Orion Expedition Cruises Blog Day 6

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Orion Expedition Cruises Blog Day 6

This weeks Cruise Blog is by our guest blogger Dave Warne. Dave is the Commercial Director for Wexas, our parent company, and this was his first cruise experience. Join him onboard Orion Expedition Cruises Orion II on his recent trip and discover the amazing ports of call

Day 6 - Tana Toraja

We set off early for the gruelling 5 hour coach journey to Tana Toraja (Tana meaning ’land’, thus, land of the Toraja people).

The Toraja inhabit the central highlands of Sulawesi. The name Toraja actually comes from the Bugis (a predominantly Muslim tribe from Southern Sulawesi) word for "people from the uplands".Partly as a result of the mountainous terrain they inhabit the Toraja have resisted invasion and colonisation and as a result their traditions have changed little over the centuries. Originally animist, the majority of Toraja nominally converted to Christianity - partly to resist the advance of Islam - but maintain their traditional practices.

The most visible sign of Torajan culture life is the traditional ancestral house - called ’tongkonan’ - which have distinctive bamboo roofs that curve in an upward pointing arc. They are decorated with traditional designs in red, black and yellow and detailed carvings. Although expensive to construct, these houses - along with similarly-styled rice barns - are found throughout the region and are still constructed to exacting standards to this day.

Explanations for the unique shape vary; some observers say that the houses imitate the first tongkonan built in heaven with four poles & cloth for the roof - others that they were inspired partly by the shape of boats that carried the ancestors of the present-day Torajans from what is now Cambodia. Symbolically these houses represent links to their ancestors, and various rituals are associated with and performed in the tongkonan.

In particular it is their approach to death that makes the Toraja unique. Elaborate and expensive funeral rites are the major events of the year and are held during the funeral season - June to December. The richer and more powerful the individual, the larger and the funeral becomes, with funeral sites like mini villages being constructed specifically for the ceremony. The services can last for days or weeks, with music and dancing.

So expensive are the funerals - and such is the importance of giving the best funeral possible - that it make take months, indeed years, for the family to save up for the funeral. As wealth is traditionally measured in the number of water buffalo owned, the number of buffalo slaughtered increases with the size of the funeral. Until the funeral takes place the deceased is not classed as dead, merely ’ill in the head’ as one of our guides put it. The body will be wrapped in several layers of cloth & remain in the tongkonan with the family - who will continue to offer meals to the deceased. To western sensibilities this may seem macabre but in Torajan culture the moment of death is not a sudden moment but rather a gradual process towards the afterlife and the soul will linger around the village until the body departs.

After the funeral rite is concluded, the burial itself is also unique. Coffins are laid in caves, carved stone graves or hung on the side of a cliff face or a tree. A bit like in ancient Egypt, wealthy and significant people are sent off with possessions that may be needed in afterlife. Wooden effigies called ’tau tau’ are often placed in cut-outs in the rock looking out from the grave site.

The culture appears vibrant, with many young people being involved in keeping the traditions alive. Indeed, survival of the culture does not seem to be threatened by interference from the outside world; ironically it is the cost of the funerals ceremonies and the building of tongkonan that threaten the continuation of the traditions, as they can put a family into debt for years.

We arrive in the heart of Toraja land in the middle of the day, the cooler temperatures at this altitude coming as a relief from the humidity of the coast. So pleasant is the climate, in fact, that the rooms in our hotel - the Toraja Heritage Hotel - neither need air conditioners nor heaters year-round.

Our introduction to the Torajan way of life and death is a visit to Lemo to see burial chambers carved high up in the rock. Wooden ’tau tau’ of the wealthy family members buried here are placed in dugouts to commemorate those who have passed into the next life.

Later we are taken to Londa and Ke’te Kesu where we see two other forms of burial; cave graves - where we see coffins and skeletons throughout the caves - and hanging graves, where coffins are suspended on the outside of an overhanging cliff. Some date back several hundred years.

The Torajans we meet - both our guides and locals - are proud of their heritage and customs and take us into the depths of the caves with lanterns to show us as much as possible. Some of the cruise guests find the experience a little spooky, perhaps understandably, but like many others I find that the openness and pride of the Torajans in their ancestors takes away any scariness.

At the traditional Torajan village of Ke’te Kesu we see buffalo horns adorning tall poles in front of tongkonan, looking rather like totem poles; the more horns that appear, the wealthier the family.

To the rear of the village we climb steep stairs to a further burial site. Here coffins hang precariously from wooden pegs in the rock face. Indeed, many coffins have fallen over time, leaving a tangled wreckage of wood and bones, but strict rules govern any movement of bodies.

A buzz of excitement goes through the group as we hear that we may be able to attend a funeral tomorrow but our guides are concerned that our itinerary may not allow us time, a decision will be made later. Naturally, most of us want to attend one of these spectacles.

After a brief stop in a Rantepeo to visit a souvenir shop we return to the Toraja Heritage Hotel for dinner (bizarrely, a French-style buffet) and a show of traditional Torajan entertainment. Interestingly, the performers are virtually all children, suggesting a concerted effort to keep the traditions alive. We are assured that all the dances and music played by the orchestra on traditional bamboo instruments are authentic. I’m doubtful; at one point I hear the melody to ’Frère Jacques’ during a piece of music - but on reflection I’ll just put that down to it being an accompaniment to the French-themed dinner.

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