Toraja Tales (1 of 8)

To Tana Toraja
Day 1 (16 Aug’14):
Singapore —> Jakarta —> Makassar —> Rantepao

The last time I took a Lion Air flight must have been way back in 2009, from Singapore to Denpasar. Back then, Lion Air was a small player in the competitive domestic Indonesian airline industry. Today, the Lion Air group is a behemoth covering routes all over Indonesia, beating its competitors thanks to non-bankruptcy, better safety records, online booking and a friendly navigable website.

My flight was from Singapore to Jakarta, followed by a transfer to the Soekarno–Hatta Airport domestic terminal before heading to Makassar. Yes, Indonesia is my happy hunting ground, my to-go destination for felicitous festivals and spectacular sights. This time round, my destination is Tana Toraja, where the funeral festival takes place around August each year.

A little bit of background behind the Tana Toraja funeral festival then…

The Toraja people are a group native to the odd K-shaped Indonesian landmass known as Sulawesi. Unlike their neighbours the Bugis and the Makassarese, who can both e found near the coastal areas of Sulawesi, the Toraja inhabit the highland areas. This area is known as Tana Toraja, meaning Toraja Land.

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What is fascinating about the Toraja culture is that they believe that when their elders die, they are not truly dead. Not yet anyway. Rather, a departed individual is considered to be just “sick”. The dead would remain in the home of the family, treated as though he is still alive. He would only be considered truly dead after a proper funeral ceremony has taken place. This funeral ceremony would be as grand an affair as possible, with hundreds of guests including family members who return home from all over the world, in order to provide a fitting send-off for the departed. The whole event would take place over a week or more. Preparations for the funeral would begin months in advance, in order to arrange the massive logistics, which includes the construction of stands and houses to hold the guests, catering enough food for everyone and making sure the entire village comes round to help. Buffaloes would need be sacrificed during the funeral ceremonies, and these do not come cheap. The bigger the funeral, the better the send-off. At least 30 buffaloes need to be sacrificed, much more if the deceased is someone important.

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As expected, the funeral festival would be costly. Now all this expenditure needs to come from somewhere. If the deceased has a large family, with rich children and grandchildren who are able to support the funeral, well and good. Most of the time though, getting enough saved for the funeral would take time. In fact, it could take years for the family of the deceased to save enough for the funeral. During this time, the deceased would remain in the homes of the family, considered still living and merely “sick”.

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To the rest of us, this idea of the dead not really being dead might seem a little macabre. To the Toraja, it is something perfectly normal. Part of the Aluk Todolo, or the ancestral way of the Toraja.

Read on for Day 2: