Indonesia: Tana Toraja – “Where is the party for the dead man?”

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From October 2015 to January 2016 I traveled in Southeast Asia without my bicycle – to meet my family and to visit some friends. I want to share at least a few impressions from there before I continue to report here from my adventures on the bike.

Warning: This article contains photos and descriptions of animal killings and human remainings

November 2015
“We’re running late”, I think while we are rushing on a motorbike through green rice terraces. By we, I mean me and my brother Felix who is sitting behind me. For now we have been traveling only a week in Sulawesi, one of the main islands of Indonesia.

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The loamy path called main road splits again. A woman walks along the way, I drive slowly and shout “Di mana pesta orang mati?” “Where’s the party for the dead man?” The woman smiles and points to the left. It is not the first time that I ask for directions and everyone here seems to know the right direction. We are on our way to a funeral.

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That’s why most tourists are here, the area and its inhabitants are world famous for their funeral ceremonies and even though it is off season now there is one every day. People always die. But here the dead have to wait for their own burial, sometimes for years. It is the most important festival in everyone’s life and should be celebrated the most. Many families have to save money for a long time to afford such a thing and conserve the dead bodies until then – sometimes for years.

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We are on the road to the small village of Nanggalla. Yesterday we met a young teacher who lives in Rantepao and told us about this funeral. Somehow people always know what’s going on. Even without Internet and newspaper and modern media, here in Indonesia people still talk to each other and share news in direct conversations.

On the increasingly narrow path some motorcycles overtake us, the men wearing all black clothing and a pig is tied to one of the motorcycles. We are on the right way and actually we can´t be too late because the ceremonies always take several days.

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Finally we arrive at the house of the dead and I feel a little queasy. During my trip I have been several times to weddings or other festivities and celebrations, but I was always invited. This time it´s something else, what we do here is funeral tourism and I can imagine that not everyone here like that. Among the prying eyes of the numerous guests who sit on specially erected stands out of bamboo, we wonder through to the family of the deceased and convey our gifts – a bag of sugar and one full of coffee. Then our seats are assigned to us, directly opposite to the house in front of which the coffin of the dead stands. On the floor are already animal remains and a man is busy throwing great chunks of meat in a barrel of boiling oil.

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As almost always in Indonesia we find someone who speaks English and tells us that we have missed the buffalo fight and the slaughter of some pigs. Now everyone is waiting for the arrival of the water buffalos. In this culture it is important to slaughter as many animals as possible at someones funeral to give the dead greatest possible honor and help him on his journey into the next life. This is a rather small funeral we are told, only about twenty pigs and seven buffaloes are supposed to be sacrificed. The family has saved a long time to buy all the animals and also the local government gives a buffalo as a gift.

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The atmosphere is relaxed, a funeral is also a cause to see relatives and friends and exchange news. There are several hundred guests here, in principle anyone of the surrounding villages is invited and coffee and snacks are served all day. Then suddenly a murmur goes through the crowd and it becomes quiet. A man dressed in a fine cloth brings a buffalo and binds him to a post in the middle of the square. Some guest leave their seats and come closer, but remain at a safe distance from the large animal. Then everything happens very quickly: A man, a specially chosen family member, raises a large knife and prepares to do the faithful action. The silver blade flashs up and cuts the throat of the animal, blood spurts and it takes a while before the huge animal rears up and collapses. Blood coming from it´s mouth, the nose and the heavy body falls with a thud on the dirt floor. The crowd is silent, a few young people got out their mobile phones to film the spectacle.

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I get goose bumps, a strange tension in the air. As the animal jerks and bled to death slowly, the next Buffalo is already brought to follow the same fate. After a short the ground is covered with blood and the dead corpses of several buffallos.

 

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The dead animals are taken apart and prepared and served to the guests. In addition, everyone gets to take home a piece of meat.

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Felix and I leave the place of carnage to look at a few tombs. There is a cave full of coffins and old bones. It is pitch black and in the light of the torch half-rotted coffins and skulls appearing everywhere. In front of the cave is a gallery with a kind of dolls. For each dead person a tau tau, a doll is made and placed there.

 

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Sometimes the wooden coffins are hung on a cliff. The higher the social status of the deceased, the higher the coffin will be hung up. Over time the wood rotts and the bones fall down and form a sizeable pile at the foot of the cliff.

 

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But it is not only the funeral and burial rites which makes this area worth seeing. The traditional Tongkonan houses and mountain landscapes, crossed by rice fields and tropical jungle are fascinating.

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Felix and I spend three weeks in Sulawesi and have taken in everything what was on our way. From colorful underwater worlds, smoking volcanoes, thundering waterfalls, golden beaches and friendly people – Indonesia is always amazing.

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