Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia

Love goes beyond death – Torajas bizarre heritage – full story

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.

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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.

My project includes dozens of emotional, funny and distressing images I was able to take during the 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 gave an interview for 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 be able to control the rain in the area.

Toma Kula’

The sick

School girls in traditional Torajan dresses consciously juggle their sticks, while the boys escort them by hitting the marching snare drums. It’s a rainy independence day from Dutch occupation, as it is quite usual for this time of the year. The scheduled activities would be reason enough to stay in town, but I have an appointment to take care of, even though the people I’m going to meet aren’t too busy. „Let’s go buy some betel nuts and cigarettes for Pairuan, the son of the Toma Kula“, suggests Henry as we make our way through the market of Rantepao. Shortly after we ride our motorbikes along lush green paddies, the main source of Torajas cuisine. „See the white flag?“ I’m being asked. „It’s a sign that a Toma Kula’ lives here.“ The gateway leads us to a dreamy setting where the Tongkonan stands, a ship-shaped Torajan family house that looks like it is straight out of a fairy tale. Four Alang – rice barns – are facing the Tongkonan with the aim to complete the architectural heritage. „The more Alang the family call their own, the wealthier they are“, says Henry.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia
A typical Tongkonan is probably the most impressive heritage of Torajan culture. Its roof is made from bamboo layers.

Pairuan welcomes us warmly. „It’s lunch time and my father will be pleased to meet you,“ he adds. Together we climb up the stairs to the first floor and sneak silently into Pong Masak’s room. “Kumande Komi – wake up for lunch.“ Pairuan addresses his father, putting a bowl of rice and a glass of water on a small table next to the coffin. „In Toraja, we still believe, that the soul of a dead person lives on and needs to eat,“ Henry explains. „For us, Pong Masak is not dead yet. We call him Toma Kula’ – the sick“. Pong Masak is already stored in this room for over 11 years and still waits for the family to agree on a date for his funeral. Only during the rituals of Rambu Solo’ the soul of Pong Masak will find its way to Puya – Heaven.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia

„His mustache has grown a little over the years,“ mentions Pairuan, looking at his pale dad. „There is even the story of a 6 years old baby, of whom the family had to replace its coffin because it continued growing,“ Henry adds.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia

I’m quite surprised as my friend starts peeling the betel nuts. I assumed they will be for Pairuan. Additionally, Henry lights 6 cigarettes, one for himself, one for Pairuan, one for me and 3 more for Pong Masak and other ancestors. „You are all invited to join us, have some betel nuts and cigarettes,“ he addresses his audience from the other side. That’s when things are getting a little creepy. Smoking connects people, that’s no news, but I have never thought of a social relation from the living and the dead driven from the tobacco industry.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia

We go out to catch some fresh air, Pairuan suggests the rice barn, the place where Torajans usually welcome their guests. Rising to Puya also means to enter the afterlife. And, to continue with the living standards one is used to when being on earth. That’s why it is customary for the Torajans to put a gift in the coffin of their ancestors before locking it into a family mausoleum or the traditional stone grave. For some, a bracelet or a watch would do, while the highest cast might even bury a diamond with their loved ones. „What he will give his father on the final farewell,“ I ask Pairuan. „There will be something, but I won’t tell,“ he replies. Nowadays, many are afraid their gifts get stolen. Local police authorities are even investigating cases of stolen mummies. The rumor spread that there’s a high demand from foreign antique-collectors based in Bali. Supposedly, they’re hiring thieves from the area to steel bodies for their private exhibitions. Not to forget about the missing baby mummies who apparently are used for occult medicine.

The other day, I meet up with Jakob to visit his extended relative Esther Paseru, who passed away only 3 days ago of a heart attack. I’m conscious of the fact, that the loss is still fresh, so I intend just to join for small talk and coffee if the family would feel uncomfortable. But surprisingly, this isn’t the case. I’m greeted with smiling faces. Andy, the young nephew of the Toma Kula’, walks me upstairs to the Southern room of the Tongkonan where Esther rests. „Wake up Auntie, you have an important guest to receive,“ announces Andy softly as we enter. „She looks like a warm-hearted person, way too young to leave,“ I answer. Esther doesn’t smell, dried plants surrounding her lifeless body neutralize the odor of the formalin. A tray with fresh Pa’piong – Torajan’s favorite dish made of pork and rice cooked in bamboo, is already waiting on her foot end. „Every day, we bring Auntie food and fresh flowers,“ tells me Andy, while staring at Esther. Her first son Risvan Patale comes to join us and immediately breaks out in tears. But soon after, he reminds himself that he mustn’t worry. The body is just clothing. I’m already told, that being sad in front of the Toma Kula’ is sort of taboo in Torajan culture, but this situation still overwhelms me.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia
Risvan Patale with his mother Esther Paseru passed away only 3 days ago of a heart attack. Until the event of Rambu Solo’ she is considered being sick – a Toma Kula’

Jakob and I are invited for lunch. I’m asking Risvan if there is a reason why Esther is placed in the main Tongkonan. „Yes, because it is her favorite place,“ he tells me. Jakob adds some insights, „It’s like a small universe. Esther has to be in the Southern room because Puya is in South. And North is where life is. Although her head needs to face West, she is still in the stage of transition. Not until the first funeral day of Rambu Solo’ the family will turn her body in direction of South. The Ritual is called Tomate.“ But that’s still a way to go, Esther will be preserved for several months until a proper funeral ceremony is held.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia

To the modern world, this intimacy between the living and the dead may seem perverse. In contrast, abandoning the elders, the sheer number of retirement homes and outsourced tomb care including flower pouring service would shock the Torajans.

Check out the interview with Pairuan or find more images here

Rambu Solo’ in Lo’Ko Uru

With buffalo blood on the highway of souls

Toraja’s view on death is one of the most fascinating cults which made it to modern times. Believing the research of archaeologists, these rites suppose to be more than 900 years old. During the peak season of July and August, it couldn’t be easier for outsiders to attend a funeral and to come face to face with these extraordinary customs. Trained guides are specialized in funeral crashing and trade their service for cash. Although it’s advisable to take advantage of their knowledge, I’m more into crashing a funeral by myself. The roads leading to the upcoming Rambu Solo’ in the mountainous village of Lo’Ko Uru are in „very bad condition“, I’m told, but this also means less death tourism. On the way up, I’m getting continuously distracted from the stunning views over Toraja, what makes it almost impossible to navigate my moto safely through the muddy and pot-hole dotted road. As I drive on, my thoughts are spinning – conflicts of conscience, anticipation, excitement, to name just a few. Thus, to investigate on a cultural heritage by attending someone’s funeral without any formal invitation seems a bit strange.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia

Rambu Solo’ in Lo’Ko Uru

With buffalo blood on the highway of souls

After a fair amount of time on hairpin roads, I reach the picturesque setting right before the procession starts. A colorful placard shows Uru Philippus Possali and Albertina Allo, the elderly couple who died only three months apart from each other. Their families did not wait for long to schedule a date for the funeral. That’s quite rare, others preserve the Toma Kula’ – the sick- up to several years if not decades until they can agree on a funeral date, but also to save up enough for the precious event. Just a week ago, there was a new record of 40 years waiting time – a triple funeral for grandpa who passed away 40 years ago and his two sons who died 5 and 10 years ago.

Provisionally, an arena made of bamboo has been set up during the previous months, to accommodate the extended family, as well as other guests. „Today is the opening day, roughly 800 guests will be attending the five-day event,“ tells me Noël, the nephew of Philippus and Albertina, who flew over from Jakarta the night before. I’m asking him if it is okay to attend the funeral of his grandparents. „More than that,“ he says, „for us Torajans it’s an honor to welcome a foreign guest at the ceremony, especially because a Bule – Westerner – contributes well to the prestige of a family.“

„Today the festivities are more symbolic, but feel free to join us tomorrow as well, when many more buffalos will be sacrificed, not to forget about all the pigs,“ adds Billy, Noël’s younger brother. I’m not really keen to witness a herd of buffalos being killed to honor a dead couple, I’m thinking, but instead, let them know I’d be busy tomorrow. However, I would be very interested to understand the reason why. „Easy,“ explains Noël, „the first buffalo will be sacrificed right after 12 o’clock when the sun starts setting again – Rambu means smoke, Solo means down. The buffalo’s death will mark the departure of a soul on its way to Puya – Heaven. There, it will be with God and live a fulfilling afterlife. Without the buffalo, the soul won’t find its way. Probably even worse, it remains here on earth as Bombo – a restless spirit.“

Why the buffalo? In Torajan belief, Puang Matua is recognized as the creator of all, but became one with the God of the Christians, once the bible was translated in Torajan language. When creating the world, Puang Matua sent his prophet, and this very first ancestor on earth was escorted by the buffalo. And only the buffalo will lead the deceased to their afterlife.

„Hence, the more buffalos sacrificed, the faster the souls of Philippus and Albertina will find their way to Puya?“, I ask Noël with puzzlement. „Exactly,“ confirms Noël, his eyes on the presentation of several buffalos, which have been named with white paint. He continues, „regarding Aluk To Dolo – our ancestral belief, 24 is the suggested number of Mapasa’ Tedong – the collection of sacrificial buffalos – for our caste. But some guests will bring additional buffalos as a gift. In this case, it’s an unwritten law for the family to pay back a buffalo in the same price range at the next funeral.“

Aluk To Dolo – the way of our ancestors – is the ancestral belief of the Torajans. The teachings of 7’777 rituals have never been written down, instead, they were orally handed down from generation to the next generation. Sacrificing herds of buffalos is part of Torajan belief since the dawn of time. Although, everything above the suggested number for a cast is just a show-off. The buffalo is a symbol of success, status, and fertility. Even nowadays, noblemen sacrifice hundreds of buffalos, sometimes horses as well as rare birds from Papua New Guinea. While the lowest cast is happy when they can afford two or three of these expensive creatures.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia

When strolling around within the arena of death, the pigs catch my attention, a good dozen has already been slaughtered and stacked up to announce the upcoming feast. I get the chance to chat with the Protestant priest, but also with the master of ceremony, who understands about the depth of Aluk. When asking, both pretend to be friends which each other. I’m not sure. A clash between spirit beliefs and Christianity is inevitable. About 80% of the Torajans converted to Christianity. Personally, I think they’re not enough portrayed as successfully balancing their family customs, Aluk To Dolo rituals, the Christian religion, and the caste system. Even though it’s definitely not as bad as it was before Dutch occupation, the social hierarchy still plays an important role in Torajan. Until 1909, it was even customary for the lowest caste – the slaves – to sacrifice themselves to pay tribute to their beloved masters, and to follow them to afterlife. In their own free will, they asked the family to set them on fire, for being sprinkled as ash over the dead body of their boss. In all honesty, there are pros and cons about European Colonization in Asia.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia
The expensive buffalos are presented to the guests. Once the first buffalo is sacrificed the soul of the dead person will raise to Puya

It seems the ritual is about to start. Tomina Arthur grabs the microphone and gives a farewell speech for Philippus and Albertina as if he would have been trained from a Brazilian sports commentator. With a distinctive voice, he talks about their former lives and about what to expect in Puya. Meantime, a cowboy-looking executioner proudly makes its way into the arena. Armed with a sharp machete, he frees the buffalo which the family choosed to sacrifice at first. The sun starts to set, and Arthur Tomina gives him permission to slam the knife along the throat. The buffalo staggers backward, moaning desperately in pain. With fountains of blood pumping out of its artery, the animal twists down. Blood splashes on my pants, ooh dear, on my face as well. I can hear the cheers and laughter of children, as the majestic aminal tries to get back on its hoofs. I’m not surprised to see the elders being more relaxed, continuing their chats and drinking Bolak – local rice wine. They’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of animals being sacrificed in their lives. The buffalo takes its last breath. The ritual „Aluk Bembilakan“ for Philippus is accomplished, his soul is on the way to Puya. Thus, it’s the turn of buffalo number two die in the spotlight. While the pseud-butchers start chopping up the dead meat, kids flock around trying to catch some buffalo blood sucking flies with their plastic cups. Every now and then, a cheeky dog sneaks in to steal a junk of meat from the stack. Others are pleased enough if licking the crime scene.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia
Tomina Arthur gives a farwell speach for the couple Uru Philippus Possali and Albertina Allo. Their souls are now finally set free, because the two buffalos have been sacrificed.

I get rid of the blood on my face to look more appropriate for the event. What a coincidence to meet Henry again up here. As the family feeds us lunch, he tells me about his labor work in the gold mines of Kalimantan and Papua. Almost half his life he has spent there earning money, which couldn’t be made in the area of Toraja. „Something we all have in common here,“ he says with heavy sarcastic overtones. The sad truth is that from roughly 650’000 Torajans a good third has left to work in gold mines as well as in the major cities all over Asia, far away from their relatives. „We basically live to die,“ states Henry dramatically. The funeral procession of a low caste family can cost easily more than 50’000 USD, but for higher castes, a total bill of roughly 250’000 up to 500’000 USD is a rule of thumb. Each of the closely related family members of the departed supposed to contribute at least one super expensive sacrificial buffalo, which cost between 10’000 USD up to 40’000 USD on the livestock market. The price depends on the exclusivity of the skin, the length of the horns and the color of the eyes. A grand Torajan funeral is measured in the number of buffalos, this is the main reason for the waiting time until a funeral is finally scheduled, but also why so many youngsters name it as it is, a vicious circle. Instead of buying a new Ducati or flying over to must-see Raja Ampat, they stuck with their burden. A good friend down in Rantepao told me, he would get a call from his accountant on a monthly basis. The question is always the same if he wants to buy property. Property that has been taken over from the bank because people can’t pay back their loans. Obviously, the bank does not have Rambu Solo’-loans, neither do they have buffalo-loans within their product portfolio. The loans have been approved because the borrowers claim to have great business ideas. But instead, they bought buffalos. The dignity of most Torajans makes it almost impossible to leave the path of their ancestors. For the Torajans, cutting the ties to the customs equals cutting the ties to their clan. The only way out of financial misery would abolish their own social heritage, which endures centuries already. However, they would have to pay back the buffalo debts to other families, modernize their culture and, fully disagree with spirit beliefs.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia

Action! The coffins of Philippus Possali and Albertina Allo are lifted out of the family house and consciously parked on a special throne for the next days. On the last day of Rambu Solo’ the couple will be escorted from a parade to the family mausoleum. Hence, the cult continues even after the burial, when the family will celebrate Ma’Nene – care of ancestors.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia
The first day of Rambu Solo’ is over. The rituals marked the official death of Uru Philippus Possali and Albertina Allo.

Find more images here

Ma’Nene – Care of Ancestors

Love beyond death

Pong Rumasek roams the hills of Toraja. He’s on the hunt. But instead of a nice catch, he encounters an abandoned corpse lying under a tree. He gently wraps the bones in his clothes and buries it. Just after this happening, he is being blessed with lifelong luck and wealth. The rumor about the lucky hunter started to spread. Ever since the Torajans believe that the spirits would reward them if they care about their ancestors well. A fairy tale? Of course! But fairy tales become true if one strongly believes in it. If enough people believe in the same fairy tales, they turn into ancient beliefs. In the wonderworld of rural Toraja, worshipping the spirits and superstitions defines everyday’s life. During my three weeks in the area, I have been confronted with unimaginable tales. Tales about dead babies who continue growing in their coffins. Tales about baptized spirit believers, who shiver ecstatically as the holy water dribbles on the forehead. Tales about weathermen and their control over the rain. Tales about werewolf spirits and murderers who can kill over long distances with black magic. Tales about troubled souls who stalk the living. And, my favorite among all Torajan tales, the mummy parade who strolls through villages by themselves. As time goes by, these stories are bound to disappear. And, those who still believe will be considered being backwardish, eccentric or, simply nuts. Ironically a new tale takes the place – the holy bible. The bible is equally grotesque but better formulated and available as a printed version. The Church puts a lot of effort into driving out the foolish spiritual belief. However, the ancestral cult is deeply anchored in the culture of the Torajans. These days the dead will be taken out from their coffins to get a new fancy outfit and a decent bone polish. Ma’Nene – care of the ancestors – is probably one of the most bizarre rituals that endure modern times. But the truth is, that for the families behind the disturbing images, Ma’Nene is a simply a sign of love.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia

Panggala, Rindigallo. My checklist for the upcoming days, „investigation, cemetery-hopping and capturing what couldn’t be more extraordinary“. Only during the short period of around two weeks between rice harvest and sowing, the Torajans are allowed to take care of their ancestors. The timing is different for each district. Furthermore, It all depends on the families, when, how and if they practice Ma’Nene. Besides, Panggala’s clans do it differently as neighboring villages like Baruppu or Sesean. Luckily, one of the families will open their mausoleum this morning. On arrival, a pig has already been sacrificed and now gently barbecues over the fire. I’m not the only foreigner around. Every now and then, a tip makes its way down to Rantepao and a guide takes tourists up here. Most family members I’m asking, don’t feel bothered, others even state it is an honor to see some Bule – Westerners – during Ma’Nene, it would contribute to the family’s prestige. As soon as the traditional coffins are dragged out the tomb, Merlin knees down immediately and mourns next to her mother Martha, who passed away two years ago. Other relatives put on surgical masks as Martha’s husband Yohannes opens the lid of her coffin. Regarding the circumstances, one may say Martha’s lifeless body is in good condition. Barely unpacked, Yohannes starts brushing his wife, “I was looking forward to seeing her again,” he says, when asking him how he feels, carefully sliding the brush over Martha’s face. A few minutes later, Martha is being put upright to receive a proper polish. Merlin calmed again and poses next to mum to take some selfies. Other corpses are forced to join for more family photos. Then, it’s time for her to take a rest and sunbathe for a little.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia
Merlin and her relatives are changing the clothes of Martha Rantelimbong, who passed away 2 years ago.

The coffin of Ne Christina Bane is now open for greater inspections. Just next to Ne Christina’s gaunt face lies some of her favorite belongings, like the glasses she used to wear and her typical Torajan lady bag stuffed with beauty items and knitwear. Then, newly styled Ne Christina is ready for the spotlight, as her son holds her into the air for better presentation. „You can take photos, no problem,“ he assures me. Then, they unpack 85 years old Ne Pua. It is the first time for grandson Sang Rappu to meet his dead grandfather. He lights him a cigarette.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia
Ne Christina Bane’ who reached the age of 94 is almost ready for the tomb, where she will rest until the next Ma’Nene.

More visitors are flocking in, that’s usually when things are getting more hectic. Personally, I’m not sure if the family members are as relaxed as they pretend to be. „Never be angry“, suggests an old Torajan saying. Having up to 20 foreigners crowding the spot to take photographs of intimate situations, can’t be too rebounding for a family’s prestige. Anyhow, after some more group photos, the deceased are neatly bedded in the coffins again, ready to get back into their tomb. Now, everyone is free to join for coffee and Pa’piong – pork, veggies, and rice cooked in bamboo – the main Torajan dish.

A New day, a new cemetery. Once again, I am warmly welcomed by the family who will open their mausoleum today to take care of several dead relatives. Sam and Gustin are rummaging through the coffins of their grandfathers to check what they have been buried with. Obviously, old men are simple beings, most of them were allowed to keep their mobile phones from the 90’s, identity cards, some Rupiahs as start-up capital for Puya, and of course, their favorite cigarette brand. Angga exhumes his grandfather Tandi and puts his corpse on a bunch of blankets. I can’t help but find myself smiling, as Annga takes off the fashionable undies of his grandpa. Fortunately, the differences between feeling embarrassed for someone, sarcasm, and sympathy can be expressed with almost the same smile. At least Asians hardly recognize the difference.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia
Angga exhumes his grandfather Tandi and changes his clothes

Then, something happens that I will memorize the rest of my life. Juli unexpectedly hands me over the dried out body of her young sister. And takes some photos. I thought I’ve seen everything. Shall people blame me being prudish, but holding a baby girl mummy, isn’t my cup of tea and goes far beyond everything I’ve seen so far. Once more I find myself at Tandi’s spot, the past 17 years of death did not well on him. I’m happy he’s back in a pair of trousers again. Meantime, Angga reunited the entire wolf pack of Tandi and his buddies Songa and Todeng for further presentation. But even here, in the men’s section, the nameless baby girl (nameless, because no teeth yet) needs to be part of the group photos. In the background, Latin crosses decorate the top of the tombs, the symbol of the church, symbol of sins. If there would be an Almighty, I am sure he would intervene. The real life comedy reaches its peak again just before noon. By now all skeletons are styled with fresh shirts, trousers or dresses. The sunglasses have been exchanged and cigarettes have been put into stiff mouths, in saying everyone is ready for photo sessions. Group photos with dead granny, or with the dead granny and the dead cousin, or with dead granny and the dead cousin and the dead guy that granny never really liked. But most important of all, the family portrait.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia

Two weeks ago, the local shaman had been on duty at the graveyard of Balle’. Holding the Massabu ritual he worshipped the spirits and asked for permission to open the old tomb. A chicken, A pig, and a dog have been executed in front of its gate. Apparently, the spirits agreed. Today is the chosen day to move roughly 50 coffins over to a new mausoleum, since everyone is already here, this day also provides a good opportunity for most families to take care of their ancestors. Carrying out the coffins, people realize there are some rotten ones too. As I take a brief look into the wooden tomb, I see indefinable pieces and parts of corpses which need to be collected and sorted first. This might take a while because the families aren’t sure which rib belongs to which skull. Meantime, the coffins have been opened, and the routine takes off almost simultaneously, checking old gifts, cutting away sticky clothes, make the body stand to dry, dressing them up, and of course taking some selfies.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia

This chaotic day overwhelms even experienced, Ma’Nene enthusiasts. Where to observe? At the coffin from 90 years old veteran Djim Sambara, who was honorably buried in his uniform? Or just a stone’s throw away from Djim where a male mummy is wearing leopard underwear? Or at one of the mausolea where little Clara is babysitting her sister, who she has never seen alive? By noon some 50 care sessions lay already behind the families, as suddenly the crows start occupying the surrounding treetops. The deliverers of souls. Believing the hearsay, crows suppose to be present especially after death, this symbolizes a special message of the deceased, as well as a confirmation of rebirth – the shedding of the old and the awakening of the new.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia
Clara holds her dead sister who she has never seen alive. Arel died when she was 6 (7 years ago) because of fiever.

Later on, I’m having coffee with Esram Jaya. He just returned home from his work in the gold mines in Laos, to support his family with Ma’Nene. „How did you feel?“ I’m asking him. “Well, it’s basically like cleaning the room,” he responds sarcastically, and goes on „what makes me feel really sad, is the fact my Manado-rooster lost the fight yesterday in Baruppo. 2’000 USD gone.“ – I have to summarize it because it’s quite unbelievable, so I challenge him, “You bought a fighting cock in Manado with your savings from one year working overseas, and then you lost the rooster in a fight to death plus the money you bet on it?“ – Esram jokes, „Yes, better than spending it on the next funeral!”

Thanksgiving day. Ma’Nene is officially coming to an end. At least for the municipality of Panggala. The families will soon start with the cultivation of new rice crops, the teens will go back studying in Makassar, and some will continue their work in the mines to earn money for the next funeral. „Deeply anchored in Torajan culture, the clan returns home to gather, this is the most important aspect of Ma’Nene,“ reveals Sule, one of the villagers I’m interviewing about the reasons behind the ritual. „Our relatives come from far away to celebrate this annual happening, so we can all meet again, enjoy a feast, share our stories and honor our loved ones,“ he adds cheerfully. As I observe the people sitting around, I completely agree with his words and suddenly change my perception of Ma’Nene. I see the families chanting Christian songs together, enjoying slow cooked buffalo meat or Pa’piong, auctioning pig heads, drinking Bolak, smoking and so on. All of them are in a great mood. It’s quite obvious, Ma’Nene isn’t about death, it is grand family affairs and about love that goes beyond death. The rituals have nothing to do with madness – It’s the pride of an ethnicity. Although the photos might disturb an observer, it’s important to understand the background. I feel honored to have been part of something so unique, so uncomparable. Therefore, the memories I’ll take with me couldn’t be more diverse. It would be illusory to say that I’m completely capable to understand what I’ve been experiencing within the past days. And, perhaps I should show the Torajans images of our beautiful retirement homes or tell them about outsourced grave care including maintenance and plant pouring services. The shock would be on both sides.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia
Angga reunites the wolf pack Tandi and his buddies Songa and Todeng for presentation

Find all Ma’Nene pictures and videos here

Tomina Tato Dena’

Keeping the spirits happy

“Tato Dena’ will have time for you today“, Henry reports by SMS. I have already heard many interesting stories of the wise Tomina, who successfully withstands the claws of Christianity. It would be foolish to leave the region without having a glimpse into the spiritual beliefs. And who could be more interesting to talk to, than the master personally? The master who is currently chopping up a chicken on the edge of a rice field to please the spirits. The nobleman Puang Pantan has asked for his services. „Tato is here to bless my harvest by offering rice, a chicken, and Bolak to Takkebuku,“ illustrates Puang. „The Ma’Karoen-Roen ritual – Thanksgiving for spirits,” I hear Henry saying.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia
Tato Dena’ in action. With the ritual called Ma’Karoen-Roen he’s blessing the harvest of Puang Pantan.

Eyes on the offerings, the Tomina whispers some magic phrases. What a moment. In the middle of a beautiful setting, an old man with an identity card that refers to Hinduism talks to the Torajan ancestor of rice Takkebuku, right behind Tato, on the Buntu Hill near Makale, the world’s largest statue of Christ spreads his arms. And all this in the so called Muslim role model state Indonesia. The scene could hardly be more confusing. I am invited to join the second part of the ritual on the following day when they will sacrifice the special pig with a dotted head. On the traditional rice barn – Alang – I’m allowed to ask Tato Dena’ more questions. Of course, I’m interested if the Tomina sees chances for Aluk To Dolo’s to survive. The father of 8 children is quite positive, as he spreads his wisdom about the 7’777 rituals which Aluk To Dolo combines, whenever possible. On the other hand, it’s hard to keep it alive, since there is no written version about Aluk To Dolo – The way of the ancestors.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia
Ma’Karoen-Roen is one of 7’777 rituals which Aluk To Dolo combines. And there are 25 different ways to do it.

Especially in Indonesia, it is difficult for the minor ethnic groups to keep their beliefs alive. “There must be a god” announced the Indonesian government in 1965. A few years after independence from Dutch occupation, Indonesian citizens were forced to choose from the 5 major world religions: Hinduism, Christianity (Protestantism and Catholicism), Confucianism, Buddhism, and Islam. Everyone living in Indonesia must commit to one of these religions. At first, the Torajans insisted, because Aluk To Dolo wasn’t recognized, they then agreed in 1969 to link Aluk To Dolo as sect to Agama Hindu Dharma (Hinduism). Based on this decision all Torajans, who had not yet converted to Christianity, officially became Hindus. Neither did this affect Toraja’s daily life nor did it change the people’s view on Aluk To Dolo. Instead, the Dutch missionaries have been trying to convert Toraja since 1906. Ever since mighty priests convinced Torajan Tominas to move ahead together and focus on one only God. Both parties signed a contract. A treaty which officially allowed the Christians to convert the people of Toraja, but not to abolish its rich culture. Then, together with the Tomina, the bible has been translated into the Torajan-language, the Torajan God Puang Matua became one with the Christian God and the Prophet with the buffalo became Jesus and his donkey. Since then, little has changed. Although the majority crowds the church on Sundays, the customs and traditions are preserved in Toraja. And as long as the remaining Tominas pass on the wisdom to their children, just then Aluk To Dolo may have a chance to survive.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia
Tato Dena’ is worshipping the spirits because their soil has been taken over to make space for a new house

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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. Early morning, Henry and I crash a Rambu Solo’ funeral in Sereale. The family just woke. I’m told the weatherman usually acts undercover. No one is allowed to know of his presence, people are afraid of sabotage from other competitive weathermen who didn’t get hired, or from enemies of the family. Henry might not look like one, but certainly is a well-trained detective and goes investigating pro-actively whereas I delight the mood of the family and have a coffee. However, our efforts remain unsuccessfully. „I intended to hire weatherman,“ the son of the deceased complaints, „but my family intervened.“ Henry looks disappointed. „Unfortunately they are already to modern for such absurdities. So they prefer praying to God for good weather,“ he says. We continue our research and meet Henry’s relative Toppo Sarungallo’ who is a To Ma’ Pamanta’. Toppo interrupts the work on his new house. I have look at the property, and immediately realize that the weather business is flourishing. “No rain today”, I try to break the ice. Toppo smiles, “yes, I make ritual yesterday.“ Henry joins the conversation and makes him understand that I am keen to learn more about the ritual. “A lot of rain in Switzerland,” I say, not bluffing at all. Toppo agrees to tell me in his secret ritual. Right now, on the spot. I’m a bit confused since I have been expecting a one-week training, at least.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia
The To Ma’ Pamanta’ smiles, because his success rate is 100%. As the weatherman Toppo Sarungallo’ avoids the rain to interrupt funerals. Occassionally he uses his magic for his own purposes.

Toppo Sarungallo’ explains: “At three o’clock in the morning you should start. Go to the river and check the swirls in the water, pour water from a swirl into a piece of bamboo. Pick some leaves of the Pa’passakke flower and put them also into the bamboo. Walk a one or two-kilometer radius around the place where it shouldn’t rain. Place the bamboo tube in the kitchen of the Tongkonan. Make sure, it is placed in the kitchen – the center of life. That’s it.“ I’m writing down everything with great care, as I mentally finalize my plans about, a weather service company based in Switzerland, I even consider operating internationally. Need to check soon if the domain is still available, just to find the Pa’passakke flower might be a bit tricky. „Occasionally he focuses on the tricky spots the following day to light a fire there and say some magic words,“ tells me detective Henry later to have a complete overview. I’m curious how much he gets paid for his service. “Not bad,” Toppo cuts it short. But Henry gets more info out of him. „A family pays me for around 3.5 million Rupiah (250 USD) to avoid rain during specific times at a Rambu Solo’ ceremony. And sometimes they give me a buffalo or a cow.“ Well, that’s quite a wage for a bit of hiking. What if he fails, I’m asking the weatherman. “Money Back Guarantee,” he replies without any laughter. „Toppo has a success rate of 100 percent,“ Henry adds. „But it ain’t easy, it’s about being as precise as possible, every square meter counts. Sometimes I have to avoid rain within a slot from three to four o’clock so that the parade can escort the coffin to the graveyard without getting wet. That’s a lot of work,“ Toppo sighs as he sums up. Supposedly, there are several funeral ceremonies within one day (happens often) and therefore several To Ma’ Pamanta’ in action, how can you guarantee a successful service? “Easy, I fight with magic,” he replies. Assuming, the others copy that strategy, do the rain clouds then fly automatically where no magic is? “Yes!” I am thrilled, but waking up early isn’t my thing. There has to be an easier way.

In the village not too far, there should be another weatherman. We go and check. „Yes, he’s around, but busy working on the new roof,“ his wife kindly informs us. I’ve always wanted to witness how Torajans put a roof of a traditional Tongkonan together. It simply is an architectural masterpiece. I climb up the 6 meters to the place where Bara is adjusting bamboo poles to the main wood construction.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia

Turns out, Bara works only for pocket money as a weatherman. Mostly, people hire for his skills as a carpenter. This doesn’t bother me, just yesterday I received a massage from a carpenter downtown Rantepao, who cured my knee without a massage education. No doubts other carpenters can control the rain without weather education. Bara agrees to show me his ritual, but in exchange he expects me to bring some beers for him and his crew. Nothing easier than that! After the beers have been distributed, Bara walks me over to the fire place, where a mystical pot is placed. I can’t wait to see it, the highlight of my Toraja exploration, a learning everyone will envy me about, because I personally will control the weather. Bara opens the lid of the pot, “Batu Asan,” he clarifies the boiling stone. “Batu Asan?” I double check. “Batu Asan,” nods Bara, and climbs up calmly onto his bamboo roof.

Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia
The magic stone Batu Asan is boiling and keeps away the rain from the construction site of weatherman Bara

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Kurre Sumanga – Thanks

I’m well aware that the topic has already gone viral a few years back. While I’m writing these lines, my images are being stolen from China, Taiwan, and Malaysia, the content rewritten, republished, messed up and then republished again. I’m very happy you took your valuable time for reading my story about this remarkable ethnicity.

References:   HUCK Magazine  |   SZ-Magazin  |  Guardian  |  South China Morning Post