Indonesian ritual: A happy goodbye

Indonesian ritual: A happy goodbye

In one corner of the Sulawesi islands, the departed are given a not-so-sombre goodbye

 A cave face studded with coffins and corpses

The dwindling rays of the sun cannot make it to the inside. The hair at the back of my neck has started to stand as the first remnants of the bones come into view. I’m in Tanah Toraja on the south-west part of the Sulawesi islands where the inhabitants take the process of celebrating death to a ludicrously elaborate level. My journey started nearly 24 hours ago as I landed at the Makassar airport.

With my guide Yani telling me stories of a phantasmal nature all along the way as we drive along the highlands road to the highlands of Sulawesi, the weather turns eerie. Bound by an evergreen forest from all sides, a mist has started to descend just like in the horror movies. My car swings through the topsy-turvy turns on the way to the top of the highlands as rows upon rows of paddy fields stretch as far as my eyes can see.

Depth of field

The Tanah Torajans or the ‘People of the Highlands’ (as they call themselves) are a predominantly agrarian rural culture that has still stayed true to its roots.

Our first destination is the village of Rantepao. As my vehicle draws near, I can see the tops of the houses of the village, and I am already drawn in by their unique boat-shaped roofs. The roofs, as I come to know after I sit down with the village chieftain Yohana for a cup of black coffee, are a sign of respect they pay to their ancestors who took the journey from the nearby islands by boat. The houses, also known as tnan are decorated on the outside with buffalo horns. More the horns, the higher your status in the society. The village is centered around the square where a score of shops selling local delicacies can be found, one of which is my next destination.

As noon is already upon us, Yohana takes me to one of the restaurants dotting the square. Although the sun is trying to peek through the clouds and the mist, the highlands of Sulawesi are always windy and the large open windows on all sides ensure that we have a fresh supply of cool air always.

The specialty of the Sallabeyu restaurant is the Buffalo Rendang with rice and sambal. Buffalo is one of the major ingredients of life in Tanah Toraja, including dishes, sacrifices for ceremonial purposes, and even ornamental purposes. As evening descends on the village, there is a stirring of activity as the villagers start gathering around the central square. It is time for the evening celebrations as a series of dance rituals start off a funeral procession.

The concept of death itself has been slowed down on the highlands of Sulawesi. Even after the death the body of Yohana’s mother was embalmed and kept in the house for weeks, so that relatives from far and near could visit. It isn’t as if the Tana Torajans abhor the concept of death and the grief associated with it, they just embrace it as a part of life. Yohana’s mother has been immortalised in the form of a tau tau: a wooden effigy that has a canny resemblance to her.

Unlike cultures all over the world, the time of death serves as a celebration with all the family members congregating.

With a rapid influx of foreign tourists from Europe and the Americas, even they are included in the family and served coffee along with snacks. Finally, on the day of the funeral, the village itself bursts into a riot of colours and traffic drags down to a halt as a motorcade leads off the procession. On reaching the caves, a legion of able-bodied youngsters haul the coffin and take it through the paddy fields, chatting and laughing along the way to its final resting place.

Second life

As the feverish pitch of shouts and exclaims dies down, it has started to increase in pitch in another part of the town. It is time for a second burial. Usually conducted three years after the initial one, the body is pulled out from its resting place, dressed in fancy clothes, and again laid to rest with a replenishment of snacks and cigarettes. Put up on stilts, these corpses have a ghostly character, which I approach with trepidation.

The villagers are accustomed to seeing tourists balk at the sight and encourage me to lay a packet of snacks at its feet.

In the morning, we head to the famed Londa Caves. Built against the mountainside, it is a series of caves which serves as the final resting place for the corpses. As soon as I enter, a whiff of Sandalwood, instead of rotting flesh, hits my nostrils. Our guide leads on with an oil lamp in hand. This time he is more silent. The first of the open graves become visible as I head inside. Surrounded by sticks of incense, flowers and even cigarettes, these offerings are remembrances from family members who have come to visit.

Deeper inside, there are even more coffins, most of which are open, revealing the skulls and the bones inside. It is a chilly reminder of the fact that death is not the end in Sulawesi.

The Tanah Torajans are an interesting lot, celebrating death almost as it is a passing into the second journey of afterlife. A rare thing to find, if you’re planning to travel the world.