Kundurnews – A year after passing away, Yohana Sidempa was ready for the afterlife. Under the horned eaves of the Toraja clan house in Malakiri, her rambu solo (funeral ceremony) had commenced. Her mummified body lay within a four-metre-tall duba-duba, a litter gilded with icons of buffalos and roosters around which her encircled clan chanted a rowdy requiem.

Six albino buffalo headed her cortége followed by black-clothed relatives draped under a lengthy scarlet cloth, symbolically hauling her towards the spirit world. The atmosphere was fervid; but it was also joyful, not morose. There was mayhem whenever the top-heavy duba-duba threatened to topple over in transit, while handfuls of banknotes were scattered like confetti, prompting money-grabbing free-for-alls.

The cortége’s staccato progress was driven by the jingle-jangle rhythm of Javanese dancing horses wearing bells. Don’t think me morbid, but in mountainous Tana Toraja (‘Land of the Toraja’) in South Sulawesi I was actively seeking funerals. The rambu solo is arguably the greatest remaining spectacle of ancestral worship on the planet.

Christianity may have tempered Torajan belief in ‘Aluk Todolo’ (‘Way of the Ancestors’), but their culture continues to transcend many taboos regarding death. Deceased relatives can be declared ‘sick’ and remain within the family home for years before burial, while cadavers are sometimes removed from tombs to be washed and given new clothes.

Torajan mortal existence, however, is spent preparing for death and paying off outrageously costly funerals that make New Orleans’ internments seem positively sombre. The Toraja are one of many indigenous cultures found on Sulawesi, located among Indonesia’s 17,000-island archipelago, just north-east of Java. Geographically resembling a starfish splattered by an articulated lorry, Sulawesi is the world’s eleventh-largest island, and months would be required to explore its gangling peninsulas. North Sulawesi has a growing reputation for ecotourism while the south-east peninsula offers world-class diving. It was the cultural allure of South Sulawesi that beckoned, taking me around the southwestern leg of this lop-sided cross of an island, before heading up to the central Tana Toraja region for a rendezvous with death and Yohana.

Cave graves in Tana Toraja (Dreamstime)
Cave graves in Tana Toraja (Dreamstime)

Back in time

It was Ramadan when I arrived in Makassar city. Sulawesi is a majority Muslim country and thundering calls from the Amirul Mukminin Mosque, complete with distinctive blue-checked Fabergé egg-style cupola, scythed through the salty air of the Makassar Strait’s promenade. After dusk the seafront came alive, and its warung (stalls) were soon busy selling fruity iced desserts and sizzling chicken satay.

The promenade continues on to Fort Rotterdam, a thick-walled fort architecturally inspired by the first Portuguese arrivals in the 16th century. There, my chain-smoking 59-year-old guide Amier explained that rival ethnic kingdoms ruled South Sulawesi until the Dutch arrived in the 1660s to further their trade interests.

Climbing into a 4WD car, we headed south to Bira Beach, meeting the Bugis people whose stilted homes are swathed by tropical coastal forests, cocoa plantations and coconut palms. On the beaches boat-builders handcrafted striking pinisi schooners with huge, exaggerated curved bows made from ironwood.

Near Bira, the minority Konjo-speakers of Tana Toa are nature-worshipping animists who shun technology and have retreated from the 21st (and probably 20th, 19th, 18th…) century. They permit no shoes or cars – even the asphalt to drive them on is forbidden – and there’s definitely no TV because electricity is verboten, as is schooling. Battery operated radios? Phew… don’t even get them started on that topic.

Ancient tomb in Sulawesi (Dreamstime)
Ancient tomb in Sulawesi (Dreamstime)

Before entering their village I had to don a black sarong, shirt, and a turban tied into a pointed cone. I looked ridiculous.

Thankfully photography is banned, so no evidence exists of my resemblance to a cross between Edmund Blackadder and a Gothic Smurf. When I did finally enter the village I endured walking barefoot over sadistic cobbles and the sensation of cow dung squidging between my toes.

Their headman, the ammatoa, was waiting in his stilt house sprawled on a raffia mat. He told me that they perform rituals to worship nature and shun everything harmful to it.

“Villagers who want electricity or school must leave,” he declared. Not going to school sounds draconian? “They learn bad ways,” he responded. Even cutting down a tree requires permission. I pleaded for one teensy-weensy photograph? He tutted, head shaking negatively. Banned.

Thereafter we snaked northwards towards Sulawesi’s centre, along the Bay of Bone’s eastern coastline and through vivid panoramas of ripened rice-paddies. The former Kingdom of Bone’s capital city is Watampone; it’s there that I met Andi Baso Batari, the man who would be king had the Dutch not stripped his royal descendants of power in the 17th century. Now he’s a humble curator of family heirlooms in a small palace museum. Much of the lavish chinaware and trinket exhibits are his father’s wedding gifts, received, ironically, from the King of the Netherlands.

Lush green rice paddies in Tana Toraji (Dreamstime)
Lush green rice paddies in Tana Toraji (Dreamstime)

We ended the day sat in a lepa-lepa, a traditional Sulawesi-style canoe, exploring the 150 sq km Lake Tempe, near Sengkang. The birdlife around the water hyacinth-choked channels was striking, with kites, herons and terns all swooping overhead. We tucked into fried bananas at one of Tempe’s floating villages as the sunset irradiated the clouds a vivid shade of cerise. But the Mountains of Death lay ahead.

The walking dead

The next day we crossed ear-popping mountaintop passes north of Palopo and headed into the rice paddies of Tana Toraja. Everything changed abruptly once we left the largely Islamic coastal plains, from the architecture, beliefs, language and cuisine to the downpour-prone climate.

Initially I was snapping away furiously at the first half-dozen villages we drove through, with their saddle-shaped tongkonan ancestral homes, until it dawned on me that every village had similar architectural munificence. My base for three days was Hotel Toraja Misiliana in Rantepao, 328km north of Makassar. It was fun staying in their traditional wooden tongkonan, entering my bedroom via a ladder leading up through a trapdoor. These iconic houses are the cornerstones of Toraja society and always face mini-me rice-barn versions of themselves called alang.

At nearby Ke’te Kesu village, the rows of tongkonan and alang are centuries old. They are raised from the ground by wooden pylons and universally decorated with abstract motifs of buffalo, men (depicted as swastikas), women, rice grains and roosters, painted red, black, yellow and white. Their defining features are their steep twin-eaved roofs, which resemble buffalo horns but actually recall the Torajans’ seafaring past. “They believe their ancestors came from South China by boat and, after arriving, then used the boats for shelter,” explained Amier.

Ke'te Kesu village, Sulawesi (Dreamstime)
Ke’te Kesu village, Sulawesi (Dreamstime)

As with every village I visited, Ke’te Kesu was preparing for a big funeral. Carpenters constructed bamboo enclosures for visiting clan and a temporary resting tower (lakiung) for the corpse. Seventyfive sacrificial buffalo were already tethered on a grassy ceremonial arena called a rante. If I spoke ‘buffalo’ I would have urged the beasts to hightail it with haste.

“Toraja believe the dead become small gods in puya (heaven) and buffalo sacrifice eases this transformation,” said Amier. Those ancestral spirits then offer protection and prosperity to living relatives so long as the living continue to worship them and make offerings. Bodies typically remain at home or in the tongkonan for as long as it takes to organise guests and buffalo for the complex ritualistic funerals.

“I know a family who had a ‘sick’ relative laying in bed seven years after dying,” Yohan Salu, owner of my hotel, told me. He’d also heard of a funeral topping US$1 million. “We spend more during our lifetime preparing for death than we do on our own lives,” he laughed.

Torajans’ final resting places are mausoleums or limestone caves. In Ke’te Kesu, ancient hanging buffalo-shaped coffins are attached to the cliffs; some have crashed to the ground disgorging bones and nameless skulls. The higher the bodies are placed up the mountainside, the closer they are believed to be to heaven.

Skull and bones in Torajia (Dreamstime)
Skull and bones in Torajia (Dreamstime)

In the otherwise picturesque Lemo village, the cliffs are etched with square and rectangular niches wherein coffins guarded by rows of tau-tau – eerily life-sized effigies – are stashed. With their weather-beaten, peeling faces, the statues wear the deceased’s clothes and stare with vacant, zombie-like expressions, arms outstretched and pleading for offerings.

They are symbols of a wealthy funeral, explained nearby tau-tau carpenter Anton Tangdiembong, who was chiselling smaller versions for tourists. “For the tau-tau ritual, relatives must sacrifice 24 buffalo. My payment is one buffalo – about 25,000,000rupiah (£1,250),” said Tangdiembong.

Funeral feasts

But like most visitors, my ambition was to actually witness the elaborate last journey. The funeral season begins once the rice cultivation finishes in June and only lasts until August. I’d come prepared with black shirts and cartons of local cigarettes, considered a polite offering. If you have a few million rupiah spare, take a pig and you’ll be given the keys to the tongkonan.

Finding lavish ‘noble class’ funerals is easy, but with them lasting up to a week, it’s potluck which part you’ll experience. The running order for these rituals starts with ma’palao, the processional transfer of the body to the funeral tower. Guest reception days follow, logging mourners’ sacrificial offerings. Then the buffalo slaughter of massangai tedong precipitates a final procession to the tomb.

A funeral ceremony in Sulawesi (Shutterstock)
A funeral ceremony in Sulawesi (Shutterstock)

We heard of a sizeable funeral on my first morning, so followed truckloads of mourners to Londa. It was reception day at the funeral of 83-year-old Yohana Pala’langa. She died five months previously and was mummified in a traditional cloth coffin inside the clan tongkonan. Relatives queued to register their buffalo and pigs; some of which were killed immediately to feed the guests. I winced as a butcher yanked a string of intestines from one pig like a magician pulling knotted handkerchiefs from a top hat. Mrs Pala’langa’s wrapped body rested atop a six-metre-high lakiung built from bamboo. The following day’s sacrifice would send her to heaven.

The morning was a colourful affair. Her 12 children welcomed 1,000 clan members from all over Indonesia, with the immediate family wearing black tunics and sarongs hemmed by Toraja motifs. Ma’badang singers melodically recalled her life, and – brandishing a golden dagger – and piping flautists signified the beginning of the feast. The menu mainly featured pork and buffalo. I was not surprised.

The oldest son, Isaac Lambe, a kindly Presbyterian pastor, welcomed me. I wondered how he squared such overt paganism with his faith? “My Christian faith does not allow me to believe her spirit roamed the tongkonan,” he told me. “The Gospel came to Toraja a century ago and now our beliefs run alongside each other. The Church is not against the funeral custom, it’s just we no longer share the spiritual belief. Yet without these funeral customs we would become a culture without identity.”

He explained that 42 buffalo would be slaughtered to enable his mother’s ascension. “But to almighty heaven,” he adds quickly.

Animal sacrafice at funeral in Sulawesi (Shutterstock)
Animal sacrafice at funeral in Sulawesi (Shutterstock)

The gory bit

With large buffaloes fetching IDR40,000,000 (£2,030) and auspicious albino ones upwards of £25,000, their sacrifice is a costly ritual. The more slaughtered, the greater the clan’s prestige. The buffalo are pampered pre-ritual; they don’t work, and I often saw them being lovingly tended, handfed and hand-washed. I imagine this was scant consolation when, amid a fug of clove-infused cigarettes, the tethered buffalo had their throats cut.

Amid cloying pools of blood, the animals bucked and convulsed. One poor beast sent his assassin flying in a final tremor. After half-a-dozen sacrifices I left, struggling to reconcile how such ugliness could ease Mrs Pala’langa’s passage to blissful eternity?

Yet some Toraja retain their authentic spirit beliefs, as we discovered in Pallawa village. It’s a curiously Torajan thing to be asked by a complete stranger if you want to visit their deceased father-in-law. Nonetheless we followed Yulius Patasik into his rickety old timber house to find a wrapped mummy so swaddled in linen that he resembled a cylindrical bolster-pillow.

Yulius’ father-in-law died a year ago yet he remains a big part of the family: his granddaughter was sleeping peacefully alongside him while his grandson used him as a settee. Yulius said they brought him food and drink because he was ‘sleeping’ and that they believe his spirit remains inside the house. He boasted about the acquisition of a ‘special’ buffalo costing IDR300,000,000 (£15,230). There’s little doubt their beliefs are fused with societal pressure to put on a lavish farewell.

Amier sighed: “They will be happy during the funeral to honour him but sad when they start paying off their debts.”

Tongkonan traditional village Kete Kesu (Shutterstock)
Tongkonan traditional village Kete Kesu (Shutterstock)

The last journey of Yohana Sidempa

Before returning to Makassar, I heard of an enormous and wealthy funeral commencing in Malakiri, 45 minutes away. It was an opening ma’palao procession, which proved to be one of the most remarkable ceremonies I have ever witnessed.

A complete mock village of two-storied structures for hosting an expected 2,000 guests had been constructed and over 200 buffalo would be sacrificed. The six albino buffalo alone cost £150,000, and word on the grapevine suggested the funeral would cost over half-a-million US dollars and last two weeks.

From the moment women in blue batik tunics began rhythmically thumping bamboo sticks on a rice-husking trough, signifying the start of proceedings for 79-year-old Yohana Sidempa, I was pitched into a euphoric outpouring that was centuries in the making. Amid singing, unbridled joy, mayhem, spellbinding music, dancing horses and showers of money, it took three jolting hours for her coffin to be unsteadily taken from the tongkonan to the lakiung.

My innate British reserve, with inbuilt funeral etiquette, yearned to show reverence. Yet for those few fervid hours I was swept uncontrollably back and forth across a threshold betwixt Toraja’s fantastical mortal realm and the locals’ belief in what lies beyond it. It all became clear: this is the last great trip of a lifetime, a path that may be forgotten in a few generations as beliefs and customs fade. So, like the mourners, I celebrated in sharing the deceased’s transition into the spirit world. And from very different perspectives, Mrs Sidempa’s final journey was every bit as extraordinary as my own South Sulawesi travels.

The author travelled with Experience Travel Group who offer a tailor-made eight-night Sulawesi Encounter tour

Main Image: Toraja traditional funeral tomb in Buntu Pune village (Shutterstock)