The Afterlife and Times of Tana Toraja

  • Overlooking a verdant corner of Tinimbayo Valley from the mountain crest at Batutumonga.

    Overlooking a verdant corner of Tinimbayo Valley from the mountain crest at Batutumonga.

  • Sacrificial buffaloes sell for a small fortune in Rantepao's Bolu market.

    Sacrificial buffaloes sell for a small fortune in Rantepao's Bolu market.

  • The towering cliff of Londa, a centuries-old burial site whose rocky face is hung with coffins and inlaid with hundreds of tau-tau.

    The towering cliff of Londa, a centuries-old burial site whose rocky face is hung with coffins and inlaid with hundreds of tau-tau.

  • Spinning organic cotton thread in Sa'dan, a Torajan village known for its woven textiles.

    Spinning organic cotton thread in Sa'dan, a Torajan village known for its woven textiles.

  • A church amid the paddy fields of Sa'dan.

    A church amid the paddy fields of Sa'dan.

  • In Rantepao, performers ready for a Ma'randing war dance, traditionally performed on the second day of funerals.

    In Rantepao, performers ready for a Ma'randing war dance, traditionally performed on the second day of funerals.

  • Cooking pork at a Rambu Solo funeral feast.

    Cooking pork at a Rambu Solo funeral feast.

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Funerals are also what introduced Toraja to the world. In 1972, there was an extravagant Rambu Solo ceremony for Puang Sangalla, said to be the last great pureblooded king of Toraja. More than 400 tourists showed up for the funeral, along with journalists from National Geographic and brothers Lawrence and Lorne Blair, there to film a documentary financed by Ringo Starr for the BBC. Puang’s death was Toraja’s first international media event, and the spectacle was broadcast throughout Europe.

Tourism surged. In 1976, there were some 12,000 arrivals, a number that grew to nearly 200,000 in the ’80s. The Indonesian government designated Toraja the “prima donna” of Sulawesi and the country’s second official destination after Bali, and a picture of a tongkonan was printed on the 5,000 rupiah note. New hotels and roads were built, and getting to Toraja became easier. These days, though, Toraja is a much quieter place. Tourists—both foreign and domestic—seem to have moved on to other, more accessible Indonesian destinations; the only regular flight service to Toraja was halted in 1997 and has yet to resume. Getting there today requires an nine-hour bus trip from Makassar. This ride is comfortable enough—my coach came outfitted with electric chair massagers—but it’s admittedly not for everyone.

The Londa cemetery is a burial cave just south of Rantepao. Despite being one of Toraja’s main attractions, there are only four other visitors when I arrive. I’d once seen Londa in a brochure on a cruise ship advertised like an Indiana Jones adventure, but as I pull up to the entrance, it seems perfectly packaged with cement pathways, a seating area, and “If Tomorrow Never Comes” sounding out from the souvenir shop. However, as I follow my guide up to the cliffs, the feeling of being at a well-trodden attraction quickly fades into a hair-raising eeriness. Inside the caves, we pass old wooden caskets, some completely decayed around piles of bones, and skulls are lined up in rows on top of rocks. Lawrence Blair once wrote that entering a Torajan tomb was “like bears pretending to be spiders,” and as my guide lights up a Petromax lantern and takes me into a winding tunnel, I understand what he meant. The ceiling gets lower and lower until I have to crawl on all fours with my guide’s lamp illuminating skeletal remnants on either side, and I get the sensation that I’m inside a giant sarcophagus, praying our lamp doesn’t run out of kerosene.

When we emerge from the cave happily back into the daylight, I pause to snap a couple shots of the tau-tau, placed above the cave’s mouth like nobles on a palace balcony. Unlike older tau-tau with their darker skin, smaller irises, and coverings of plainer cloth, these effigies have shapely figurines and features so realistically carved that my camera’s face detector picks them up. They’re clearly more modern, perhaps in honor of more recent deaths—or perhaps they’re replacements. After the word got out about Toraja in the 1970s, international art collectors came hunting for artifacts, especially tau-tau. Indonesia’s Kompas newspaper reported in 1980 that eight effigies had been stolen from Lemo, another gravesite whose cliff face is lined with hundreds of such statues. In 1984, a tau-tau was sold at a gallery in Paris for US$75,000. By the end of the decade, almost all the original tau-tau had disappeared.

Toby Volkman, a cultural anthropologist who has published extensive research about Sulawesi, reported in the ’80s that European art brokers sent field agents equipped with 300-milimeter camera lenses to Toraja to photograph tau-tau for potential buyers. Surprisingly, though, they often weren’t the thieves. “Strangers, people say, could have no access to these difficult sites,” Volkman wrote in the American Ethnologist journal in 1990. “It is generally assumed that effigies are stolen from the cliffs by children or young relatives of the families themselves.” Of course, this shook up many locals. “Selling tau-tau is like selling our own grandmother,” my guide tells me, explaining that they’re considered holy representations of the deceased. It also might explain the downturn in tourism. Why come all the way to Toraja to ogle tau-tau when you could see better examples in galleries and auction houses in Europe?

Although grave visits and blood-drenched funerals may sound like a strange way to spend a vacation, each place here is fascinatingly different and stunningly beautiful. One day I visit Suaya, a cliff grave used exclusively for the tombs of the royal Sangalla family (including King Puang) that looks out over a valley of ponds and rice paddies. At Bori Kalimbuang, I wander through a field of giant menhir—the taller the stone, the higher the nobility it represents—before heading up into a forest, following a small trail past enormous boulders, each belonging to a different family. And high in the hills in the small village of Kambira, a large tree in the midst of a bamboo forest is where babies who die before their teeth have grown in are buried without funerals, placed in small shoebox-size holes carved in the tree’s trunk and covered with black fiber, growing into the life of the tree.

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