Chapter 29

DEATH IN TORAJALAND

1991-11-19, Maxwell Hill


"Thinking ahead about the World that's left after you've gone 
yourself was something made up of the same ashes as death itself."

    'The Autumn Of The Patriarch'      Gabriel Garcia Marquez


"..... I went in search of friendly, obliterating, sleep giving, 
paradise bringing Bombs ......  I rode the night-streets of the city, 
looking for Death."

             'Midnight's Children'     Salman Rushdie

There is a mountainous land, clouds like vapors drifting through groves of pines, the shrouded landscape fills the senses with an eerily quiet scent of mystery, up in Central Sulawesi.

Northeast of Ujung Pandang, beyond Enrekan, a hard day's journey, arriving eons back in time, you come to Rantepao, the center of Tana Toraja.

In the fields surrounding Rantepao, indeed, throughout Toraja-Land, great rice paddies, terraces carved upon the land, seemingly chaotic, yet all melding as a sensuous, sinewy design that somehow makes perfect sense. There is a kind of Zen-flowing to the pattern of this landscape that evokes a strange mixture of harmony and sureality at the same time.

Great buffalo roam these fields. More than that, they reign in freedom and idleness. Massive beasts, 1000 pounds and more, horns spread four to six feet wide, they casually chomp weeds, lie in cool mud, or relax in the rushing crystal clarity of the rivers. Well-nourished animals, their dark coats a sleek veneer of hair and muscle that veils an awesome radiance of power lying just below the surface.

These are revered animals here, no beasts of burden.

Torajan people are an old tribe. They have lived in these hills for thousands of years. Legend has it they came from the mainland, now Malaysia, in long wooden boats, sailing across the eastern Indonesian Sea past Borneo heading south to the Island of Sulawesi.

Indeed, the roofs of their rice barns, and those of most houses maintain a semblance to the shape of these craft. This is the traditional way homes are constructed, their architectural presence a constant reminder of history and antiquity.

Long roof lines, upswept dramatically on both ends, like the prows of ships. Fore and aft, along the woodwork, intricate carvings, geometric patterns, depictions of plants, vegetables and the ubiquitous buffalo head, horns raised skyward.

Details enhanced in primary colors. Red, black and white. Beams from the roofs of the larger houses support skulls. Some buffalo, some human. Supported on the vertical beams, strings of buffalo horns like ladders. Symbols of wealth and caste among these people.

The traditional beliefs still practiced among these people are termed Animistic. This seems euphemistic and in ways similar to the Indigenous Earth-based Wisdom among tribes in South America where Spirits dwell in matter. There is religious significance in the animals, the fields, rice, the great stones dotting the landscape.

There is little separation here between the Sacred and the Mundane.

My Torajan friends inform me that Christians came to this area years ago and missionized. Perhaps fifty percent of the Torajans now practice some form of Christian belief. Still with that, they incorporate and will not relinquish certain rituals and ceremonies decidedly un-Christian.

Reminds me of the 'Catholic' churches just outside of San Cristobal in Mexico where various Demons, Gods and Animal Spirits are subtly and secretly depicted amongst the Saintly hierarchy along cornices in the domes of those cathedrals.

At least there's still a Pagan in the heart of most Indigenous.

During the day I walk paths to nearby villages. Limo, Tubulonga, Lembo, Batutumonga up in the hills. The great Buffalo is everywhere, as well as all those fields dotted with huge stones as if fallen from the skies.

It is like entering another world. Somewhen I left the familiar landmarks behind and have chosen the path into uncertainty. I am surrounded by death and the dead.

Torajans bury their corpses everywhere. I came here looking for death, and now am trapped. There is no escape!

It is everywhere. I am surrounded by skeletons, graves, effigies, bones and weirdly smiling skulls. The dead are entombed in rocks, in cliffs, many in large boulders overlooking rice fields.

These graves are hanging cities, condominiums of rock mausoleums, communities of ancient shattered coffins. Being in the midst of so much carnage brings up that heart pounding feeling of awesome inevitability mixed with weird curiosity. Jittery laughter is the fragile response to an underlying uneasiness.

Some built into the sheer walls of cliffs. Some so close, the old graves like lifeboats with buffalo and pig images carved on the prow in harsh red and black. Stacks of bones, whole families in a single coffin. Sister on top of father on top of uncle.

Hundreds of coffins lean against the cliffs. Thousands more interred in the carved-out stone rooms. Bamboo scaffolds stand erected as theaters for coffins and corpses alike.

These graves can be two hundred to five hundred, maybe a thousand years old. Rotted wooden coffins, corrupted by weather laid open, bones ascatter.

I feel a tug, as if I am walking a bridge, a veil between a living world and somewhere beyond. That skull perched on the rock to the left is smiling at me, and it knows something I don't. I'm left breathless and more than a little lost as I desperately try to get my bearings standing on shaky soil.

Never have I been around so much open acceptance of the inevitable conclusion of life. Never have I stood in the midst of that awful knowledge, so casually displayed, that this body will one day stop functioning, the heart stop beating, lungs cease breathing, the tissues deteriorate, the bones decay. This body will be a husk! Then what?

My head could be up on one of those rocks! My skeleton could be one of those rotting things left open for any passers-by to view!

Picking up a skull from a coffin laid bare by the ravages of time, I stare into its open sockets wondering who belonged there.

I've walked a few cemeteries in the West before. Soft felt carpet of grass. A few trees scattered here and there, calmly punctuating the landscape.

Perhaps rolling hills to meander casually among the evenly spaced headstones, lined like rows of dominoes or cars stuck on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles during rush hour. Markers to indicate a former living being, now six feet under.

Silently, respectfully, a few chosen words inscribed on marble and granite headstones with nothing more to elicit a remembrance of what this all means.

A calm abiding serenity like a whispering breeze pervading the atmosphere as if nothing at all disturbs the equilibrium of life.

In the West it's as if no one wants to be reminded of death. Even the hospitals, a repository adorned and decorated like some luxurious hotel, where the ill and terminal cases can be deposited till they confront whatever destiny awaits them.

Meanwhile, the living stay clear. No one wants to face the facts of conclusion. There is no immortality for the body, yet we turn our eyes toward living things as if they are eternal. Avoiding any recognition of the inevitable. There is mortal fear here. In abundance.

Only during funerals, briefly do we confront the specter. A quick peek, nothing more. And that only to pay homage and last respects for a living spirit. No more.

But here, amidst these rolling hills punctuated with gray sleek boulders, fertile soil and abundant crops lies Power. An immense, unstoppable, ungraspable force whose scimitar is unequivocable. Its silent waiting, patience like a stone, is chilling Eternity. That awesome stillness belies an unquenchable thirst that will not be denied.

If there is a bargain to be had, it is merely for seconds, at most minutes. All too short and meaningless in the presence of that unconditional Leveler. The drop of an eyelash, nothing more.

Here among all this abundant life, a counterpoint that throws the senses into a chaos of unnerving reservation is the power of Death.

Skulls permanently, eerily mounted, singly, in pairs and groups atop stones. Peering out of caverns, staring through deep empty eyes into eternity from resting places above caskets. These empty eyes silently witnessing the land, watching over their progeny. In this death space there is mighty protection. Who dares disturb the charges of these caretakers!

Near the hanging graves there are Tautaus. These are constructed as if on balconies built of wood and bamboo. The Tautaus are a gallery of carved wooden effigies of the deceased.

Fully-clothed in garments worn in life, there stands Grandma side by side with uncle Charles sitting in his favorite chair. Their faces a mix of attitude and emotion. Familiar details of who they were in life etched like markers into their jaws and cheeks and eyes. A faint smile, a frown or the serious mask of someone deep in thought.

A lush paddy-covered valley opens up beneath me in majestic splendor. Continents of rice fields, vegetables and bamboo groves. And buffalo.

The fields, sinuously curving with the land, a supple moonscape sectored in individual terraces, dotted and accented by the boulders as large as buildings, seemingly dropped, scattered off-handedly from the sky. Here and there, cavernous faces display the carved openings, holes for the graves, Christian and Animist alike.

It is like walking in a Dali painting, absorbed in the surreal landscape of fertile crops and decaying bones. Brushing past one of those great stones housing permanent occupants behind a solid wooden door, a bold animal horn painted in red and black forces a reminder of why I came here.

Soon there will be a funeral in one of the villages. With this around me, a shudder ripples like fingernails scratching a blackboard through my bones, knowing I've come to witness Sacrifice. I have come for Blood!

Not far from Rantepao, half an hour by local Bemo, the Indonesian six-passenger taxi, along bumpy dirt roads through the countryside, I arrive in early morning just past dawn, the birth of a new day, at a small village, a farming outpost really. Today there will be a funeral.

The family in this small village has been waiting a long time for this. Possibly up to three years. There is no presribed time for a funeral, the event is dictated by money and convenience. The corpse, an old woman, has been sitting patiently in a chair in the corner of her home.

Her family mere footsteps away, passing her unwavering gaze daily, sitting at their dinner table eating breakfast, attending to the daily household chores, sweeping the floors, cooking, the evening gathering, kids studying and doing homework, dusting off the old woman's clothes and chair.

Already mummified, she is yet not considered dead until in her final resting place. The family has lived and worked daily, in her quiet company. They have been looking forward to this occasion.

Funerals are expensive. The higher the caste, the more so. This woman is middle caste. This is the second day of a three-day affair. Already on the first day a number of pigs and one buffalo have given up their lives.

Relatives and friends save up to contribute their animals for these rituals. The buffaloes represent wealth, their prices vary with size and the quality of the animal. Most highly prized are the spotted black and whites.

A cool morning breeze blows through the terraced fields adjacent to the village center. That warm native sarong wrapped around my shoulders feels good out in this brisk air. An orange misty sun, just dotting the horizon as the roosters crow furiously, has not had time to warm the soil yet.

Already a crowd of neighbors and family are milling about, wrapped in multi-colored sarongs for warmth. The bulls are grazing contentedly in the fields. Serenely unaware.

Funerals here are partly festival. Family and friends are invited to join in the celebration. Palapas, those open bamboo huts with thatched roofs are built to accommodate an orgy of music, food and gluttony. There is a gaity and celebration that somehow surrounds the acknowledgment of Death.

It's an odd way to allay the fears of the buffalo, though. The festivities begin soon with buffalo fights.

Two bulls are led onto a field at opposite ends. Their handlers are young men holding short ropes attached to rings run through the bulls' noses. They stroke the bulls like lovers, whispering encouragement into the animals' ears.

A crowd of people has gathered around the arena to enjoy the contest. Most are standing on the upturned ridges of the fields. A buffalo run amok could easily plow through this crowd like a locomotive rolling down the tracks.

Suddenly, the men begin to run toward each other, bulls in hand. As they approach, nearly on top of one another now, the men release the bulls then dodge those ripping horns.

The animals are on a collision course. Snorting and thundering hooves, dust kicked up and cheers from the crowds as the bulls collide! Their horns locked in intimate embrace, each tries to master the other. Heads are bent, touching earth as they dig in.

Suddenly there is a shift. One has tripped! The other quickly seizes the moment and moves to attack, goring the side. An awful bellow fills the air and splotches of thick red are painted across a gray sweat-covered background.

The bull that is hit turns tail, begins to stampede in my direction. Gaining speed and momentum as it plows through the field, a blind engine of madness oblivious to everything in its path. I'm staring down the snout of two thousand pounds of rumbling destruction, fascinated and doomed.

I snap out of my reverie at the last second and lurch sideways, barely avoiding a slashing horn tip.

Different bulls are fought during the morning. On the sidelines I notice the natives making wagers. Money is changing hands as one bull then another is victorious. The crowd is yelling in frenzied support. Ultimately they all lose!

Finally, the sporting event ends. Five bulls are led from that field toward the killing ground, the village center. I follow, already excited by the morning's activities, and a bit nervous as to what will follow.

The village center is a small space surrounded by a few longhouses, some small palapas constructed for the occasion and decorated with colorful banners hanging from roofs and poles. As we gather around the fringes, the buffaloes are paraded around by their handlers.

Four of the beasts are carried away. One is left in the center.

On a rock, maybe five feet away, I sit next to a big buffalo horn. We both are silent witnesses. The horn, a memory.

Up above on a balcony overlooking the arena, a round casket rests propped up, overlooking the arena, adorned in colorful mosaic and gold-leaf. Members of the family stand close by, one of them is directing the occasion.

The buffalo handler is stroking his animal. It seems almost a loving caress. Here is a bull that has enjoyed a lifetime of prosperity and serenity. These are respected and worshiped beings, never employed for strenuous labor. Simply a lifetime of leisurely munching and wallowing. They bring luck and prosperity to their owners.

At an unseen signal, the buffalo's left front leg is tied to a post. He cannot move. There is a nervous twittering among the crowd, one or two teenagers suddenly yelling to release tension, a baby cries out.

More than a few grown men fondle their krises, those intricately carved sharp double-edged sacred knives used for ritual and warfare alike.

The handler has raised the bull's head by its nose-ring, caressing the bulls neck, whispering in its ear. In a smooth, casual motion, he quickly draws a concealed Kris from the scabbard stashed behind his back. A flash of blade against throat! Dull thud. Blood flowing like a waterfall, flowing like red wine, an open spigot.

The animal stands, in shock and pain, stunned.

I stand, in shock and horrible fascination, close enough to smell the blood. Stunned. From the balcony a long mournful wail goes up. Cries from the relatives, a cathartic release.

The bull's lifeforce fleeing to the ground. In pools, sprays, it seems like minutes, hours, a lifetime. To Torajans this is Sacred Blood. As it gushes out it is carrying prayers and blessings along with the dead woman's soul to heaven. The more blood, the stronger the prayers assuring a comfortable resting place for her soul.

I'm not sure the animal agrees, as he sinks to his knees, drops lower, falls completely, attempts to stand, attempts to break away. The flow of blood, from his throat, out his mouth has began to slow. His breathing rough and heavy as his chest heaves in convulsive spasms. Last gasps of life.

His eyes slowly glaze over, a dull white sheen covers those brown irises as it stares at the crowd uncomprehendingly. Death.

What does this all mean? I am more than a little shocked and dazed.

I feel a vibration in the atmosphere as if some kind of veil has been rent, parted violently, a kind of shimmering radiance, an uncomfortable feeling that perhaps I should not be here. That I am in the presence of something incomprehensible. That my own mortality is now up for grabs. This is Too Real!

The Native Americans used to say a prayer of gratitude in reverence to the Animal before hunting it down for food. Sure the buffalo meat is used as sustenance, that is something different.

I mean, what does the Animal think of this? What would it say if it knew that its life of leisure was solely to prepare for this moment? Perhaps it does know! How many buffalo are equal to one human?

The Torajans accept this Sacrifice as a fair exchange and propitiation for the Gods. We are all animals. Right? Would I willingly give up my life for a buffalo?

And there is something here about equalizing and balancing the forces of Nature. Life and Death, receiving and giving something in return. It almost seems like a pact, a contract that must be paid in a substantial way. That the value of life is so precious, only something of equal worth may be accepted in the bargain.

Arising from the depths of my memory is a night up in the Andean Cordilleras of Bolivia with that Yatiri, that Shaman as he performed a purification ceremony with me. We used dead Llama fetuses then, among other offerings.

In the end, we ignited a ceremonial pyre, laid the fetuses on it and let the smoke carry food to the spirits as an offering. Was that so different?

Another image surfaces of a cock-fight in Banos, just outside the jungle in eastern Equador. That night sure was bloody. And the bull fights in Bogota. What madness!

Not rituals for burial, still there was a kind of similar energy among the bettors and handlers and matadors. And all the goat and chicken sacrifices among the Hindus.

A cold shiver of fright races through my skin as I remember my teacher, Don Emilio is a Shuar, a headhunter!

Not to mention all those Passover dinners where each year I was solemnly reminded of the Lamb's Blood used to mark the dwellings of those chosen to live. And, in the Catholic Church, an invocation during Mass for remembrance of the Blood and Body of Jesus.

Yes, that may be Wine and Wafers. The devices today are simply watered down, yet the message strikes similar chords.

My mind is running on overdrive as I desperately attempt some kind of recognition here. It is racing with thoughts just to narcotize, to distract, me or perhaps allay some of the fear around my personal mortality. All to no avail. I am doomed! I know it!

Like this next bull being brought in, tied to another post near the now silent witness. He knows. They all know. The animals are all jittery now, they have that look of terror in their eyes. You can smell the blood and feel the death in the air. Each sacrifice, each death, their demises unique and horrible.

They know there is no escape. Their Spirits, through spilt blood carry vestiges of the woman's value here to beyond. Five buffalo die today. The woman will be buried tomorrow. Up in one of those cliffside condominiums, perhaps with Uncle Charles.

In some ceremonies a hundred are slaughtered.

Afterward, the animals lie there in pools of blood. As they give up their life, bamboo jugs are inserted in their throats to collect the fluid. This is used by the family as ritual drink, and cooked with the meat. The animals are skinned and expertly butchered where they lie. Meat is given to relatives and friend. Nothing is wasted.

Soon after the sacrifices there is music and chanting. The occasion lasts the full three days, a community affair. The celebration is for the living, the grief is put to rest in a celebration of life.

There is a feast for everyone as the butchered buffaloes and pigs are roasted and eaten. Standing off to the side of a palapa, another image flashes into my consciousness, that of my mother's funeral.

So solemn, so quiet, so sophisticated. I flew in from Los Angeles in time for the last rites. Out there on the lawn of the cemetery, the hole already dug. The coffin never opened, I never viewed my mother's dead body as it was lowered into the ground.

A few nice words, short prayers, then whisked off to my father's house where relatives came by to 'pay respects'. I was numb. It had been only the second burial I had ever attended. My parents had kept me away from any others.

As I leave the village, on somewhat shaky legs, I feel exhausted, stirred, numbed. Back there in that atmosphere of carnage I felt a buzzing, electric. I felt the heady sense of being on a precipice, at the bridge between life and death.

I have had this sense, while traveling through 'Third World' countries, that life is cheap.

Yet reflecting back to a Western culture I was raised in ... the religious symbolism ... wine for blood, wafers for flesh. Meat in the supermarkets, many processed steps away from its source, kept at a distance. And in some way, life is not fully acknowledged. I'm left with questions.

Leaving Toraja behind, I head south, to a small untouched beach. Virgin sand, a few bungalows, and brown-skinned natives carrying bushels of fish on their heads. Living off the sea. That great ocean, full of life in infinite variety. Bira is a world-class beach and a kaleidoscopic paradise.

And a fitting point from which to begin my journey from Indonesia toward Malaysia, Thailand and beyond.


Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman


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