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TRAVELING IN STYLE : DEATH IN THE SEASON OF LIFE : The Funerals Are Something to See in This Little-Known Corner of Indonesia, Where Spring Comes Three Times a Year

March 07, 1993|NIGEL BARLEY | Anthropologist Nigel Barley is assistant keeper at the Museum of Mankind in London and the author of several books, among them "Not a Hazardous Sport" (about Tanah Toraja) and "A Plague of Caterpillars." His most recent work is "The Duke of Puddle Dock: In the Footsteps of Stamford Raffles," published by Henry Holt

IT WAS THREE IN THE MORNING IN LONDON AND THE PHONE WAS RINGing. At that hour, you answer with your heart in your mouth. The last time I'd had a 3 a.m. call, it was a man I had met on a bus in Nigeria who had carefully kept my name and address over three tempestuous years that culminated in his arrest for drug smuggling at Heathrow Airport. He had used his one statutory phone call to wake me up.

This time, vague twanging noises and crashing waves came down the line--and then a voice said "Pong" and I knew who it was. Pong is a title of respect in the Torajan mountains on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (also called Celebes).

Indonesia is composed of roughly 14,000 islands, and Sulawesi, east of Borneo and north of Bali, is one of the largest and wildest--a huge, orchid-shaped piece of land, with four narrow peninsulas twisting around three large gulfs. (When the Portuguese arrived, they didn't realize that the islands' arms were joined at the center, and named the land mass the Celebes Islands.)

Several hundred miles north of Ujung Pandang, the capital of southern Sulawesi, is the region of Tanah Toraja or Torajaland. About five years earlier, I had organized a Torajan exhibition at the British Museum in London. We imported a container of wood, bamboo and rattan--all the materials necessary to build a traditional Torajan rice barn--and with it a family of four Torajan carvers and painters, who built the structure from scratch at the museum.

The four builders were a living history of Tanah Toraja in miniature: The grandfather, Nenek Tulian, was a high priest of the old religion and spoke Torajan. The sons were Christian, and spoke Indonesian as well. The grandson, Johanis, wore jeans, worshiped nothing but the U.S. dollar and studied English at the university. It could be no one but him on the phone.

"I am calling you from the middle of the forest," Johanis now said, "to say that grandfather is dead. Will you come? You promised when we were in London to come to his funeral. Wait."

There was a click and suddenly I heard the voice of Nenek chanting, bardic, melodious, the voice pitched high, intoning an ancient religious poem from beyond the grave. Abruptly he broke off and said in Indonesian: "You, my friend in London. Come again even if I am dead." Another click.

"He just came out with that at a ceremony days before he died. I was recording it," Johanis said.

"Why were you recording it?" I asked. "Did you finally decide to take over the succession, to become a priest?"

He laughed. "Nooo. I took another path. I decided to study anthropology, like you. I turned Nenek into my thesis." Then, with the heartlessness of the young, he added, "Don't worry. I got the data I needed before he died."

"I will come," I said. "Write and tell me when. You can't bury him now; it's spring." Torajans believe that life and death don't mix, which means that funerals can't be held in the springtime, the season of new life, when the rice shoots appear in the fields.

There was a chuckle. "Spring? In the valleys, it's spring, but up here it's winter. You'll understand when you get here. Come now."

Something suddenly occurred to me. "How can you call me from the middle of the forest?" I asked.

He laughed. "It's the satellite receiving station. I have a cousin who works here so I get to watch the Thai porn movies and use the phone for free. It's family."

FUNERALS ARE SOMETHING THE TORAJANS DO VERY WELL--SOMETIMES EXhausting the wealth of a whole generation in a few short days, in order to shunt money into the celestial bank account of the deceased, to hitch up family status, to pay back the debts of years. There may be hundreds of guests, dozens of buffalo sacrificed, whole temporary villages built for lodging. The body of the deceased is sometimes kept for years in the house, wrapped in many layers of absorbent cloth--by tradition not even embalmed, though some Torajans do cheat a bit today and use Formalin--while sufficient resources are mobilized for a proper send-off.

At a typical Torajan funeral, guests are received in groups, bearing their gifts of buffalo, pigs and cloth. In return, they are given betel nut, cigarettes and the special sugary cakes that are the token of Torajan hospitality. The men dress up in traditional headhunting outfits (the Torajans were headhunters)--complete with special furry hats on which are mounted metal buffalo horns--and may greet guests with rather disconcerting whoops and waves of their spears, all meant in good fun. Palm wine and whiskey flow freely, and the men sing songs called ma'badong to lament and praise the dead. Schoolchildren are often drafted to play bamboo flute music, or cassette players will blare out songs from other festivals. (The elders frown on this, for it is mixing life with death--non-funeral songs with the funeral observance.)

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