The journey to Tana Toraja – the Land of the Living Dead Part 2

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By Dr Kebba Bojang

The pigs that were brought to the ceremony were shackled using bamboo sticks and ropes. A long stick is laid in the underside of the pig from in-between the hind legs to the neck. Two other sticks, one between the hind limbs and the other between the forelimbs were put. These were kept in position using ropes. That way, the movement of the pigs is severely restricted. The pigs on the other hand, were killed by being ‘skinned alive’. Yes, you read that right; skinned alive. An incision was made in the inner part of the junction between one of the thighs and the abdomen while the pig was still alive. After this incision, the slaughterer forced his hand into its abdomen and ripped out or pulled out the innards of the pig, while still alive. Once the innards were pulled out, he used his hands to scoop the blood from the hollow abdomen of the pig and put it in a hollow bamboo stick.

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This, we were told, was going to be used to prepare blood soup. Once again, as some of us were in shock as to what the heck we just witnessed, the man and his colleagues were reveling in his actions. Anyway, while we were reeling from shock, they moved to the next pig. I told one of my co-participants, if PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) were to come here, I could see them suffering from several episodes of convulsion. As what they will see, will be too much for them to accept. Well, as shocking and as unacceptable as those acts may have looked to many of us, I believe most of us would do exactly the same thing if we believe those actions would be a way of expiating the sins of our loved ones who died so they can get to heaven.

So, once all the rituals for the ceremony are performed, the body of the deceased will be set for burial.
Burial in Tana Toraja is mostly done in what is commonly called the stone grave; which is one of its major tourist attractions, and for neonates or ‘pure babies’ in the trunk of special types of trees. These graves are indeed special and one of a kind. Basically, the graves are carved out of the very hard and strong rocks that made up the mountains. One grave may take up to seven months to make and so it is expensive. In Tana Toraja however, one body per grave does not necessarily apply. Once a grave is carved out, it can serve several generations of one family. One grave can be used for the burial of grandparents down to their grandchildren. Once a member of family dies, the body is placed in the grave which is like a room.

Some graves, we were made to understand, have several rooms. Once the body is placed in the grave, the door to the grave will be shut probably till the next burial. Sometimes, effigies of those buried in one grave are put at the entrance or the door of the grave so people can know how those buried in that grave looked like when they were alive. This was mostly the practice when photographs were not common. Nowadays, the pictures of the deceased are put at the entrance or the door of the graves instead. However, some do still put effigies to serve other purposes. During burial, the belongings of the deceased are put with them into the grave. The Torajans believe that if they fail to do that, the deceased will appear in their sleep inquiring why their belongings were not put with them in the grave. Things the deceased are expected to need in the journey to ‘heaven’ are also buried with them.

A less common form of burial is the coffin being hung from ropes on a cliff. This hanging grave usually lasts for years, until the ropes rot and the coffin falls to the ground. At such sites, one could find a lot of skeletal remains of the deceased gathered and left in the open at such burial sites.
In Tana Toraja, like in some societies in the world, there are different burial sites for the royals and for the ordinary people. For the members of the royal family, the level or the height of one’s grave on the mountain depends on one’s level in royal hierarchy at the time of death. The Torajans believe that even though their loved ones have died, they are still ‘alive’. So, some of them put food and water at the door of their graves with the belief that the dead will consume them. Even though from outside, these food items remain untouched till they rot, to the Trojans, they are actually consumed by the dead.

And there is a ‘Stone Circle’ like stones near one of the burial sites we visited. Although they were not positioned in circles like in The Gambia, I was excited to see something similar. The stone circles in The Gambia are also a tourist attraction. Our guide explained to us that, those erected stones do not actually represent graves; but were erected during the funeral ceremonies of those wealthy individuals who could afford to pay for them. Once the stones were erected at the ceremonial site, the deceased would then be buried in the usual stone graves. The height of the stone erected usually depended on how much was paid.
For babies who died and are considered pure, are buried in the trunk of some special types of trees. A pure baby is described as one that died before having any teeth and those whose only source of nutrition had been breast milk. These babies are buried in these trunks based on the belief that the sap from these trees will continue to nourish the babies while their souls grow up with the tree. During these burials, the mother of the baby cannot be present as the soul of the baby would still be strongly connected with her. Usually, only males attend such burials.

Another death ritual in Tana Toraja is the Ma’nene festival or corpse cleansing ceremony. During this festival, which usually happens once a year, the families bring out the corpses of their relative from their graves, wash and dress them in new cloths and then parade or ‘walk’ them in the streets.
Given the fact that Torajans are mostly Christians, as one could see some of the graves had crosses put at their doors, I had to ask Wandi, our first guide of the day, if he could reconcile the Christian teachings about death and heaven and the Torajan traditional beliefs. He looked at me blank, not saying anything. This I believe could be because of his inability to explain himself in English. But when I said, do you still believe all these things even though you described yourself as a Christian, without hesitation, he answered with an emphatic ‘Yes!’ For our second guide, when I asked if they fear death in Tana Toraja, his answer was ‘NEVER!’. And when asked if they cry when someone dies; to this, he answered, though meekly: ‘yes but just for the first few days’.

To most of the participants in the Unhas ICP 2018, Tana Toraja experience was indeed that of a lifetime. And although we may not relate to their traditions and beliefs, the fact still remains that, as human beings, we are all fundamentally the same no matter where one comes from. Our cultures may be different but we are still one. So, it is important to know or to realise that as a people, as a country, as a society, as a community, in the embracing and the celebration of our diversities, lie our strength; as in unity in diversity, together we are stronger.
The end

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