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Tana Toraja

A cock and bull story

View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

In November the Papua trip ended and we returned to Bali. As ever, I had no particular plans, but soon decided to head to Sulawesi – where we had landed on our way back from Biak.

Incidentally - and obviously irrelevantly, but I am the editor here – the most famous of all ‘living fossils’ is of course… the coelacanth. (Perhaps ‘the fern’ is perhaps a better answer. Half a point for the crocodile, the shark or the ratfish, a point for a lamprey or hagfish.) The youngest fossil coelacanth is 80 million years old, and they were thought to be long extinct, but a coelacanth was caught off South Africa in 1938. (A beautiful example of how a single data point can sometimes disprove a theory.) The same J L B Smith who described the experience of being stung by a stonefish in one of my previous posts spent much of his career studying the coelacanth. Understandably, it was thought to be very rare, but at the turn of the millennium a coelacanth was found in a market in Sulawesi; and it turns out that coelacanth is present in large numbers off the coast of northern Sulawesi. Since the Indian Ocean and most of the Indo-Malay archipelago lie between these coelacanths and South Africa, the Sulawesi version may well be a different species; it is certainly a different colour.

Unlike most modern fish, coelacanths are lobe-finned fish. They are related to lungfish. It was an ancestor of the lungfish that first went walkabout on land.

Makassar was not particularly interesting, and so I soon decided to head north to Tana Toraja, where the Torajan people live. In the province of South Sulawesi (SulSel, as it is known locally), there are Buginese, Makassarese and Torajan people, and they all think they are the best, naturally. Buginese and Makassarese are Muslim; the Torajans are Christian, but not very.

While in Lombok, Alfred Russel Wallace heard about a man running amok, and the gates of the compound in which he was staying were closed. It turned out to be a false alarm. Wallace described it as a form of honourable suicide.

Macassar is the most celebrated place in the East for "running a muck." There are said to be one or two a month on the average, and five, ten, or twenty persons are sometimes killed or wounded at one of them. It is the national, and therefore the honourable, mode of committing suicide among the natives of Celebes, and is the fashionable way of escaping from their difficulties. A Roman fell upon his sword, a Japanese rips up his stomach, and an Englishman blows out his brains with a pistol. The Bugis mode has many advantages to one suicidally inclined. A man thinks himself wronged by society--he is in debt and cannot pay--he is taken for a slave or has gambled away his wife or child into slavery--he sees no way of recovering what he has lost, and becomes desperate. He will not put up with such cruel wrongs, but will be revenged on mankind and die like a hero. He grasps his kris-handle, and the next moment draws out the weapon and stabs a man to the heart. He runs on, with bloody kris in his hand, stabbing at everyone he meets. "Amok! Amok!" then resounds through the streets. Spears, krisses, knives and guns are brought out against him. He rushes madly forward, kills all he can--men, women, and children--and dies overwhelmed by numbers amid all the excitement of a battle. And what that excitement is those who have been in one best know, but all who have ever given way to violent passions, or even indulged in violent and exciting exercises, may form a very good idea. It is a delirious intoxication, a temporary madness that absorbs every thought and every energy. And can we wonder at the kris-bearing, untaught, brooding Malay preferring such a death, looked upon as almost honourable to the cold-blooded details of suicide, if he wishes to escape from overwhelming troubles, or the merciless of the hangman and the disgrace of a public execution, when he has taken the law into his own hands and too hastily revenged himself upon his enemy? In either case he chooses rather to "amok."

Emil, the fixer at the hotel in Makassar – spoke reasonable English, arranged tours and taxis for a sizable fee, offered repeatedly to pimp for me – offered to do a tour of Tana Toraja for me, driving me around in the hotel’s SUV. Emil was Torajan and he knew what he was talking about. But I didn’t have the budget to be driven around in a car on my own for several days, and it was no surprise that his fee was too high. Emil would have charged about $500. In the end I think the entire trip, including return transport and hotels, cost $100 or so.

So I took a bus to Rantepao: a twelve-hour ride, perfectly comfortable except for the aircon. If the bus has aircon, the ticket is more expensive and the aircon must therefore be used – even when you are in the hills and the sun has set.

The first part of the journey led up the west coast. Not far to the east, fantastic limestone outcrops burst from the earth. I had seen them from an aeroplane and they were even better at ground level.


To the west of the outcrops, the landscape is flat, and covered in paddies, egrets and buffalo, just like most of Vietnam.

The primary crop is rice. Tana Toraja is hilly country, and so the rice is cultivated in terraces. Indeed, the landscape closely resembles the countryside around Sapa in northern Vietnam.


But Toraja’s most famous crop is kopi, coffee. Indeed, if there is anything that Sulawesi is famous for it is coffee, and that coffee comes from Toraja. Most of the exported stuff is arabica, but robusta is drunk in Indonesia. In Indonesia it is ground into the finest powder, added to piping hot water and simply stirred. If the water is hot enough the grounds sink. I am constantly invited to find Torajan coffee the best in Indonesia, although in reality that in Java and Bali seems just as good to me.

I stayed in a little compound of wooden buildings run by Martin, and through him I arranged to go walking with his friend Rudi. I refused the offer of a driver and demanded an ojek – a taxi-motorcycle – which kept the cost down. I think it cost about $8 a day to hire an ojek. It is a better way to get around anyway, unless it is raining.

The most common form of public transport in Indonesia is the becak, a tricycle rickshaw. In Rantepao they are attached to a moped and are called sitor.

On the eve, I was approached by an Italian couple who asked whether they could tag along. Certo, as we shared the price of the guide. Marta works in an ethnological museum in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, not far from Milan, and Daniele works in a hotel in Rimini. Both take very good photos.


Rudi took us first to a field of megaliths and grave houses at Kalimbung Bori. Torajan graveyards are a little different. The dead stay in their own houses. A grave house is called ‘a house with no smoke’ in the Torajan language.


A traditional Torajan house is extraordinarily handsome. The roof is convex, with a saddle point in the middle, the highest points reminiscent of buffalo horns – given the buffalo fetish, this seems to me the likely source – and the gables at each end are very steeply pitched, perhaps 70 degrees.


The roof, traditionally, is covered with thick grass shoots, and replaced every few years. It is a form of thatching. The grave house is a miniature version of the same thing.

There are some Torajan objects in Marta’s museum, and so she quizzed Rudy on the symbology. I wandered off and chased butterflies at this point.



However, from what I remember, the chicken and circle symbol – which you see on every building – is called a katik. The cockerel is a symbol of liberty for the Torajan people. The circle is the moon.


The quantity of kupu kupu – butterflies – does not match those at Bantimurung to the south (qv), but they’re still impressive. Rudi tells me that kupu kupu malam – ‘night butterflies’ – does not mean ‘moths’ as you would expect, but ‘prostitutes’.

Other remains are stored in caves hollowed out of the rock. It takes weeks and many dollars to chisel out a cave from the hard rock. The bones are buried with belongings. At the entrance to the cave, to deter robbery, is a carved door. These doors are wonderful objects. More often than not, they depict a buffalo, but sometimes they have human figures.


If I ever get a grave door I want Spiderman on it.

After visiting the graveyard we attended a funeral at Malakiri. The Torajans are famous for their funerals, and it is easy to understand why anthropologists find them so interesting. A funeral is not merely a big event. Expenditure on funerals dominates everything else. A family that has to choose between a lavish funeral and the education of a child has no choice but to spend the money on the funeral. Torajans travel in large numbers, especially to Makassar, in order to earn and save lots of money – to pay for funerals.

The largest funerals last for three days. The big party is held on the second day, and this is what we visited.

Rudi taught me a few words in Torajan but I have forgotten most of them, along with about half of my Indonesian. But “thank you very much” sounds like kuré sumanga. A big house is a tongkonan. A funeral ceremony is tomate.

As in the Baliem Valley, although to a far lesser degree, pigs are important. They are sacrificed by the dozen at funerals. A tax is paid on every pig killed; 70% goes to local government, 30% to central government. The price of a pig depends, of course, on the size, and also on colour. An adult black pig costs Rp 2 million or more: over £1,000.

But buffaloes are the Torajan obsession. They are perhaps the main store of wealth. Torajan men famously take much better care of their buffaloes than their wives. You see people washing their buffaloes. Swap cow for car and it’s like walking around Surrey of a Sunday afternoon.

A buffalo, if black, will fetch Rp 40 million. A black and white buffalo is much more valuable: it is worth Rp 150-170 million: £10,000. That is, of course, a vast amount of money in the rich world. In Toraja it buys tracts of land; but the cow is more important. A black and white cow is a symbol of nobility. If a black and white cow is sacrificed, it means a high-caste person has died.


The conspicuous consumption of the obsequy challenges belief. It is as if the members and guests drove cars to the funeral and set fire to them.

We heard the funeral well before we saw it. Around a clearing, which contains old and holy stones, is arranged a set of temporary buildings shaped like an eye. In the middle of the clearing is a wooden tower. This used to contain offerings to the spirits; now, in the Christian era, it houses an enormous speaker system.

Opposite the reception area is a man in traditional gear – most guests are formally dressed, as you would expect at a funeral - and he yells into a microphone. His commentary issues from the loudspeakers at a volume sufficient to melt your entrails, and he never stops. He is like a salesman on a cable shopping channel. It is quite an art; I assume he is a funeral professional.


As we arrive he is reading out names. Each family attending brings livestock as presents. The animals must be registered for tax purposes before they can enter, and there is a large queue outside the funeral area. He announced when the formalities are over and a family can enter.


A queue: o wonder! I have not seen one all trip. It brings a nostalgic tear to the eye. Later on, the guests also queue with admirable discipline to pay their respects.

Most of the gift-animals are pigs. A buffalo is one thing: you can lead it around by the nose.


But pigs don’t cooperate, so they are trussed, so tightly that they cannot move a muscle, and carried by bamboo rods over the shoulders.

All are trussed by the same recipe. Two poles are laid down parallel to the pig’s spine, one above and one below the trunk. Bamboo planks are strung between the poles to support the pig. Then the pig is tied, very tightly, with bamboo strips. A strip goes along the body, and other strips restrict the neck, chest and waist.

The restrained pigs lie still with their eyes closed, on the whole. Every now and then a pig begins to kick and scream at great volume, and then many of the others join in. It is a piercing and distressing sound. The combination of the amplified commentary and the screaming pigs amounts to an oppressive aural siege.

Around the enclosure are the temporary buildings. There are perhaps a thousand guests in sixty or more numbered enclosures. An extended family occupies each enclosure. They have brought along their own food and booze; it is a long day. Pigs are seared in the clearing; much of the food eaten is pork.


We are invited into one of the pavilions. We are fed items prepared by the women of the party: ikan mas (‘gold fish’, probably a carp), eel, pork and vegetables, accompanied by an utterly delicious red rice. The drink of choice is tuak: rice wine. The tuak is egg-white in colour and tastes a little sour, like wine on the turn. But you get used to it.


The family of the deceased – greatly extended – are dressed in black, dripping with gold jewellery. Others are not; they are dressed in finery woven with gold.

They queue – again – and parade past the tau tau, which is dressed in a red jacket.


These days, the Torajans, being Christian, the tau tau is a crude effigy, the sort of thing they burn in Patna when slightly cross about someone. In the past it would have been a fine statue.


The queue continues past the tau tau, past the area where the animals are sacrificed – all is caked in blood and excrement – to be received in the pavilion opposite.


First, the women. Each wears a red necklace and a hat like a Vietnamese limpet hat.


But these are special funeral hats, very finely made; indeed, they are beautiful objects.


In the pavilion are hostesses – family members? paid hostesses? – dressed in gold. They receive the guests, at which point the women remove their hats. As an offering, they carry betel nuts in rather nice velvet bags.



Then come the men. They are dressed with less formality on average, although most are in sarongs. In place of betel nuts they carry cigarettes.


The name tau tau is interesting. Tau refers to the human figure in ikat woven in Sumba. The figure represents ancestors. It is a common and ancient motif in Austronesian art, and appears elsewhere in the region. The Torajan tau tau is the same thing in three dimensional form.


After the long queues pass by the pavilion, like mRNA at a ribosome, a group of women from the village offer coffee, tea and cake. Afterwards, the bereaved family moves to the second resting place. Before that, the family read out the names of all those who have donated pigs.


Traditional Torajan society is caste-based. There are three castes: high, middle and low. The low used to be slaves - no surprise there. Even low-caste families with wealth cannot have funerals like this. That’s what a caste system means, after all.


People invariably used to marry endogamously, within the caste. Nowadays Romeo and Juliet can marry between castes – although it is difficult. Such marriages raise questions. To which caste to the offspring belong? What do you do if your father supports Liverpool and your mother Everton?


Alliance between high and low is particularly frowned upon by the noble in-laws. “Don’t shove shit in my face,” they say, nobly. Their own status is reduced, they feel, if they must attend the funeral of a low-class person. I’m not completely bewildered in such society: it’s like visiting Harrogate.

Low-caste funerals last a day, and take place the day after the death. Later on, a single buffalo will be sacrificed. At a middle-class funeral, at least fifteen buffalo will be sacrificed, if I have got it right.


In Tana Toraja, as in old England, a churl can pay to become a thane. In the north you must pay 7,777 objects to the local nobles. (Objects are – you guessed it – pigs, buffaloes, etc.) In the south the magic number is 100. So the vulgar rich subsidise the impoverished nobility, like everywhere else.

We leave. It is odd that we can shut our eyes but not our ears or nostrils; so most claims in nuisance relate to noise or smell. Many other mammals are better equipped. As we leave, we pass the place where the pigs are being butchered. Blood and tripes are everywhere.



Posted by Wardsan 10:42 Archived in Indonesia

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