Christianity At The Crossroads. A Journey To Tanah Taraja.
The Indonesian island of Sulawesi rests in the Sea of Celebes resembling giant a spider that has fallen awkwardly from the ceiling and spread its legs across the azure blue waters as if desperately trying to reach the shores of Borneo to the west and the southern islands of The Philippines to the north.
Home to over twenty million souls, this archipelago is the 11th largest island in the world, with cultures so diverse it would make even the most cynical anthropologist salivate with excitement.
It's bizarre geography, coupled with a vast and diverse population, is a world unto itself.
Surrounded by impossibly beautiful waters it is home to some of the most pristine coral reefs to be found anywhere as beneath the waves is a world that is almost Daliesque in its extraordinary mix of vibrant colours. Running up the spines of the island's tentacles, mighty volcanoes brood, their peaks soaring to pierce the high clouds each one determined to reach up and touch the stars.
For the first time visitor, this is tropical heaven.
Actually, far from it.
The waters surrounding this 2000 km-long landmass are the second most pirated in the world, after the Gulf of Aden. Over 80% of its forests have been brutally harvested and 90% of the wetlands in the south have been drained to create farmland. The population too is a seething melting pot of different beliefs, rituals, extremism and unfortunately, religious conflict. However, it is this mixture of faiths and its dramatic geography that gives Sulawesi it's the unique allure to those curious enough to visit.
It would take a lifetime to explore and understand this misshapen slither of land so, it is best to do it in ‘chunks’.
Having visited the extreme northern tip of the island and its regional capital Manado my second visit draws me to the central-southern area of Tana Toraja, " the place of the dead."
Perched high in the Pegunungan Quarles mountains means getting there can be quite a journey.
The starting point is the southern capital Makassar, a thriving seaport and, once one clears the gridlocked traffic, a seven-hour road trip looms. The route runs north through a dry, dusty brown landscape passing through crowded towns along the way. Domes of Mosques dominate even the smallest of towns and villages town soaring above the packed array of shops and houses. For the first half of the journey, the road hugs the coastline before suddenly, turning inland where the ascent into the mountains begins.
The traffic is steady, a plethora of overloaded trucks, busses and cars travelling each way along a road that twists and turns like smoke curling in a still room. We climb for hours until at one of the higher points a 'roadhouse' of dubious quality offers a brief refreshment stop where one can take tea while sitting in battered old leather armchairs on a concrete terrace and gaze across a deep valley to a unique geographical shape in the valleys beyond.
Known as 'Erotic' mountain, this towering granite structure has been formed by years of tree clearing and subsequent erosion which has caused a series of ridges and gullies that closely resemble the female vagina.
By all accounts, It's a popular spot, especially with truck drivers.
Refreshed and suitably impressed by nature's gynaecological lesson, we continue to climb until we crest the highest point where, almost in an instant, the vegetation changes. This is lush, fertile soil in stark contrast to the brown landscape at sea level. Villages 'nestle' in the lee of mountains surrounded by tended fields in which water buffaloes stand like sentinels chewing cud blissfully unaware of the reason they have been bred for.
Each of the autonomous villages we pass, churches dominate the central squares and not a mosque anywhere to be seen. Massive peak-roofed traditional houses (tonkonans) are suddenly everywhere, their soaring, protruding structures at the front, point skywards resplendent in their red and black livery, lavishly decorated with elaborate designs. At the very peak of the apex, buffalo horns are stacked one on top of the other, testimony to the status of the departed inhabitant of that particular dwelling.
We have arrived at Tana Taraja, Place of the dead.
The town and surrounding villages have a permanent population of 450,000 inhabitants many of them tightly packed into modest houses constructed cheek by jowl around the central market place.
The market itself is a massive corrugated iron shed from which a cacophony of squealing pigs assaults the ears. Venturing into the dim interior one is confronted by the sight of at least two thousand pigs laying on their sides in military-style rows, their legs tied to bamboo poles for easy portability.
Buyers and sellers move easily through the heaving mass of pigs and piglets comparing prices, body weights, and conditions and bartering furiously with the seller. These pigs, along with the water buffalo are the main currency here and, once sold will be offered as gifts to be slaughtered to honour the dead.
The Taragans are Christians, converted to the faith by Dutch missionaries who arrived in the late 17th century. The region is technically protestant with a smaller number practising the Catholic doctrine. The practice of Animism, before the arrival of the Dutch, is known as 'Aluk' or 'The Way ' and is still a major part of their beliefs and indeed their ancient faith is woven neatly into their newly found faith.
Heading into the mountains above Tana Toraja the valley spreads like an Austrian meadow below (albeit scattered with palm trees) and, dotted across the landscape are white-painted churches with high steeples in sharp contrast to the domes of the mosques that fill the countryside beyond these mountains.
The steep sides of the almost vertical granite cliffs are pigmented with numerous tombs that have been chiselled out of the solid rock. At the mouth of each of these man-made caves stand carved wooden effigies of departed souls, each one fashioned and painted to resemble the bodies that lie within.
Once a person has ‘passed on’ the bodies, are placed inside these shallow caves and are never touched again.
Bones and skulls, some 400 years old, have over the years fallen from their lofty perches to the floor of the gullies and are left to lie there until they eventually turn to dust. Grinning skulls stare sightlessly from the long tussock grass where they have lain for years surrounded by other human bones that have come to rest there.
It is not a gruesome place in fact it’s all rather peaceful.
The highlight of any visit to Tana Toraja is to attend a funeral ceremony, preferably of a noted dignitary.
The funeral that I was fortunate to attend was for a gentleman who had died some eighteen years before! The elaborate send-off of family members to the next world is the centrepiece of life here and is a show of respect with bizarre religious overtones.
Many families in this part of the country impoverish themselves by purchasing water buffalo and staging elaborate funerals to enhance the status of the departed gaining respect from the Toragan community for woe betide the family that 'scrimps ' on a funeral ceremony. Because of this social pressure, deceased members of a family are often ‘stored’ in the elaborate Tokonan houses sometimes for up to twenty years until enough funds have been raised to purchase a suitable number of buffaloes to show the community just how much one respected the departed member.
This particular funeral I attended was a particularly grand affair.
Upwards of 700 guests congregated in sections of a temporary grandstand erected for the occasion in a square and decorated with the intricate red and black decorations indigenous to the region. Seating is ordained by status and caste. It is a bit like being at a football match except that instead of players the men and woman in traditional dress perform a brilliant array of dance rituals as well as songs and prayers for the dead.
Behind magnificently attired mourners who walk in single file to pay their respects to the host family seated at the southern end of the 'stadium,’ water buffaloes are led in by their handlers and mingle at the edge of the procession. In this particular case the deceased, having been a prominent member of the community has warranted over 80 of the large beasts.
A master of ceremonies, dressed in exotic, coloured and flowing silk robes makes an elaborate speech referring to and blessing the buffaloes while extolling the generosity and stature of the departed soul.
Without any sign of what is to come, one of the handlers removes a machete from his scabbard and plunges it deep into the carotid artery of the unfortunate beast. A fountain of blood erupts high into the air showering it’s assassin in a flood of crimson. The animal rears, eyes full of terror, and begins to thrash around rising up on its hind legs before falling to the ground and drenching the dust with the last of its lifeblood.
As if this is the signal, other handlers perform the same ritual and another seven buffalo are dispatched in a similar fashion. There is no cheering or gasps from the assembled crowd, merely a gentle murmuring of voices showing their obvious approval.'
" Skinners' appear and begin the task of butchering the beasts with the M.C. dictating which cuts should go to the guests according to caste and importance. Small children gather and squat in the dust watching the butchers at their task waiting for the prized tail to be removed.
Outside of the square, the screaming of pigs being slaughtered now fills the air.
As the funeral progressed (this one will last three days) over a 1000 pigs will meet the same fate as the buffaloes. The smell of roasting pork wafts across the 'stadium' and signals that the three days of feasting has begun.
At this point, I take leave of my hosts, thanking them for the honour of being able to attend this elaborate ceremony and for their for overwhelming generosity. (I had perhaps seen enough slaughter for one day) My gift to the family of the deceased was a carton of clove cigarettes, as the man everyone came to honour in death was apparently a heavy smoker!
Even though this ritual seems altogether alien and bizarre to outsiders, it is for the intrepid traveller an event not to be missed as for the families it is one of the highlights of their lives.
It is on trips such as these that I am reminded that the world is indeed an amazing place.
Photography copyright Paul v Walters & E.J. Lenahan
Paul v Walters is the best selling author of several novels and when he is not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali he occasionally rises to scribble for several international travel and vox pop journals.