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Tana Toraja 2

View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

After the funeral, Rudi, Marta, Daniele and I visited Sankompong Sadan, a village that specialised in selling ikat cloth to tourists, and no doubt to making it too. A couple of women sat weaving at back looms. As in Flores, it seems that women spend almost all their times weaving.


It is slow progress. As Wallace found in Makassar:

The time of the women was almost wholly occupied in pounding and cleaning rice for daily use, in bringing home firewood and water, and in cleaning, dyeing, spinning, and weaving the native cotton into sarongs. The weaving is done in the simplest kind of frame stretched on the floor; and is a very slow and tedious process. To form the checked pattern in common use, each patch of coloured threads has to be pulled up separately by hand and the shuttle passed between them; so that about an inch a day is the usual progress in stuff a yard and a half wide.

Inevitably technology and the tourist market have changed the nature of the textiles used. Cloth was made of cotton or banana, both grown locally. Now many ikat weaves are of rayon or polyester. Modern dyes predominate too, and understandably so: they are brighter and easier to handle. Traditional dyes are indigo (for dark blue); chilli (red); saffron (yellow) and clay (brown). It is only tourists who see the old dyes as more authentic. But the very concept of authenticity is problematic, even inauthentic. Are our cars less authentic than they used to be? If local people use cloth dyed with modern dyes, are they less authentic?


The village is laid out in two parallel lines. On the left are the houses, all with horned roofs. The oldest are four hundred years old or more, and they are built without nails. All the wooden panels are carved and decorated, but the paint has faded. The roofs are thatched with bamboo, which lasts a very long time; it only has to be changed once a century. Vegetable matter grows freely in it.


Many of the houses boast columns of buffalo horns on the verandah. (Some of the houses in Flores have just the same decoration.) A pair of horns must be added each time a family member dies.


Opposite the line of houses are smaller buildings in a similar style, the rice barns. Modern Torajan houses and barns are still built in the same style. The only difference is that they are now roofed with corrugated iron.



The following day I went for a walk with Rudi. He was wearing white plimsolls and carrying nothing, which I correctly took as a signal that the walking would not be too hard.

From Lempo we again pass a lot of rice barns. They are in good condition: one states that it was built in 1905, restored (‘renopasi’) in 2006.

Each barn has a door with a buffalo design on it.



Each panel around the barn is decorated in swirly patterns, which look abstract but convey meaning; apparently they tell the story of the owner and the family.



Even in this remote village in the middle of Sulawesi flags and posters promoting the local political wannabes proliferate. A general election is approaching. Rudi, an educated man, is favourably disposed to the rule of Suharto and other generals. He says Indonesia needs a strong man to run it, and better security. SBY is too weak, so it is time to return to the family of Suharto; there will be no terrorism and plenty of jobs. [The most famous relative of Suharto is his son Tommy, who ran the state-owned car firm, Timur Putra Nasional and diverted its funds to his own companies. In 2002 he was finally convicted for the murder of a supreme court judge, but was released after only four years in 2006. Thankfully he is not running for office.]

We walk from Lempo to Berurang, where there is a church, then across the padi fields and up towards Batutumonga (‘stone look upwards’). Rantepao is surrounded by hills. The view on the walk to Batutumonga is lovely. Walking down from Batutumonga towards Pana we walk down the slopes of the highest mountain in the region, Sesean.



Every now and then we passed palms with notches cut into the trunk to enable the nimble to climb them. You see these everywhere in the region, as coconut trees are carved in the same way. Under the crown, where branches have been lopped, are bags for stoppering the flow of sap, or collecting it. These are sugar palms, Arenga saccharifera, from which palm wine and palm sugar are made. I have seen them before in Java and elsewhere. A little to the south of Tana Toraja, near Bantimurung, Wallace used to hang around the dripping sugar palms, collecting flies.

Ascending to Batutumonga Rudi’s bronchioles start whistling like a harmonica. He is asthmatic, but as an Indonesian man it is his moral duty to smoke. He talks about giving up, but with little conviction.


Heading down was quite a scramble. If there was a path, it lay elsewhere. We walked and hopped down the terrace walls, as I had done eight months before in Sapa.



At Pana there are some ancient cliff graves. The graves are carved into cliffs, perhaps to deter robbery. The doors covering the graves are very simple and very old. Each door has a buffalo design, which means that the person entombed had sacrificed 25 buffalo. Some have a human being on the front; this means that the buried person had, in life, fought bravely.


Some of the graves are so old that the doors have fallen off. Inside the niches you can see rolled up blankets. Inside the blankets are bones.


Most of the graves are about 500 years old, says Rudi; 1,000 years, says the village head. In those days, and indeed until recently, Torajans were animist. Every year the family would come and open up the door for a ceremony with the ancestors. When the time came that the hole needed to be reused by a younger occupant, the old bones would be moved to coffins, lying on the ground at the bottom of the cliff. And they would sacrifice a pig or dog or two.

Near the graves we took coffee with the kepala desa, the village chief. He has six children. Inside his house he showed me old wooden beams, and doors with carvings of people. The human figures are similar to the tau figures on the banana scarf I bought in Sankompong Sadan. They are made of jackfruit wood. They were taken inside to prevent them being stolen.


Naturally the conversation moves into Torajan language and my attention wanders towards a butterfly the size of a bat, black and white with an orange patch: a Troides species, probably. When we speak in English, they tell me that my accent is difficult to understand. It is easier for them to understand French or Italian people who speak English. I have a strong accent, they say.

A lot of antique grave doors are offered to tourists in Rantepao. They have been covered in fats and oils, and buried for a few months to antiquate them. The real antique doors are very valuable, and are kept in the houses of families or village chiefs; they are probably not for sale. And if they were, you would need an export licence.

In mid-afternoon the heavens opened and we stopped in a pavilion for Rudi have a much-needed cigarette or two. Rudi tells me that Torajans eat monkey and dog in order to get wood.


After the Bali bombing, tourism in Toraja stopped. There was also a civil war in central Sulawesi, a little to the north, which cannot have helped. The tourists have not come back in anything like their old numbers. Hotels have closed and people have lost jobs. Tourists used to visit all year round; now there is a strong peak in July and August and not much at other times.

Rudi has a degree in economics, and his wife has one in management. Yet he is a rice farmer and doesn’t like it. He wants to move his wife and children to Makassar when the two children are a little older; then he and his wife can try to get government jobs and send the children to good schools. (You would have the same aspiration in France. Not in the UK.)

The following day I go to see the livestock market at Bolu, just a few miles from Rantepao. Approaching the livestock market you pass lots of people selling vegetables on blankets by the side of the road: courgettes, spring onions, garlic, all sorts of chillis, cacao beans, aubergines, cabbage, long beans, bananas, avocado, sweet potato, carrots, ginger, tomatoes, mint, rocket, dried pigs’ fat, potatoes, taro, eggs, peanuts, squashes, limes, oranges, coconut, tobacco, Torajan coffee, betel and lime, rice (black, red and white). And that’s just what I can recognise.

Was once the beauty Abishag:


Many of them sell tuak in hollowed out bamboo cups. And most have a chicken or two on sale too.


After the groceries, you get to the market proper: pigs, trussed funereally, and cattle, washed and shining.




Each buffalo has a ring through its nose, and an attendant dressed like a cowboy.



We are only a few degrees south of the equator, and well above sea level. The white cattle suffer from sunburn.


From Bolu I took an ojek to Nanggala, where once again I saw traditional houses and rice barns. This village was more touristy than others, in that several houses were set up to sell knick-knacks. One thing the Torajans are very good at is carving wood, and I would happily have bought several of the carvings.





They were planting rice on the day I was there. Knee-deep in mud, a line of adults swept slowly up the field planting green bundles.



In another part of the field, children collected snails. It is hard work.


Afterwards, I think, I walked to Marante, where I saw a lot of well-dressed funeral figures, pretty much life sized.


These predate Christianity and are made with more seriousness than the tau tau at the funeral.


The bones go into communal coffins, and these have rotted and split to reveal gruesome piles. Sometimes a large tree trunk, carved on the outside, will be used to contain bones.



Skulls and long bones lie everywhere.



Too necromaniac: let's have some more cowboys.




Posted by Wardsan 07:59 Archived in Indonesia

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