OK, we’re back from a fantastic trip to the Togian Islands. It’s Ramadan. As we sit here in front of the sun-flecked sea in Ampana in mid afternoon, we can hear muezzins wailing away in the surrounding mosques. But first, to catch up: we spend a few days in Rantepao, the heart of Toraja country.
Torajans are known for two things – unusual boat-shaped housing (similar to those in Lake Toba) and a strong culture of death. First, the houses.
Like many people with oddball ethnic housing, there is a strong tendency to live in something more conventional, if they can afford it. Like a square dwelling made of concrete. With a garage.
Locals still have elaborate rice storage barns, though. (Probably because they don’t have to live in them.)
The wood carving of a buffalo head means this is the house of a high-status person.
Multiple buffalo skulls in the front also indicate high status.
We share the cost of a car, driver, and guide for the day with a Swiss couple, Lukas and Liliane. As part of the tour, we enjoy a local lunch. I’m guzzling a bamboo container full of of palm wine.
For Torajans, death is more important than life. Crazy, I know. They share this belief with, among others, people in Madagascar. And ancient Egypt.
When someone dies, they are embalmed and left in the house. Family members speak to them. The corpses remain there until enough money is available for a funeral. This may take years: the cost is exorbitant. You can read more about this phenomenon here, with photos.
When the funeral celebrations are done, the dead move into caves carved out of the cliff face.
If they can afford it, people have wooden effigies (tau-tau) of the dead made.
They’re expensive. And people steal them.
This is interesting – in some places, deceased infants younger than three years are buried in a tree. Someone carves a rectangular chunk out of the tree and places the tiny cadaver inside, upright. The trunk heals, then babies and tree grow together.
Lesser (that is, poorer) people are often piled up unceremoniously in caverns.
‘And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.’
– Dylan Thomas
In between these macabre destinations, we pass through pleasant scenery.
These caves are a third of the way down a sheer cliff face.
Oh, we mention at the end of our last post our encounter with a six-metre-plus python. The story goes like this:
When we depart for the Togian Islands, we share a car and driver with Soufiane and Jessica, some friends we meet in Rantapao. This involves a two-day drive to Ampana. On the evening of the first day, we drive along after dark. We come to a sudden stop, as does the oncoming traffic. Our driver says ‘Ular!’ (Snake!).
We see nothing from the back seat but a half metre or so of tail disappearing into the long grass at the side of the road. Suddenly half a dozen locals leap from their vehicles, brandishing machetes, and begin searching the bushes. At one point, a man grabs the snake’s tail and pulls an even longer part out before the python slips away again. We cheer for the snake.
The search becomes more frantic. At last, some shouts of discovery and frenzied hacking with the machete. One man pulls out presumably half of a python, thick as a man’s thigh. It’s about three metres long.
All this takes place over ten minutes or so in the eerie light of the vehicles stopped on the road Our driver says the people want the meat. Possibly also payback for this incident in 2017.
Sight or Insight of the Day – Toraja
One thing many visitors look forward to attending here is a Toraja funeral. There is feasting, singing, dancing, and LOTS of animal slaughter. (This is why funerals cost so much – relatives are obligated to provide buffalo, pigs, and chickens for the glory of the deceased.)
There is one occurring while we’re here, but we skip it. We have no interest in seeing noble, placid animals like buffalo put to a cruel and needless death for the sake of human religious folly. Even pigs deserve better.
It’s a dictum of mine that the third world is a bad place to be an animal, a child, or a woman. We see confirmation of this daily.