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Jakarta Post

Celebrating life and death

Mon, September 19, 2016   /   12:11 am
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    Villagers and relatives gather as they prepare for a parade called Ma’ Palao during a long day carrying out a traditional funeral ceremony called Rambu Solo to commemorate the passing of V.T Sarangullo in La’Bo village, Toraja, South Sulawesi. JP/Agung Parameswara

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    Relatives cry as a coffin containing the corpses of Tikurara, Dumak and Limbongbuak arrive at a cliff-face grave called "liang" in Barrupu village, Toraja, South Sulawesi. JP/Agung Parameswara

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    Men haul a coffin up a craggy cliff face in the Tana Toraja highlands JP/ Agung Parameswara

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    he cliffs are dotted with Tao Tao wooden effigies, representing the deceased. JP/ Agung Parameswara

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    A man walks down the cliff face. JP/ Agung Parameswara

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    A buffalo is prepared for sacrifice. Animal sacrifices are an integral part of the funereal customs, with buffaloes reserved for the most affluent members of the community. JP/ Agung Parameswara

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    Relatives clean and care for the corpses of their departed loved ones. JP/ Agung Parameswara

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    Most Torajans adhere to the Protestant or Catholic faiths today, and recitation of biblical passages are also heard during the traditional rituals. JP/ Agung Parameswara

For most people, death means laying their bodies and souls to rest for eternity. For Torajans of South Sulawesi, death is not the end. It is only one step in a long, gradually unfolding process and a way to unite the entire family.

Their lives very much revolve around death. For them, the funeral ceremony Rambu Solo is a great celebration of life, much like a going-away party, with all members of the deceased’s family and villagers taking part.

It is part of the ancient indigenous system of beliefs and traditions, Aluk Tadolo [the way of ancestors], with time-honored funereal customs that are the most complex in the world.

According  to the late archeologist RP Soejono, Aluk Tadolo is the ancestral belief in which Puang Matua [God] rules everything: it extends to cosmology, settlement arrangements, houses, decorations and agriculture.

The Torajans also worship Puang Titanan Tallu [gods] and Tomebali Puang [spirits of ancestors] in order to maintain harmony in this life and the after-world.

Every August is not only the month for Toraja’s family-held funeral ceremonies in town, but also for Ma’nene’ — the bringing out of the dead — at villages perched high on cliffs or the valleys below Tana Toraja. Families return to their ancestral tombs every few years to tidy them up, take long-buried bodies out for a turn in the sun, put fresh clothing on them and also bring them snacks, betel nut and cigarettes.

The tradition of caring for and respecting the corpses is said to date back to the legend of a hunter, Pong Rumasek, who came upon a corpse in a bad condition in the Balla mountain forests. He provided it with new clothes and buried it in a safe place. His act brought him good fortune; his crop harvested earlier than usual and the corpse would help him when he hunted in the woods.

“We believe dead family members are still with us, even if they died hundreds of years ago,” said Pangala villager Daniel Toding. “This is our way to honor our ancestors and loved ones.”

JP/ Agung Parameswara