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An unhurried trip to the next world

Torajans' bodies may sit at home for years while arrangements are made for the perfect send-off.

August 14, 2008|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

BUNTU KALANDO, INDONESIA — The last king of Toraja was 93 when he took his final breath in July 2003. Five years later, he's still part of the family, quietly residing in a small room in his former palace, shaded by two red parasols decorated with colored beads and gold fringe.

By Torajan tradition, he isn't really dead. He's just sick. The late monarch won't be gone for good until he has been laid to rest with traditional rites featuring the slaughter of scores of water buffaloes, at least one of them a rare spotted specimen.

The unhurried passage from this world to the next isn't reserved for former rulers. It is central to the culture of Torajans, an ethnic group in southern Sulawesi island whose customs are a hybrid of ancient tribal traditions and Protestant Christianity.

The dead wait months, even years, for their last rites while relatives negotiate funeral arrangements, everything from the right timing to allow mourners to travel long distances, to where they will stay and who will feed them.

Corpses used to be dried with herbal elixirs and smoldering fires, but the old ways have largely died out, replaced by washtub embalming fluid made with formaldehyde.

A village mortician schooled in the old ways gave the late king's body the royal treatment with natural preservatives. It took more than 320 yards of cloth to wrap his mummy, a simple task compared with the long negotiations and complex preparations for his funeral.

"Torajans are very sensitive about this because the funeral is our last honor," said Eddy Sambolinggi, the youngest son of the last king, Puang Sambolinggi. "Everything has to be carefully planned."

In many ways, Torajans spend a lifetime preparing for their demise, saving for the essentials, such as their burial clothes and bamboo shelters for guests. They also have to budget for funeral donations to other families, while pampering and fattening up water buffaloes for sacrifice.

"Torajans," Sambolinggi, 56, said cheerfully, "they live to die."

It has taken his family five years to agree on a send-off befitting Puang Sambolinggi, which is now planned for October. The farewell is shaping up to be the last grand funeral in Torajan history, the final chapter of a royal history that dates back centuries.

Sambolinggi's reign saw the death of an ancient dynasty in Tana Toraja, or the Land of Toraja. He held the throne for only a year until, just days after Japan surrendered in August 1945, Indonesia declared independence from the Dutch and abolished tribal monarchies. But tribal tradition lives on.

Anthropologists believe Torajans are descended from voyagers who sailed from southern China as early as 3,000 BC. Though Christianity and the modern world have worn away at tradition, ancient beliefs called aluk to dolo, or the way of the ancestors, still guide many Torajans, especially when someone dies.

Legend says the design of their homes, called tongkonan, came from heaven. The wood-framed buildings face north, toward the land of the creator. The dead are always placed in a room at the back so they can face south, where the ancestors live in heaven.

The houses' bamboo roofs are shaped like boats, with a high bow and stern, which some believe honor the vessels their ancestors sailed to Sulawesi. The homes' central pillars are decorated with a row of horns from water buffaloes slaughtered at family funerals.

A good buffalo is a Torajan status symbol, and people go through life pleased that their burials won't be rushed, leaving mourners time to find the cash for fine specimens to slaughter. The donations required for a royal funeral give Torajans more than the usual pause.

"We have to wait until the whole family is ready," Sambolinggi said. "For instance, there's me and my siblings. Perhaps I am able to contribute a number of buffaloes, while my siblings still have to wait and save some money. We all have to agree, because for this funeral the number we're talking about isn't small."

Up to 80 buffaloes will be sacrificed in front of tens of thousands of mourners. Just counting relatives, Sambolinggi said, there will be 100,000 guests, many of whom will journey hundreds of miles.

Family members have also dickered over whether the body will be buried next to the late king's father or mother, Sambolinggi added.

Until the plans are settled, and relatives bid their final farewells, the late king, wrapped in cloth and encased in a wooden coffin, lies in repose just up the stairs from his youngest son's private museum of old spears, beaded dresses and other tribal artifacts. Sambolinggi regularly talks to his father, not in a way anyone else could hear, he said, but silently, from his heart.

"For the past five years, he's been with us, sleeping upstairs," Sambolinggi said. "We still prepare his place at the dining table. And for instance, if we go to the capital city, we have a big feast, and we save some for him."

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