“If you can keep your head...”
Rudyard Kipling, If
It was an eight-hour journey from the ochre world of the Bugis. Past the port town of Pare-Pare, our bus began a winding climb, through forested mountain passes patched together with gray cliff faces. The road leveled out onto a misty plateau, before crossing the verdant valley verge of Tanatoraja. We entered the world of the water buffalo, symbol of wealth in this life and the next. The boys that rode them across the high country rice field dikes, greeted our arrival in Rantepao at dusk. Even the houses were shaped like their horns.
As was our immediate destination, the Hotel Indra Toraja. Robyn and I stowed our bags, and went down the road to the Mambo, for gado-gado and markisa juice, returning with the fog, to dreams in peanuts and passion fruit.
We awoke into a serenity of limestone and ebony groves and bamboo soaring sprays. The young formula one drivers outside the hotel had made excellent use of both of the latter in the construction of their racing vehicles, with intricate steering mechanisms at the top of long bamboo poles, and highly responsive multiple little ebony wheel assemblies on the bottom, more like B-70 bombers than Bugi Bugattis.
Their progenitors were believed to have migrated from what is now Vietnam, over three thousand years ago. Between their arrival in upland Sulawesi, and before the Dutch finally took an interest, the tribes the Bugis had referred to as the To riaja, People of the Highlands, were strong adherents of their own brand of animistic religion, the Aluk To Dolo, Way of the Ancestors. Some of it was pretty.
Their cosmos was divided into the upper world, the world of man, and the underworld. Heaven, covered with a saddle-shaped roof, had been married to earth, before the darkness, the separation, and finally, the light. Like a divorce lawyer would have promoted it. Animals lived in the underworld, a rectangular space enclosed by pillars, and a similar metaphorical minefield.
Mythical ancestors had descended from heaven down the same kind of floating stairs that had carried Robyn and I onto Lake Tempe. They were the connection to the Creator, Puang Matua. Other gods in the Torajan pantheon included the Goddess of Medicine, Indo' Belo Tumbang, the Goddess of Earthquakes, Indo' Ongon-Ongon, and the God of Death, Lalondong. The Torajans were big on death, and their language was intricately nuanced to express the subtleties of the sadness, longing, depression, grief, and mourning they experienced and, as we will see, shared around.
If death was mainly about funerals, life was all about agriculture, and Pong Banggai di Rante, the God of Earth. The earthly representative of both extremes was the minaa priest, responsible for how much beyond belief that Aluk controlled- law, habit, social life, ancestral rites, agricultural practice, and the imperative separation of death and life rituals, in the assumption that Torajan corpses could be spoiled by combining the two.
Not that there was much of a shared broad sense of identity, before the Dutch came up into their hills. Untouched by the outside world, the Aluk tribes functioned inside their autonomous highland villages, each with its own dialect, social hierarchy, and ritual practices. Interfamily relationships were codified by the exchange of buffalo and pigs on special occasions, and specified an individual’s place in the social strata- who wrapped the corpses and prepared offerings, where a person could sit, who poured the palm wine, what piece of meat constituted one’s share, what dish they could eat it on. The Torajans were matriarchal, and extremely class-conscious. Nobles lived in the large iconic buffalo horn-shaped tongkonans, commoners in bamboo shacks called banua, and slaves in small huts surrounding their owner’s tongkonan. Slaves could buy their freedom, but their children still inherited slave status. Slaves were prohibited from wearing bronze or gold, carving their houses, or eating from the same dishes as their owners. Having sex with a free woman was punished by death.