Tana Toraja / 2010
In the summer of 2010, I traveled with French photographer Vincent Prevost to Tana Toraja in the mountainous northern region of the south-west peninsula of Sulawesi (formerly Celebes). We had set ourselves the goal of documenting the death rituals of the Toraja and the mystical landscape of the region, which is known for its numerous caves and spiritual sites.
To photograph the subject of death and the associated cultural peculiarities of an ethnic group, revealed through the bizarre cult of the dead, is no easy task. However, Tana Toraja is such a fascinating place that strong, vivid memories remain with even today of this exceptional journey.
If you are interested in a more complex and detailed account of our collaborative work, I like to refer to our book.
Toraja is a contraction of To-ri-aja (“men of the mountains”), a name given to the people by their Bugis neighbors. The ancestors of the Toraja arrived 2500-1500 BC at the southern coast of
Sulawesi. Presumably they came by ship from the Indochinese region. Ethnologists estimate that the Toraja belong, like the the Batak of Sumatra and the Dayaks in Kalimantan, to the ethnic group of proto-Malays. Some scholars see the unusual shape of the typical roofs of traditional houses, (tongkonan) characterized by their sweeping gables, as reminiscent of the hull of a ship.
In Tana Toraja there still exists the autochthonous religion aluk todolo alongside Christianity and Islam. The name aluk todolo translates as “way of the ancestors.” (aluk todolo is one of the few indigenous religions of Indonesia, which was officially recognized as a religion (1969) by the government.).
These indigenous beliefs are a complex mixture of myths, death cult, ancestor worship, rituals and animistic-shamanic ideas about the cosmos. The Toraja believe that death is not the end, not even a sudden abrupt event but more a process, a journey back to the land of souls (puya). From their point of view it is very important to have a proper burial to save the soul of the deceased, easing its way to join the the spirits of the ancestors in the world of the gods.
Thus, aluk todolo is connected to one of the Toraja’s most spectacular burial rituals (rambu soloq) in the world. The funeral ritual is the most elaborate and expensive event performed by the Toraja. The ceremony is often held weeks, months, or even years after the death so that the deceased’s family can raise the significant funds needed to cover funeral expenses. During the waiting period, the body of the deceased is kept in the house. From his death to the first ceremony, the man is considered ill so the family members provide the dead with food, give him fresh clothes and speak with him. The soul of the deceased is thought to linger around the village until the funeral ceremony is completed.
An important component of the ritual is the slaughter of water buffalo. The more powerful the person who died, the more buffalo are slaughtered at the death feast. Torajans believe that the deceased will need the buffalo to make the journey to puya. Animal sacrifices are made to ensure eternal life in the afterlife and to safeguard the descendants. Slaughtering water buffalo and pigs with a machete is the climax of the elaborate death feast. Only once the family members carry out the necessary (and costly) rituals, may the soul enter the upperworld and become a deified ancestor.