Many cultures tend to sweep the unavoidable reality of life’s impermanence under the societal rug. In the central highlands of Indonesia, the Torajans (‘People of the Mountains’), place this tricky topic at the forefront.
Limestone cliff faces present death literally looming over us in the form of hanging coffins and wooden effigies of the deceased. Every year sees the Cleaning of the Corpses Festival, where the remains of dead bodies are dug up, cleaned, dressed up and paraded around town. There are ‘baby trees’, where infants who have passed away prior to teething are placed inside organic tombs to absorb their spirits.
But the biggest spectacles in Tana Toraja are the grand funerals comprised of towering, boat-shaped, interlinking structures which are temporarily erected to host these multi-day ceremonies. The deceased may have been technically classified as such for many years, yet they’re embalmed and kept in the bedroom of their family house as if they are still alive until enough money has been gathered.
Buffalos, pigs, even dogs can be bought to these events. Traditionally, the spirits of the sacrificial animals are believed to usher the deceased human spirit a safe passage toward the afterlife. The wholesale slaughter is also considered a display of social weight and extravagance.
Status anxiety never did have moral underpinnings, yet the saving grace of all this bloodshed is that the meat is served to attendees, nothing goes to waste. Even the horns of the buffalo eventually adorn Torajans’ houses.
The ritualistic bloodshed mixed with the stunning tropical vistas make exploring Tana Toraja like the Asian travel equivalent of venturing to Colonel Kurtz’s outpost in Apocalpse Now. It must have been quite the experience for Christian missionaries when they first arrived in the early 1900s.
It’s still a eye-opener for the most jaded of modern day explorers.
Some video footage I stitched together: