The Torajans of Sulawesi live to die

 
LA Times | Travel
 

The last king of Toraja was 93 when he took his final breath in July 2003. Five years later, he's still part of the family, quietly residing in a small room in his former palace, shaded by two red parasols decorated with colored beads and gold fringe. By Torajan tradition, he isn't really de...

By Paul Watson // 08.19.08
 

The last king of Toraja was 93 when he took his final breath in July 2003. Five years later, he's still part of the family, quietly residing in a small room in his former palace, shaded by two red parasols decorated with colored beads and gold fringe.

 

By Torajan tradition, he isn't really dead. He's just sick. The late monarch won't be gone for good until he has been laid to rest with traditional rites featuring the slaughter of scores of water buffaloes, at least one of them a rare spotted specimen.

 

The unhurried passage from this world to the next isn't reserved for former rulers. It is central to the culture of Torajans, an ethnic group in southern Sulawesi island whose customs are a hybrid of ancient tribal traditions and Protestant Christianity.

 

The dead wait months, even years, for their last rites while relatives negotiate funeral arrangements, everything from the right timing to allow mourners to travel long distances, to where they will stay and who will feed them.

 

Corpses used to be dried with herbal elixirs and smoldering fires, but the old ways have largely died out, replaced by washtub embalming fluid made with formaldehyde.

 

A village mortician schooled in the old ways gave the late king's body the royal treatment with natural preservatives. It took more than 320 yards of cloth to wrap his mummy, a simple task compared with the long negotiations and complex preparations for his funeral.

 

"Torajans are very sensitive about this because the funeral is our last honor," said Eddy Sambolinggi, the youngest son of the last king, Puang Sambolinggi. "Everything has to be carefully planned."

 

In many ways, Torajans spend a lifetime preparing for their demise, saving for the essentials, such as their burial clothes and bamboo shelters for guests. They also have to budget for funeral donations to other families, while pampering and fattening up water buffaloes for sacrifice.

 

"Torajans," Sambolinggi, 56, said cheerfully, "they live to die."

 

It has taken his family five years to agree on a send-off befitting Puang Sambolinggi, which is now planned for October. The farewell is shaping up to be the last grand funeral in Torajan history, the final chapter of a royal history that dates back centuries.

 

Sambolinggi's reign saw the death of an ancient dynasty in Tana Toraja, or the Land of Toraja. He held the throne for only a year until, just days after Japan surrendered in August 1945, Indonesia declared independence from the Dutch and abolished tribal monarchies. But tribal tradition lives on.

 

Anthropologists believe Torajans are descended from voyagers who sailed from southern China as early as 3,000 BC. Though Christianity and the modern world have worn away at tradition, ancient beliefs called aluk to dolo , or the way of the ancestors, still guide many Torajans, especially when someone dies.

 

Legend says the design of their homes, called tongkonan , came from heaven. The wood-framed buildings face north, toward the land of the creator. The dead are always placed in a room at the back so they can face south, where the ancestors live in heaven.

 

The houses' bamboo roofs are shaped like boats, with a high bow and stern, which some believe honor the vessels their ancestors sailed to Sulawesi. The homes' central pillars are decorated with a row of horns from water buffaloes slaughtered at family funerals.

 

A good buffalo is a Torajan status symbol, and people go through life pleased that their burials won't be rushed, leaving mourners time to find the cash for fine specimens to slaughter. The donations required for a royal funeral give Torajans more than the usual pause.

 

"We have to wait until the whole family is ready," Sambolinggi said. "For instance, there's me and my siblings. Perhaps I am able to contribute a number of buffaloes, while my siblings still have to wait and save some money. We all have to agree, because for this funeral the number we're talking about isn't small."

 

Up to 80 buffaloes will be sacrificed in front of tens of thousands of mourners. Just counting relatives, Sambolinggi said, there will be 100,000 guests, many of whom will journey hundreds of miles.

 

Family members have also dickered over whether the body will be buried next to the late king's father or mother, Sambolinggi added.

 

Until the plans are settled, and relatives bid their final farewells, the late king, wrapped in cloth and encased in a wooden coffin, lies in repose just up the stairs from his youngest son's private museum of old spears, beaded dresses and other tribal artifacts. Sambolinggi regularly talks to his father, not in a way anyone else could hear, he said, but silently, from his heart.

 

"For the past five years, he's been with us, sleeping upstairs," Sambolinggi said. "We still prepare his place at the dining table. And for instance, if we go to the capital city, we have a big feast, and we save some for him."

 

When the king died, in the normal sense of the word, his son called in an undertaker to make a mummy of him the old-fashioned way, without embalming fluid.

 

The mortician died soon after, taking some of the secrets of Torajan mummification to his grave. But Sambolinggi watched him closely at work, and his memory preserves a vivid remnant of a centuries-old ritual.

 

His father's corpse was cleansed with tea mixed with warm water and soap chopped into little pieces. Then the mortician poured about three bottles of vinegar, a little at a time, down the late king's throat.

 

A small rope, used to tie a water buffalo by the nose, was retrieved from the ground where it had fallen in the animal's pen, cut into pieces and sprinkled on the body so that the tether could go with him to heaven. Then the corpse was wrapped in cloth, tightly bound in three places with coconut fronds.

 

"After that, there was a little magic," Sambolinggi said. "The man who performed the ritual put a black stone pot, like a cooking pot, in the corner of the room. He told us not to touch it, and warned that if we did, the body would be damaged."

 

A week later, Sambolinggi smelled a foul odor, which he suspected was wafting from his father's body. He quickly summoned the undertaker.

 

"He checked and said that it was not the body that smelled bad, but there were many other dead persons' spirits around," Sambolinggi recalled. "He asked me if I'd heard any banging sounds on the door lately, and I said yes. "

 

Spirits had come knocking, the mortician said, and his magic chased them off. The smell, and apparently the ghosts, never came back. Any lingering doubts Sambolinggi had about the wisdom of Torajan tradition vanished with them.

 

His father's remains probably will be sealed in a royal tomb carved out of the nearby Suaya cliff, where his brother-in-law's coffin was laid to rest July 15, just as dozens of royals have been through the centuries, including the late king's ancestors.

 

Like wide-eyed marionettes gathering dust on a puppeteer's shelf, life-size wooden dolls representing the dead stare down from balconies outside their tombs. Relatives look up to greet them when they bring offerings, such as cigarettes, palm wine or bottled water, that they set at the base of the cliff.

 

Because Torajans take their obligations to the dead so seriously, parents who can't afford to donate a pig, let alone a buffalo, for sacrifice at a funeral often pledge a kind of IOU, which their children must fulfill to maintain the family honor.

 

With the funeral season running from June to October, the driest months of the year, sacrificial debts can quickly add up. An ordinary black water buffalo costs at least $5,500, a heavy price for Torajans, most of whom are rice farmers. (A shortage of the finest spotted buffaloes has driven the price up 25% over last year, to almost $14,000.)

 

And then there are taxes they must pay on each head of livestock delivered for sacrifice: $16 for a buffalo, $9 for a pig. Custom demands a minimum of six buffaloes be slaughtered at each funeral, but competition for status usually pushes the number higher.

 

Funerals have become so expensive that many young Torajans are moving away to cities, or even other countries such as Malaysia, in search of better jobs so they can keep up with the demands as relatives die. An estimated 450,000 people live in Tana Toraja, and 200,000 others have left the region.

 

A Torajan funeral doesn't have to be fit for a king to be costly. More than 7,000 mourners attended a three-day ceremony last month for Augustina Tambing, the wife of a primary school principal. Half a year after her death, they gathered to see her off to heaven with the sacrifice of eight water buffaloes and more than 150 squealing pigs.

 

Yohanes Rumeri, chief of Buntu Masakke village, sat behind a counter at the entrance to the funeral with a ledger, recording donors' names, the animal they delivered and the tax they paid.

 

The money would be shared among the regional government, the local church and the village administration, the chief said.

 

"Honestly, it is a burden," said Tambing's daughter Yatti Parassa, 45. "But this is our family. We are still close because we've been attending funerals for ages. So we're not going to lose the family ties. Our families live far apart, but for this event, they all come together."

 

Tambing, 68, died Jan. 13 after 49 years of marriage to her husband, Izak Rigu Parassa. She bore him seven children, who watched along with 20 grandchildren and a great-grandchild as butchers led buffaloes by their tethers into the funeral, and with a theatrical slash of a long knife, slit each animal's throat.

 

Just across from the skinned carcasses lying in coagulating pools of blood, Tambing's family formed a choir. As a gentle rain fell, they wept and sang, "Jesus comes into the world, Jesus comes to help the sick."

 

Her 71-year-old husband sat nearby, pinching the bridge of his nose in silent prayer, exhausted after a long goodbye to the love of his life. He took comfort in the thought that she was still with him, watching her own funeral.

 

"I think she is pleased," he said, with a broad, toothless smile.