Tana Toraja

25/10/2017 09:38

It rains. No stops. I like the rain but this is too much. Doesn’t a drop fall after another. They fall all together. Incessantly. If Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim had visited this country would have believed that he had fallen overboard from Patna ship instead of being landed. It’s Tana Toraja, the land of Toraja people in Sulawesi, the Celebes Islands.

Makassar, also known as Ujung Pandang, isn’t yet in Toraja country, but it is practically its mandatory gate, arriving by air or sea. A city that Conrad himself described as the prettiest and perhaps, cleanest looking of all the towns in the islands... Not even a century later, in an eighties guide pages, one could read: The capital of Sulawesi province is also its foremost, grottiest, noisiest, dirtiest city. In the sixteenth century it was one of the Southeast Asia main commercial centres. Here settled Chinese, Indians, Siamese, Arabs, Javanese, Malay and Portuguese merchants and traders before the arrival in 1667 of the VOC, Veerenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, the Dutch Company of the East Indies. They loaded and unloaded, bought and sold rich fabrics, pearls, gold, copper, camphor and nutmeg, cloves and other spices from neighbouring Moluccas. The first thing Dutch did was take over and rename the fortress, build by the Gowa sultan, that guarded the city, Fort Rotterdam, Beteng Ujung Pandang now housing a couple of museums. A pair of mosques and Chinatown can complete the visit that may end near the port where a pleasant promenade, Pantai Losari, is plenty of stalls where eat an Indonesian snack.

Halfway to the Sulawesi, or Celebes, highlands, extends Danau Tempe, Tempe Lake, near the town of Sengkang famous for its hand made silks. A one-hour rowing canoe trip are the Buguis fishing villages Salotangah and Batu Batu. Their wooden stilt houses float onto the waters that also feeds them.

For the coasts Buguis inhabitants the word Toraja means highlands people. After two centuries of occupation the difficult access to their territory and the low productivity keep the Dutch away. In the late nineteenth century, with Islam spreading still among Makassar and Bugis people. Dutch sent missionaries to convert animists Toraja to Christianity.

Already in Tana Toraja, Rantepao and Makale are the main towns from where to start touring the country. Near, in the Sangalla market under the orange canvas tents, anything is found in their stalls, some are not much than rags on the floor. Kitchen accessories alternating with underwear and food market. There are from the ubiquitous red and green chillies to cooked dogs and bats. More mundane delicacies: vegetables, dry fish from the coast and fresh fish from the lake, including live eel. Religious Calendars are mixed with others in which models seem to come from a past future.

The Toraja are especially known for their complex funeral rites and particular burials on rocky cliffs, in caves and even trees. Carve wooden statues represent their deceased. They call them Tau tau. Keep forever the graves of the dead and protect the living. Tau tau means men, and are really as such, they try to emulate the features of those who have already left this world. Family members dress them and leave them food, drink and cigarettes.

Between Rantepao and Makale, Lemo burials are stunning. The rock face of the cliff looks like a block of flats where the residents peek out simultaneously to the balconies, leaning on the railings. What appear to be windows are nothing else than funeral niches. The Tau tau give the impression, sometimes, to be acclaiming an imaginary performance before their blind eyes gaze. Not far away, in Kambira, tree cavities are used, which are then sealed for funerals of children and babies. In Bira there is a similar burial place on a wall, but the Tau tau seem more relaxed, quietly sitting and with more elaborate face features. There are also crucifixes and a Selamat Jalan, bon voyage, inscription. In Tampagallo and Londa are collective burials inside shallow caves and shared canoe-shaped sarcophagi. Apparently, they are most neglected. The skulls are found even on a chalice and there are half open coffins. About Londa a legend tells that here are buried the descendants of Tangdilinoq, who was a Toraja chief when his people were forced to move to the mountains after being ousted from ​​Enrekang region. About Tampagallo are said to be descendants of Tamborolangiq, the first ancestor, who descended from heaven by a stone staircase.

Scattered in the territory there are still traditional villages: Ke'te'kesu 'Palawa, Bori. Ancestral houses called Tongkonan and usually grouped around a common esplanade where they share the little and big things that together are just called life. According to legend the first Tongkonan was built in heaven by Puang Matua, the creator, upon four pillars and with a high Indian fabric roof. When the first ancestor descended to earth he built his own house in the same way.
From Batu Tumonga coffee in Lempo, the sight is outstanding. To the south, beyond Rantepao, lie Sa’dan valley and Toraja country mountains as the mist rises over the paddy fields already irrigated. In them, in the water surrounding outbreaks are reflected the dark clouds announcing a new and guaranteed imminent downpour. Again, the water seems to wrap it all up, buffalo, tau tau, tongkonans and the country itself. On the railing a lonely Bintang bier bottle seems not to need any reflection.

© J.L.Nicolas


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