Saturday, August 9, 2014

Tana Toraja Part 2: Two funerals, no weddings


First, two caveats:
  • Cultural tourism is, to say the least, tricky, both in its production (what’s presented to tourists as being valuable) and in its consumption (viewing the lives and traditions of one group of people through the lens of another). I fess up here and now to being a Western rationalist materialist. (God, how dull that sounds!)
  • There’s no way I can give an overview of Torajan history and culture, just my own impressions, and information given to us by our Torajan guides. For a bit of background, the Wikipedia entry is not a bad place to start.
OK, now that we have that out of the way ...

Two funerals

The majority of Torajans identify as Christian (mainly Protestant) but they have certainly put their own unique spin on Christianity, in that Torajan culture seems to be fixated on death. The main obyek wisata (tourist sites) in the region are death-related, including cave tombs, rock tombs, hanging cliff tombs, and fields of megalithic standing stones commemorating the dead.

Megaliths at Bori, Tana Toraja. Traditionally, only high-class Torajans can have a megalith, and their size represents the importance of the person (and often the number of buffalo sacrificed at their funeral). The stones used to have a spiritual significance, but under Christianity have been redefined as simple memorials.
Stone graves at Lemo (above), and (below) close-up of the tau tau (effigies of the dead). Only high class Torajans can have tau tau. While they were once believed to hold the spirit of the deceased, under Christianity they are considered to be simply statues. (Photos by Wayne)

Torajan culture wasn't always this heavily focused on death. Apparently, Pre-Christian Torajan culture had many rituals revolving around life, but these were outlawed by the Dutch missionaries, so only the death-related ones remain today.

Torajan funerals are big. The biggest ones, for the most important people, can run for 3 days or more, with hundreds of guests attending each day, including not a small number of tourists, who are openly welcome. The most important thing to do at a funeral is sacrifice some buffalo – the more the better – and extra marks if they are rare, such as albino, or blue-eyed. Poor folk may only be able to afford to sacrifice two or three buffalo, but it’s not unheard of for 50 or more buffalo throats to be slit at wealthy funerals.

Funeral 1

I’ve been to two Torajan funerals, each for only a few hours. The first time it was day 2 of the funeral. As we approached the funeral site, we joined a procession of other guests arriving in the backs of trucks. Others arrived on motorbikes with live pigs on bamboo pallets strapped to the back. At the entry, a couple of local bureaucrats collected a tax for each buffalo and pig that was donated, and someone else was keeping a list of them for the family, with the pigs having ID numbers spray-painted on their sides.

Guests arriving at the funeral, with gift

Funeral banners at the entry to the site

The funeral site itself had a kind of village fair atmosphere, with people standing around chatting or sitting in the temporary pavilions built especially for the event, arranged around a central square. In the middle of the square, a few buffalo were ominously tied to posts. There were hundreds of guests and probably about 50 tourists. 

At some point, without much fanfare, a man standing next to one of the buffalo slit its throat with a knife. I’d made the decision to stand up the back, to deliberately obscure my view, so there are no videos here of gushing blood. Quite quickly the buffalo was on the ground in a pool of blood, and my main thought was that it had all happened in a very casual way – no drum rolls, no shrieks from the crowd, just on with the show.

The overall scene: temporary guest pavilions forming a square, with animals to be sacrificed (and one already gone) in the middle. The coffin has already been carried up above the main table where the protokol (MC) sits.

A guest catches all the action on the iPad while I hide up the back!

There were some formal processions as the close family filed into the main pavilion, followed by the first group of important guests. In the other pavilions, people sat around chatting, drinking coffee and smoking while an MC (called the protokol) narrated proceedings in a very upbeat tone. According to our guide, he was urging the audience to remember the fine qualities of the deceased.

Food and drinks are served to the immediate family and guests in the VIP pavilion, courtesy of the PKK (Family Welfare Guidance association)

Hanging out in the VIP pavilion
We left soon after that, having seen enough for the day. In Western terms, the closest thing I could liken it to is having a party at an abattoir, but it was certainly an important social event.

Funeral 2

The second funeral we attended on day 1. The ceremony began with a Christian service, including hymns and prayers. After that, a crowd of about 20 young men gathered around the coffin, which sat on an elaborate bier (saringan) in the shape of a tongkonan. After some preliminary warm-up noises, they hoisted the construction onto their shoulders and started the procession. Attached to the back was a long piece of red material, which close relatives held over their heads, forming a train of about 20 metres.
Yours truly in front of the coffin, which sits on a bier in the shape of a traditional house (tongkonan)

The procession headed off through the funeral site in a jaunty fashion, a bit like a conga line, with the bier-carriers hoisting it high then dropping it down low, with lots of chanting, shouting and laughing. They then headed off down the road with the coffin, basically going around the block, with lots of rest stops and chanting. It seemed like a lot of fun and a great release of energy for everyone involved. Having followed the procession to the road, we took the chance to leave, happy not to have witnessed any more animal sacrifices. According to our guide, that was still to come.
The peak tourist season of July–September coincides with the Torajan ‘funeral season’. Funerals are scheduled for this time of the year because (a) it’s the dry season, and (b) it’s the holiday season, when Torajans living in other parts of Indonesia are most likely to be able to get time off to help organise and attend a major event. Which raises the question, what happens to the dear departed while they are awaiting the funeral? Well, they are embalmed and stay in the tongkonan, ‘unwell’, sometimes for several years, until an appropriately elaborate funeral can be funded and organised.

The buffalo bubble

Buffalo hold a very special place in Torajan culture. A family’s buffalo never work in the fields and are looked after lovingly. On our travels we often saw a man or a boy taking great care while washing their buffalo in a stream. Some buffalo are free to roam and wallow in muddy rice paddies, but often we saw them tied up on short ropes, so they had to stand with their heads raised. Our guides told us this was to build up the muscles at the back of the neck, to make them look stronger. So the buffalo get the VIP treatment right up until funeral day. Then, it is their role, by being sacrificed, to help the deceased get to heaven. So the more buffalo sacrificed, the easier the road to heaven.

At least, that was the idea before the Christian missionaries revised things. Now, as all good Christians know, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’ (Matthew 19:24). So these days the killing of buffalo at a funeral is seen as a way of following a tradition and being able to share a resource (buffalo meat) with your extended family and local community.

Except that there is something of a buffalo bubble in Tana Toraja: the animals are worth a lot more than their ‘meat value’. (See, I told you I was a rationalist materialist.) 

As best we could ascertain, your basic black or brown beast is worth around €3000–5000, and the price goes up from there, with albinos or black-and-white spotted ones worth anywhere from €10,000 to €30,000. At the Rantepao buffalo market we saw a boy minding a spotted buffalo and were told that his family had turned down an offer of $50,000, the price of a new BMW X1. There aren't enough buffaloes in Tana Toraja to satisfy demand, so canny entrepreneurs are bringing them in from other parts of Indonesia and abroad.

Top of the range model: a spotted buffalo

So you can see that a Torajan funeral can end up being a very expensive event indeed. Our guide estimated that one of the funerals we attended had cost the family around €300,000 ($430,000).

As you can imagine, this topic occupied a lot of our dinner table conversations, and a lot of questions to our Torajan guides. How can people living in a farming community that grows mainly rice and coffee, and makes some money out of tourism, afford this level of expense on a funeral?

The answer seems to be that Tana Toraja exports its sons and daughters. There are simply not enough jobs in the region. We were told that more than half of all Torajans live outside Tana Toraja. Hopefully, they are working in decent jobs that allow them to save some money, because when there is a death in the family, they are going to be called upon to make a substantial contribution! This is the main reason for the lag between someone dying and holding the funeral: amassing the necessary cash. To put it in purely economic terms, Torajan funerals are sucking cash from other regions in Sulawesi to pay for buffalo that are massively over-valued and have no productive use, only prestige value. But heck, I guess you could say the same about a BMW X1.
Apparently the Pentecostal church in Toraja is the only denomination that is against buffalo sacrifice at funerals, but even then there are exceptions. One of our guides, a well-educated man and Pentacostalist, has told his kids in no uncertain terms that they’d better get good jobs so they can put money away for his last rites, buffalo and all.

See Part 3: A short walk from Lempo to Batutumonga

© 2014 Steve Dobney

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