Grisly Passage: Tana Toraja and the Cost of Dying

Head for the central highlands of southern Sulawesi to discover Tana Toraja’s animist tendencies. There the traveller will discover ancient death rituals and a clearer understanding of the afterlife. They will stand astride colossal hills and look across an undulating mass of rice fields to the valley beyond. Bones and skeletons and animal slaughter will be commonplace, as will the sense that something inexplicable exists a half-pace out of sync with everything else. Here in Rantepao Indonesia’s otherworldly pantheon holds its most mysterious sway, one of which visitors may never become fully aware.

The most visceral way to experience this unique culture is to witness the process of death itself. Ritual dances and buffalo fights are key elements of often week-long ceremonies honouring the departed, during which animals are slaughtered and gifts offered. The premise is simple: the greater the volume of slaughter, the grander the deceased’s passage into the afterlife. Rivers of blood and piles of animal wreckage are a common sight during the festival. Of even greater interest is the subject of the ritual: in some cases, they are not immediately buried until after the ceremony, and may even be left exposed to the elements in a hollow tree or bamboo frame. Tradition and the symbolism of magic and mysticism are major facets of Torajan life and exist in a completely separate realm to the beholder.

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