Torajaland: The Land That Time Forgot

Step into Torajaland

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(Image credit: Jesse Lewis)

The strangely shaped island of Sulawesi looks like someone squished a giant spider on the map of Indonesia. Squashed between Borneo to the west and the small islands of Muluku to the east, adrift between the continents of Asia and Australia, it is a place where land and water, species and cultures blend and converge.

Here, in the southern highlands of Sulawesi is a place known as Torajaland. Visiting these misty mountain valleys is a little like walking into an anthropology lesson in unusual customs and ritual. The people of Torajaland build jutting "tangokonan" houses that vault out like ships from the snaking rice fields. But it is the ownership of water buffaloes, not houses, that indicates wealth and prestige in Torajaland.

Most distinct though are the elaborate funeral ceremonies that the Torajans are famous for. Huge, week-long events include dancing, poetry, music and hundreds of animal sacrifices to prepare the deceased for the afterlife, a journey to the stars.

Tectonic collisions

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(Image credit: Jesse Lewis)

To ward off car sickness, I try to close my eyes and zone out as the battered jeep rattles around looping hairpin turns that come one after another. An enormous bag of rice takes up my leg space so I sit cross-legged. A young mother and four small kids crowd beside me, falling into my lap, and a screaming, bound pig in the back makes the zoning-out part tricky. This is overland transport Toraja-style.

Formed by crustal fragments of the Asian and Australian Plates that collided, central Sulawesi is rugged and mountainous. Streaked by several fault lines it is also highly prone to earthquakes, and several active volcanoes on the island keep things lively.

Covering an area of 67,413 square miles (174,600 square km), Sulawesi is the world's 11th largest island. Roughly divided into four large peninsulas, a mountainous backbone straddles the interior cutting off each peninsula from one another. With such challenging geography, it is often easier for people to travel to different regions by sea than by land.

Evolution's laboratory

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(Image credit: Jesse Lewis)

Over time, the bizarre geography of Sulawesi created ideal conditions to create equally bizarrely evolved species. With large peninsulas separated by rugged mountains, plant and animal populations evolved in isolation. Because of this the whole island is a bit like a living laboratory for studying evolution today, much like the evolutionary wonder of the Galapagos.

The isolation of the island from other landmasses also makes it unique. Sulawesi sits in the heart of Wallacea, a biogeographical region that separates the flora and fauna of Asia from that of Australia via deep water straights. On one side are species from Asia, on the other those from Australia, with Sulawesi sitting in the middle; a transitional zone mixing species from both, and others found nowhere else.

So far 127 mammal species have been documented in Sulawesi, of which 62 percent (79 species) are endemic and found nowhere else in the world. Anoas (dwarf buffalos); tusked, hairless pigs called babirusas; and tiny primate tarsiers all call these forests home, along with a menagerie of birds, fishes, insects and plants. Indeed, the whole island is a global biodiversity hotspot, barely understood and documented but already critically threatened.

Growing eden

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Stumbling, dizzy and a little nauseous from my "Indiana Jones" jeep ride, I welcome the cool, fresh air of the mountains with relief. Looking over the landscape, I see rice paddies march up the hillside in terraced snaking designs. Stands of coffee, cacao and banana border the paths where ducks and pigs wander. Tall stands of bamboo jut out like islands from the watery fields, dimpled with so many green rice stalks.

This lush, Eden-like landscape is both wild and cultivated and represents a complex agroecological system. Monsoon rains nourish the rice fields that are the staple of Torajaland and much of Southeast Asia. Snails, small fishes, slippery eels and innumerable insects thrive in the paddies. Ducks eat these creatures while buffaloes and pigs root in the mud, all adding fertilizer to the system in the process.

Between the rice paddies, dense patches of forest contain fruit trees, lumber and enormous bamboo galleries used for all number of things, including building houses. Perhaps most notable though are the lush coffee bushes that thrive in the cool mountain air producing some of the finest java in the world, touted as better even than that from neighboring Java.

Land of the water buffalo

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As I'm finding out in Sulawesi, exotic cultures are almost as numerous as the exotic species that thrive here. That being said Torajan culture is unique. Living in the interior, people in upland Torajaland often grew up in isolation from one another and developed elaborate cultural and belief systems governed by interwoven kinship relations.

Each village is a closely related family clan where kinship is reciprocal. This means marriage between distant cousins is common, helping to strengthen bonds and create unity. Likewise, family clans work together to share work, property and wealth communally.

And in Torajaland, water buffaloes are wealth serving as labor, food and the means to pay off debts. Lazing in the mud, grazing by roadsides, or being bartered for in the markets, I saw these beasts adorned and adored everywhere I traveled. The most revered animals are rare albino buffalos that can be worth a fortune.

Aluk todolo

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Torajans are gifted artists and the unusual designs of their work catch the eye and kindle the curiosity. Geometric shapes depict harmony, natural images represent fertility, while the ubiquitous water buffalo symbolizes prosperity and wealth Torajan-style.

Historically Torajans practiced a form of animism tied to nature and ancestor worship known as aluk todolo. Aluk was and is more than a belief system, though; it is also a common law that governs social life, rituals and planting times.

When Dutch missionaries arrived in the early1900's, Torajan animist beliefs combined in unusual ways with Christianity. Discouraged from practicing traditional spirit worship, many customs became incorporated into Christian ceremonies, including the renowned Torajan death rites. Today the fusion of these influences, part animist and part Christian, symbolizes the unique heritage of Torajaland the water buffalo juxtaposed with the cross.

Tangkonan

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Vaulted, split-bamboo roofs jut out like Viking ships over my head. On the ceilings, psychedelic red, yellow and black designs swirl together in intricate designs. Buffalo horns march up pillars stacked one upon another from generations of funeral sacrifices representing this village's history.

Traditional Torajan ancestral houses like these are called tongkonan. These iconic structures lie at the center of Torajan social life, linking ancestors to living and future kin. What are the origins of this unusual architecture though?

According to myth, the first tongkonan were said to be have been built in heaven on four poles with a vaulted roof of Indian cloth. However, ethnographic research by some anthropologists suggests the Torajan people migrated to Sulawesi in boats from mainland Southeast Asia and this architecture symbolizes those origins in the shape of boats. Still others believe they represent space ships, literally linking Torajans to their mythical heavens in a sense, a gateway to the cosmos.

Journey to the stars

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Torajan culture is probably most famous for its elaborate funeral ceremonies. The richer and more powerful the deceased, the larger is the funeral. These giant social events can go on for days and thousands of people have been known to attend. Often the family of the deceased saves up money for years to pay expenses for the funeral ceremony. This is the most important event of a person's life as the body is prepared for a mythical journey to the stars.

For the living it is quite a party, complete with dancing, chanting, poetry, many animal sacrifices and subsequent feasting. At the one I visited, hundreds of people were in attendance with water buffalo and squealing pigs being sacrificed by the dozen.

It is not for the faint of heart, though sitting around a rante funeral site watching the festivities with Torajan families starts to feel oddly like a family reunion after a while. Minus the visceral animal sacrifices and colorful, exotic ceremonies, Torajans are simply paying tribute to their elders as we all do. In Torajaland the deceased are celebrated and honored in a spectacular way.

Gaze of the tau tau

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Water drips on my head and my hand recoils as something scurries away in the darkness. As I stumble deeper, following my guide's weak light through a narrow passage, the cave opens up and there, illuminated in the lantern light are coffins. Holed away in the rock, this cave is a macabre tomb filled with recent, and half-rotten caskets spilling over with skulls and human bones.

In Torajaland the dead are buried in caves, hung suspended from cliff walls, or sheltered in stone tombs carved out of the numerous karst rock formations that dot the landscape. Such unusual burial rites embody the living culture and traditions of Torajaland, while offering a glimpse into the deep cultural past.

For the higher status deceased, stone graves are sometimes carved out of cliffs like these where spooky wooden effigies called tau tau guard the graves. Often many generations worth of tau tau sit shoulder to shoulder, looking eerily down on trespassers.

Songs of the ancestors

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(Image credit: Jesse Lewis)

As my pupils adjust to the bright afternoon light following the cave darkness, I shuffle slowly back along a cliffside path. Bamboo platforms hold ancient coffins in the rocks above while an assortment of human scapulas, femurs and skulls litter the ground at my feet. Small offerings like flowers, bottles of water and clove cigarettes intermingle with the bones.

Ahead on the trail a small boy holds up a skull and carefully places it on a rock. As I watch, he collects bones stacking them neatly in piles and tidying up the trail. He looks up and smiles as two other boys arrive to play. Their relaxed demeanor seems odd at first here in this place of death, but then I realize it too is a place of life. After all, this boy is probably tending the bones of a great-grandparent, maintaining a long tradition and serving as a lifeline to the ancestors.

Like emerging from the cave darkness, exploring Torajaland is like emerging back from a journey into the deep past. A place where dreams and reality mix and intermingle, where life and death have little distinction, where the songs of ancestors still ring over the hills.