Torajas bizarre heritage – 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.

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.

„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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Browse the gallery of all the Toma Kula’ I’ve been visiting