Toraja Tales (3 of 8)

Day 3: A Toraja Funeral

18 Aug’2014, Rantepao, Toraja, South Sulawesi, Indonesia

The main event of the day was a grand funeral held in the village of Nanggala. This was the first day of the multi-day event. According to our guide, the first day of Rambu Solo has the most varied and interesting activities going on. The second day would have relatives and visitors coming in, and the next few days would have buffalos sacrifices. However, if you have just one day to see as much as possible, day number one is your best bet.

Rambu Solo

A recap: Check out the first post in this series to better understand the concept of death for the Toraja.

The first day event proper starts off the Rambu Solo ceremony, which honours and sends off the deceased to the afterlife. An important event, because this is the moment when the deceased leaves this world and joins the next. In fact, it is probably the most important event on the Toraja calendar. Bigger than weddings and birth celebrations.

As befitting an event of such importance, the guest list is long. Entire villages are housed in the funeral compounds on sheltered raised platforms, covered by the distinct upturned boat-shaped roofs. Family members return home from afar, called back home to pay their last respects.

Welcome to the funeral

We arrived with our guide. The funeral was already taking place on an open field, surrounded on three sides by roofed platforms housing guests. Most of the platforms were occupied by local relatives and friends. One housed all the foreigners, eager beavers with cameras at the ready. I was ushered onto one of the other platforms, thanks to our driver Pak Lusin, to sit with some of the family members of the deceased. Taking out the ten cigarette pack I had brought along as a gift, I handed it over to the most senior looking relative. We were served tea and what seemed to be some sort of sweet, fried flour fritters. I looked around.

Floral wreaths hanging on large colourful cardboard signs indicated that there were in fact two deceased. Apparently, the wife had died a year earlier, and while making preparations for the funeral, the husband also died some three weeks back. It therefore made sense to do the double funeral. The family had some well-to-do children who bore the cost of the funeral. Imagine the cost to upkeep all the guests for the duration of the funeral. Since they were not obliged to contribute any money for the funeral (I did not need to pay anything to attend, rather they were honoured to have visitors who had travelled there from so far away), all the costs were borne by the deceased’s family.

The atmosphere resembled more like a busy marketplace than a sombre funeral. There was an emcee who was directing the proceedings with a loudhailer. Standing prominently in the centre of the field, tethered to a tree, was a distressed looking buffalo awaiting its last moments. More interestingly, a group of similarly dressed locals, all wearing blue t-shirts, were standing shoulder to shoulder and holding hands in a tight circle. Their attire was probably sponsored – more costs incurred! The Blueshirts were chanting and moving in unison, almost hypnotic. They would take turns, one by one, to chant a little something about the deceased à After one had finished, the whole group would chant the chorus, before the next person beside him took over.

The following series of shots show what happened next. The procession brought in an elaborate Toraja-house shaped structure housing the bodies of the deceased. There were two coffins in the base of the structure, followed by layers culminating in the upturned-ship roof. It was huge, and required at least 10 people to carry it.

First, the structure was lifted up and down repeatedly, with water being thrown at it. Then came the fun part. The objective was to raise the two coffins up on to the highest raised platform in the field. This was the vantage point for the two deceased to look over the entire field, where they can enjoy the proceedings over the next few days. It is said that the higher the point, the easier it is for the deceased to reach the afterlife. Lifting the entire structure was not as simple as it sounded. What happened next was a complex Tower of Hanoi scenario. The emcee directed everyone (more than 20 people!) to work together to lift up each piece of the structure, first the upturned-ship roof, and finally the two coffins up to the vantage point.

By this time, the Blueshirts were done with their chanting and an announcement was made for everyone to be seated. An elderly speaker, possibly the eldest son of the deceased, got up to speak to the crowd. The tourists were shepherded back into their enclosure. A bit like buffalos inside a cage waiting for the slaughter.

Off-topic: Did you know that “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” is a grammatically valid sentence in the English language?

Our emcee declared “Barangsiapa yang membuat kekacauan di upacara yang penuh dukacita ini, akan dikasi sumpah serapah yang tertinggi dan bencana yang tertinggi!” Words uttered that would fly by all the foreign tourists, unless of course they happened to speak Bahasa. Translated it read: “Whosoever creates disturbance during this event full of grief and sadness, will be cursed to the highest hells and may the greatest misfortune befall him.” ‘Creating disturbances’ would presumably include not being seated when you are told to. One particularly fidgety tourist decided she had enough and wandered off, walking right in front of the speaker. Misfortune, I mouthed to myself. Gulp.

The speaker then went on for a while, giving a eulogy in the local Toraja language, which of course I couldn’t. Random locals started coming up to the speaker and offer condolences by putting in Rupiah notes into his pockets. It was an important part of the ritual, but a pretty dry one for the tourists.

Finally the event that everyone was anticipating, the sacrifice of a single buffalo. This ritual normally takes place during the later days of the Rambu Solo, and dozens of buffalos may be sacrificed during the ritual. However, this time only one single buffalo was brought forward, a show for the tourists.

The tethered buffalo, by now panic-stricken, was tied to a tree. The man tasked with killing the buffalo was experienced, having killed more than 300 buffaloes. He was said to have magical powers, and his blade blessed so that the buffalo would go down with one strike to the jugular. To me, he just looked really eager to do the deed.

My ever helpful guide told us to stand close to the buffalo to get better photos. He then actually shouted to the man to shift the buffalo so that we can get a better camera angle! My guide rocks.

The blade slashed through. One strike and blood spurted out as we tourists watched in horrified fascination. The buffalo began to wobble a little, and finally crashed into the ground. It took many more minutes as the life ebbed out of it.

The rest of the afternoon was spent watching buffalo fights. Each round, two buffaloes were pitted against each other in a muddy field. Locals egged on their favourites. A particularly tough half-white specimen named “Celebes” emerged victorious, posturing and then charging at the other buffalo which more often than not, turned tail and fled.

On a Whim, Maluku.

That evening, I discussed with A and we decided we had enough of Toraja. “Why don’t we go to the Spice Islands, it’s only a two hour flight from here.” So that’s what we did, we booked flights to Ambon and went back down to Makassar on the overnight bus. Spontaneity rocks.

Check out the next post –> Day 4, in which I spend the day wandering Makassar.