Peering Through: Tana Toraja and Life Under the Surface

The mysteries of Tana Toraja remain unseen ‘neath its surface. Their subtle emanations are simple enough to excavate – a veneer bordering on the mothlike – but to understand them requires lifetimes of belonging. Funeral rituals are commonplace, as is animism and atavism, and outsiders can see these events unfold. They can even participate, to a lesser degree – although this is mostly limited to the more superficial aspects of supply and demand, give and receive – but the illusion of understanding remains exactly that. Phantoms roam freely around Rantepao, and an outsider’s comprehension remains equally as ghostlike.

A prod of the skin reveals more in the way of depth. The animal carcasses remain unburied, their skeletal forms creating an uncanny impression of the afterlife. Here in Sulawesi, as in the rest of Indonesia, time does not shoot forth like an arrow. Instead, it points to the space behind the beholder’s vision. Spectral forces exist in the corner of eyes, on the borders of perception, behind the mask. Knowledge is gleaned not from experience but understanding. A slaughtered animal may represent a symbolic gesture, but the meaning behind it is more important: life exists on many levels beyond the physical and does not simply end because it grows tired and moves out of sight.

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