Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia

Love goes beyond death – Torajas bizarre heritage – Overview

Feeding dead relatives, sacrificing herds of buffalos to their honors, persistent mummification? While for most of us, already talking about death is a taboo, for the Torajans inhabiting the picturesque mountain setting in South Sulawesi it’s a lifelong task – as death doesn’t really mean a final farewell. Toraja’s view on death is one of the most fascinating cultural heritage which made it to modern times.

The deceased remain for years if not decades in the family house, awaiting the very moment their folk have saved up enough money to throw a tremendous party. In Torajan belief corpses are treated as if sick until their soul will finally find peace after the funeral rites of “Rambu Solo”. Accordingly, I wasn’t surprised to wittnessed dead family members being invited to join lunch, or to have a smoke together with the living. Once being buried, the ancestors will be regularly taken out of their coffins for Ma’Nene – to get a new fancy outfit and a decent bone polish. „It’s basically like cleaning the room“ states a friend casually who just returned from his mining job in Lao to participate in the family affairs. Stereotypically, the Torajans tend to get labeled as old-fashioned or eccentric because of their spiritual beliefs. After all, the ethnicity has modernised, they use mobile phones and go study in metropolitan Jakarta. Leaving out the rites for a moment – they would be quite normal Joes. But admirably, the seem to have found a way to maintain their exclusive death cult surpassing some nine centuries, despite the increasing influence of world religions and the dashing modernization.

Condemn or admire? To the modern world, this overwhelming intimacy between the living and the dead may seem perverse. In contrast, children who abandon their parents by sending them into retirement homes earliest possible, or outsourced tomb care including flower pouring service would shock most of Torajans. Very few of us might remember, but with the raise of film cameras in beginning of the 19th century, post mortem photography was a big deal in Europe. A momentum which would not last forever, eventually because dead became a more cruel thing to deal with over the years. But back then, it was widespread to jazz up relatives who just passed away to get them properly photographed – Portraits of a deceased sitting in an armchair with its favorite pet, or even family group photos with dead relatives were as usual as going to the church on Sunday. Some creative photographers have even drawn pupils onto dead eyelids to get the impression the person would still be alive. Thus, why is it so easy to watch how dozens of people get killed in action movies, but in real life, we prefer to aware fair distance to death. Nowadays, as soon as we have closed the coffin lid, we move on to more livable tasks. For the Torajans, keeping their deceased at home for a good while, extraordinary ceremonial parties and even exhumation is a greater way to honor their beloved ones.

The projects include dozens of emotional, funny and distressing images I was able to take during the past 3 weeks of research within Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi (Indonesia). If you’ve just eaten, please wait for a while until you take a look at it. To have a complete overview I also interviewed the head shaman (Tato Dena, who was on BBC in the 70s) as well as the son of a „Toma Kula” (a sick person), who is storing his dead father in the family house since 11 years. Last but not least I met two local weathermen who claim to have control over the rain.

Read the full story about the Rambu Solo’ – Funeral, Ma’Nene – Care of Ancestors, Toma Kula’ – The Sick, Tato Dena – The Spirit believer – and To Ma’ Pamanta’ – The Weatherman

This photo reportage has been featured by ASIAN GEOGRAPHIC  |  Guardian  |  HUCK Magazine  |  DUMMY/ Fluter  |  SZ-Magazin  |  South China Morning Post  and many more.

Ma’Nene ritual – Emotions

Ma’Nene (care of ancestors) is all about remembering those who have passed away. Although relatives moved to other countries or cities, they will come back for this important family gathering to celebrate Ma’Nene together. During the event the Torajan families clean the corpses of their loved ones, and in some areas they even change their outfit and make fun with them. Ma’Nene follows right after the rice harvest, otherwise the spirits of ancestors would be angry, and next years harvest is bound to be bad. In Torajan belief, all the customs follow a difficult system of rules, which have been orally delivered from generation to generation. Follow this link to read more about Ma’Nene.

Ma’Nene ritual – Cleaning and new outfits

Ma’Nene ritual – Close ups

There’s so much more to tell about Ma’Nene, find out more here

Rambu Solo – Funeral

“Is there a funeral going on?” I hear outsiders asking in the town of Rantepao. Indeed, to witness a Rambu Solo is fascinating in its very own way. During a special ritual, the soul of the deceased supposed to raise to Puya (heaven). The more buffalos sacrificed, the faster the soul will find its way. Hence, a whole herd of expensive animals will be slaughtered to ensure a nice trip to Puya, and not least to please all the relatives and the rest of the village with a decent feast. Some families wait years if not decades until they can agree on a funeral date. All family members living abroad will return to Toraja and bring their savings to contribute. Others will ask for a bank loan to finance the event. The ethnicity literally “lives to die.”

Here’s all the information you need!

Fancy more content about Rambu Solo’? Find out more here!

Toma Kula’ – “The sick Person”

„Please wake for lunch“, Pairuan addresses the lifeless body of Pong Masak, in indigenous tongue, offering his father a bowl of rice. In Toraja, it’s customary to feed the deceased every day, and to keep the corpse cozily beded in a separate room of the family house until the family can afford a proper funeral. In contrast to common beliefs, Torajans treat their beloved relative as if being sick – not dead.

Check out the interview with Pairuan or follow this link to the full story and more images.

Yes, there is more, read the full story and watch more images.

Aluk To Dolo “The way of the ancestors” (spirit belief)

The first Dutch missionaries flocked to Toraja roughly a century ago. No surprise christianity is Toraja’s most prevalent religion, although the spirit belief “Aluk To Dolo” was previously transformed into hinduism to fit the strict religious system of Indonesia. However, most Torajans are officially Jesus-fans and show up well-behaved in church on Sunday, but they’ve found a way to keep their animism and even the cast system alive.

To find out more, check out this link.

To Ma’ Pamanta’ – The weatherman

Magic vs. Rain

With six months of wet season per year and funeral ceremonies in the range from 50’000 to 500’000 USD, being a weatherman in Toraja is good business. Weathermen get hired to fight the rain with magic and are part of the enduring myths in Toraja like the buffalo-highway for souls or the hunter who buried an abandoned corpse and gets rewarded with luck for a lifetime. Reason enough to arrange a meetup and to find out more about their rituals. Read about my experience here.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia


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