Torajas bizarre heritage – Ma’Nene – Care of Ancestors

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.

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.

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.

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 money 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.

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.

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.

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?

Djim Sambara passed away with 90 years of age. He 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?

Clara holds her dead sister who she has never seen alive. Arel died when she was 6 (7 years ago) because of fiever.

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.

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.

Angga reunites the wolf pack Tandi and his buddies Songa and Todeng for presentation


Check out image galleries and videos about the unique Torajan heritage

Ma’Nene ritual – Image overview – Emotions

Ma’Nene ritual – Image overview – Cleaning and new outfits

Check out the video to understand how Torajans take care of their ancestors.

Ma’Nene ritual – Image overview – Close ups

Check out the video-interview with Sulle Tosae to understand more about the reason behind Ma’Nene.