Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia

Torajas bizarre heritage – Rambu Solo’

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 granddaughter 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.