Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Toraja – A Land where Living is Dedicated to Death

“If a Torajan has a lot of money, he would not spend it on traveling like you do. He will keep his money to finance the death ceremonies for his elders. And his children later will do the same for him” 

Paul Pane, our local guide said that with a matter of fact tone in his voice. And it is a fact that many Torajans still hold true to their hearts. And they take it seriously.

Rambu Solo’ – the final respect 

I am sure many of you have heard, or read about Rambu Solo’ – a ceremony held to part with the deceased, to ensure that he is going to the Gods in the nirwana. It is a huge ceremony, can last from 3 to 7 days and nights, of praying, as well as a lot of eating, singing, drinking, buffalo fighting and slaughtering. It is more resembling of a party as you probably won’t see anyone crying. 

In the olden days, Rambu Solo’ is only held by the noble families. But along with the economy improvement, many families feel it imperative that they hold it too if they can afford it. 

And the time to hold Rambu Solo’ is also determined. It should not be held just after people especially the family holding one, replant their padi fields. The death aura will stop the padi from growing. So Rambu Solo’ is usually held after harvest time. 

Months of preparation is put into making a Rambu Solo’. To build these huts, used to house the guests during the ceremony, can take as many as 3 – 4 months. And what they do after the party is over? – nothing. They just leave them behind. Not to be reused because it is bad luck to do so. At best they will use the bamboos as fire wood

The location where a rambu solo' is held is called rante. Once it is held, the family will then ‘plant’ a stone. This indicates that the descendants of the deceased have the right to hold Rambu Solo’ in the same rante. 

There are rante with ancient significance - with stones planted since hundreds of years ago. 

Rante Karasik. The smaller stones went way back to hundreds of years ago. In a more modern time, the height of the stone has another significance: as a status symbol of the family. So the higher it is, the higher one’s status is in the society. And that primarily relates to wealth, not tradition

Rante Kalimbuang Bori’

Originally, there were many rituals in a Rambu Solo’. But with the integration of Christian belief, as well as the fact that it is now held not only by noble families, Rambu Solo’ has become simpler than it was in the past. 

We were very lucky that there was a rambu solo' held by BOTH a rich family and descendant of the nobility. It was held for the mother of the Head of the Regency of North Toraja. I did not watch the whole ceremony. Only watched the procession of the coffin from the house to the rante. Even to observe this small part was already amazing – to listen to people laughing while running in the procession, all the shouts and screams, the beautiful ornaments of dresses (though majority wore black). To me it really felt like a celebration of life – for the deceased and the living, strange as it may sound.. 

Since this is a noble family, the coffin is highly decorated and is put in this mini-tongkonan to be carried to the rante

They looked more like going to a ‘regular’ party though I’m sure these outfits have a cultural significance in the whole ceremony. I did not bother to ask, I was just too amused

The procession with a very long red fabric held high by the people under it. They are the deceased’s family members – from children to other close relatives. In Toraja, red is a colour of life. So having this long red fabric may mean a connection of blood between the deceased, to the other family members. That although she’s gone, but the tie, will never be broken

The coffin, or erong, is about to be placed in the tower where it will be put until the whole ceremony and rituals are done and it is ready to be transferred to its final resting place

Not sure if this buffalo knows what’s coming for him...

Apart from a way to give the final respect to the deceased, as well as to make sure that the deceased can go to the nirwana and becomes one of the Gods who will bless and protect the family, Rambu Solo’ has also become a status symbol. The number of buffalo horns displayed on a pole in front of a Tongkonan that has been used to house the deceased, sometimes for many years before the ceremony is held, becomes the real symbol of the economy status of a family. And that, brings respect from the society at large. 

Tongkonan – a place for the living, and the deceased 

This Toraja traditional house resembles the shape of a ship, said to be a symbol that the ancestors of the Torajans came to the land using a ship. It is believed that their ancestors came from Indo China. From Sulawesi, these people go to Kalimantan and became the ancestors of Dayak, then to Sumatra as the ancestors of Batak people. 

Tongkonan comes from the word ‘tongkon’ or sitting. Traditionally, a tongkonan is used by the elders to sit and discuss to decide on a certain matter in the society. And when there is a Rambu Solo’ to hold in the family, it is also here that the family will decide when, and how many buffaloes will be sacrificed, and other matters related to it. 

Tongkonan is also a symbol of a female, and always has to be accompanied by a male which is called alang (or rice barn), used to keep rice for the family. Inside, it is divided into three areas: the North chamber – the place of their ancestors so this is the place they will put offerings, a middle room where meetings are held, and the South chamber where the head of the family usually sleeps. 

When there is death in the family, the deceased will be placed in the North facing room until a Rambu Solo’ can be held for it, with his face facing West which symbolizes death as it is where the sun sets (dies) every day. The East symbolizes life – and Torajans believe when they sleep, their faces should face this direction.

A tongkonan is built WITHOUT a single nail. Outside, it is heavily decorated by traditional Toraja wooden carvings. Every single carving, has a meaning. The more intricate decorations can be seen in the houses of the noble families

At Pallawa, you can see the original shape of a tongkonan. In the past these tongkonan are usually not very high. But with better technology and skill, now the tongkonan can be built a bit higher

Alang, or rice barns. There can be more of these than there is tongkonan on a piece of land owned by a family. Every family member i.e. the sons and/or daughters of the family, has the right to build a tongkonan and alang, or just an alang, on the same land. So if you see a complex of tongkonan and alang, it is usually owned by a certain marga, or kinship. Alang is also a place where guests will sit when there is a rambu solo' is held. The most respected place is right under the door of the alang. That is usually reserved for those who give the expensive buffalo to the family

The length of time a body can be kept in the tongkonan before a Rambu Solo’ can be held for it really depends on the financial condition of the family. In the old days, a certain potion is used to keep the body intact until a ceremony can be done. A traditional healer will come to the house regularly to clean up the body from any larvae that may have lived on the body, and to reapply the potion. Nowadays, formalin is used for that purpose. 

A body kept in the tongkonan is considered sick rather than died. People will consider someone really passed away when a Rambu Solo’ is already held for him, and the body is placed in the graveyard.

A Graveyard – A place between Mother and Father

To Torajans, the earth is considered as their Mother. The sun, their Father. Hence the right location to be placed when one dies, is between Mother and Father – which is why Torajans (unless they are muslim – which also exist as a minority), will never be found buried in the ground. 

In the past it is also believed that if the final resting place is high, it is closer to puya (or nirwana in their language). That is why there are graveyards on the hills like those in Kete’ Kesu and Londa. With the integration with Christianity, people now build patane (or a mausoleum).

Originally Torajans were the believers of the Animism. Christianity took some time to be embraced by Torajans. And because of their unique ancestral’s beliefs, in 1973, the Christian Church of Toraja was formalised. The church combines Christianity with their ancestral’s beliefs. That is why in all graveyards, we will see an interesting mish mash: a coffin with a cross on it, but placed on the ground rather than buried. 

And since a specific place in the graveyard usually belongs to a certain family, and sometimes in the family there are already muslims in it, when the muslim relatives died, they are also buried in the same location but according to Islam’s rule. 

I seriously find it fascinating. A display of true integration and tolerance. 


At Lemo. There is a hole for erong in the making. I thought they use a sophisticated drill or something to make it in this hard rocky hill. But nope, they use a simple nail like tool made of iron. It can take months to make a hole

On the way to Batu Tumonga, there are patane inside the big rocks. I peeked into one, and was amazed to find that there is quite a big room in it – around 2x2m2
In the old days, erong is hung by building a platform on the rock
With time, many of those erong have broken and causing all the bones and skulls scattered all over the place

The remains from the time when formalin has not been used. When the meat has gone, bones stay strong and white
But in modern times, when formalin is used to preserve the body, bones turned to black, and will become easier to crush. This is a skull we saw at Londa – the cigarettes and coins are offerings to him

In Londa, ancient caves are used as a graveyard. Each hole, belongs to a family. It is still used till now
Patane are scattered at many points in Toraja. This actually reminds me of the view I have seen on Samosir, North Sumatra
In the past, babies who died before they had teeth were ‘planted’ inside a tree. The belief is that they would keep growing as the tree grows. This site is in Kambira – last used in 1973. There is an eerie as well as a melancholy feel looking at this site – it is as if these children, are still alive

Tau Tau, or a statue resembling the face of the deceased, was made for every member of a noble family who died. In the past, these Tau Tau only had very simple facial expression. Now, with the increasing skill and with some of the makers of these Tau Tau learned how to make a realistic statue all the way to Bali, Tau Tau are more like real people in expression.

A Tau Tau costs from IDR 15M, and can be more expensive depending on the size. They only need a picture of the deceased to be able to make one. I am impressed at how realistic these modern Tau Tau are
At a certain time, guided by the elders’ decision, the dresses worn by the Tau Tau will be changed. When we visited Lemo, this ceremony has just been held not long ago. These Tau Tau have gone years back - you can see the 'flat' expression of these

The newer Tau Tau will look like these - more realistic

Tedong – the Jewel of Toraja

Never before I visited a place with so many buffaloes, or tedong, around. Not even in West Sumatra, which also has a strong tie with buffaloes. And what is most interesting is to see Toraja’s own unique buffalo at many places though not as often as the usual black one: Tedong Bonga and Saleko

There are ranks of tedong that one can buy. 

The most expensive one is a tedong which has won so many times in buffalo fights. This type of tedong should exist in a ceremony held by either a very rich person, or a descendant of a noble family. It holds the family’s pride to be able to slaughter that kind of tedong.

An IDR 500M tedong – just one among around 60 something tedong to fight and then be butchered in a Rambu Solo’ held for the mother of the Regent Head of North Toraja – both rich AND descendant of a noble family. I did not ask how many times this tedong has won buffalo fights. I found it mind boggling, to see for myself, a tedong with a price of a house...to be butchered later

Tedong Bonga – white head, with blue eyes (really, seriously, I’m not kidding!!), and albino skin. They can be as much as IDR 70M
The next expensive one is tedong Saleko – the albino buffalo. They are around IDR 50M. Both tedong Bonga and Saleko are originated from Toraja. They exist nowhere else in the archipelago. Some institutions including Institut Pertanian Bogor have tried to breed them elsewhere, with no result. Paul told us that there is a belief in Toraja that these tedong will not be easily born. Only those with good heart, will get this kind of tedong in his flock

By tradition, a noble family only needs to slaughter 24 tedong in a Rambu Solo’, and a commoner only has to slaughter 8 – 10. However, with the better economy condition and the needs to show a higher status symbol, there is no exact number now as much as it is no longer associated with nobility. The number only stops according to the financial condition of a family. 

And these tedong can also come as a contribution from other family – so not necessarily only bought by the family of the deceased. This also becomes a way for others to respect the deceased, and again, a way to show one’s status symbol. There are also those giving the tedong as a payment of old debt, or as a return to the family or to the deceased if they in the past have made the same contribution. 

In current modern time, sometimes, there can also be a discussion between the family, the head of a village, and families wanting to contribute, to decide if the contribution will be in the form of tedong, or in other forms. These can be in the form of pathway development to a certain part of the village, development of a certain public facility, or other things that can improve the village where the deceased lived.

After slaughtering, not all the buffalo's meat is cooked. The meat is also distributed to people living in the village where the deceased came from. Just like what muslims do in an Idul Kurban. 

In a Rambu Solo’, there will be a committee deciding which tedong will fight first, and the order by which each tedong will be slaughtered. This is a very important part of the whole ceremony, because if there is a wrong tedong slaughtered with a wrong order, then the deceased will not be able to make it smoothly to the nirwana to become one of the Gods.

While it has a high significance for rambu solo', tedong has no role at all in a wedding ceremony nor party. It is forbidden to slaughter tedong for a wedding – for reasons that I have now forgotten (don’t shoot me. There were just too many stories told. I should have recorded everything I guess...).

In a marriage however, tedong becomes a tie that binds the couple. Between the two families, a number of tedong has to be agreed to be paid should the couple decide to get a divorce. A certain time period will also be determined, to decide how long the person asking for the divorce should fulfill the number of agreed tedong or the price equal to that, before they can be formally divorced. The size of the tedong will also be determined. Usually it is decided by stating the length of its horn – using the palm of a man.

Take an example if a man is bound to his wife and vice versa by 12 tedong. Now calculate that with a good tedong, which is priced around IDR 15 – 17M, that gives them a handsome price to pay should he or his wife decide to get a divorce. Not to mention that it should be paid within a certain time period!. Not an easy task unless you’re a millionaire. And that, is a good reason not to waste money on an argument that can lead to a divorce...unless your spouse is highly obnoxious then I guess money does not matter much... 

A wedding preparation. Not as grand as it is for Rambu Solo’. And I guess if you already have a grand backdrop as these tongkonan and alang have given, who needs other decorations!

The Beautiful Backdrop – wealth, redefined 

If people keep raving about Bali being beautiful in its intricate connection of religion, culture and nature, then I think a visit in Toraja may give them the same feeling. 

Though it is very different i.e. Bali is all about Hinduism and how they live and breathe in it while Toraja is about honouring, and to some extent glorifying, death, but the essence of it all is the same to me: preservation of a way of life. 

Not only that, I was constantly fascinated by the backdrop of nature in this beautiful land. Ancient rocky mountains (or hills?...whatever...) that always get misty in the mornings and afternoons – giving it a romantic feel, beautifully sculpted padi fields, tongkonan and alang in the middle of a field...and many more.

Cip and I fell deeply in love with the old alang and tongkonan with the roofs covered with plants. They look romantic...or we are just hopeless romantic. They become less and less now, the bamboo roofs have been replaced by metal. So we consider ourselves lucky to still be able to see some of them

To be able to see and feel the ambience of rambu solo', is of course a gift. We did not expect to be able to experience it. Without it we would have gone home very happy and amazed with Toraja already. But this, is really the icing on the cake
To understand the significance of a single animal in people's life, is a totally different cultural experience to me. By the way this is no camera trick. The river IS red

Toraja is very wealthy in every sense: culture, people and nature. I knew I’d be surprised. I didn’t know that I’d also be so emotionally moved by everything about it. 

But for the most part of it, I didn’t even know that a story around death, can be that captivating. 

Thank you once again, God, for letting me born in this beautiful country of mine.

About the trip

Visiting Toraja is an easy 8 – 9 hours drive from Makassar. You can also take executive busses from Makassar – and these busses are reaaaallllyyyy goood. 

The best time to visit Toraja, where it is also easier to find rambu solo', is between the months of June to August, which happens to also be the busiest months so better be prepared to find too many tourists everywhere. 

We made this trip in December, which was not a bad idea but we had to cope with the weather. It always rains around 3pm until night sometimes until the next morning. This gives it a limited time to explore places - so you'd better start early like 7am to get the most of the sunshine. 

Once in Toraja I suggest you look for a very good local guide who can tell you stories about life as it is and have a good historical knowledge too. Of course you can read about every single place, but having someone there with you, will tell you bits and pieces that no books can tell. 

We were lucky to have found one: Paul Pane (email: paulpane@yahoo.com, mobile: 082348225584). He told us all the stories – all that I’ve written above I got from him. I’m not as diligent as Cip, our family historian who will read things, so I thank Paul so much for telling us those things. Without those stories, and many more that I just couldn’t write as there are just too many!!, this trip would not feel this complete...

(R I R I)

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