even witnessed some of them wetting themselves and it is difficult not to anthropomorphicise. At least on the flipside there is plenty of delicious food to go round and I had been missing pork after Muslim Malaysia, Sumatra and Java. Of course there is far more meat to go around than can possibly be eaten, even by the most voracious carnivore, and another integral part of the funeral ceremony is the redistribution of the meat to all the attendees (a sort of goodie-bag if you will).
On the final day it is the turn of the buffaloes who have been watching the proceedings with relative disinterest, oblivious to the screams of the pigs, instead concentrating on the important business of chewing cud. They are gathered together in a central field and one by one brought up to the area of sacrificial stones, tied up, and with a single blow to the neck with a knife, killed. Death is far from sudden however. It takes several minutes as the blood gushes from the gaping wound and the animals jerk violently, sometimes falling down and getting back up again, careering towards the close circle of onlookers, before finally keeling over, their heads at unfeasible angles, tongues protruding through their death rictus. After a couple of hours about half the buffaloes had been killed and they carpetted the ground where they fell, the earth saturated with their blood, chickens happy at the novel item on their menu. Not a sight for the faint of heart.
During all these proceedings the coffin is located in a position of honour on a raised platform overlooking the whole show. Maintaining a vigil over the coffin is the deceased, or at least an effigy of them known as a tau-tau. Formerly tau-tau were relatively simple statues with caricatured features that served to recognise them. Nowadays, thanks to modern technology, tau-tau are incredibly life-like and hard to recognise as inanimate from a distance. The tau-tau then accompany the coffins to their tombs and are placed outside, both to act as symbolic guardians and as a focus for the attention of relatives who would later come to visit and pay their respects.
This may all sound rather gruesome and macabre, but the Torajans are a friendly, smiling bunch and are open and welcoming to tourists who are omnipresent here. I suppose one could be cynical and say that tourism is vital to their economy, but they truly seem happy (or at least not at all angry) to see foreigners coming around and taking an interest in their culture, even when they’re poking their cameras right into the heart of their grandest ceremonies (I must include myself there). I remember being struck by one young Torajan who asked me what I liked about Torajan culture. To be honest I can’t ever see myself adopting any of their rites and rituals, from keeping dead bodies in the house, to slaughtering hordes of livestock on the lawn, to making an effigy of myself when I go. Instead, upon reflection, it is the fact that their traditions and culture are so alive, vibrant and in such rude health that they do not seem at all at risk of fading to outside influences. That the Torajans adamantly, joyfully, plough their own, eccentric furrow and are quite happy to share it with anyone who comes along.
Much more by this author on his very excellent blog.