Four cockfights and a funeral

Indonesian wakes are the signal for a week of feasting, where foreign guests bearing gifts are welcome. Sue Nelson joined the party
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The Independent Culture
Gatecrashing a funeral is commonplace in Toraja since death is one of south Sulawesi's main attractions. The region's cliff graves are spectacular and most visitors take the two-hour flight from Bali simply to gaze upon wooden effigies of the dead - or tau taus - dressed in batik cloth, arms outstretched in welcome, staring from balconies hewn from a precipice.

Then there are stone graves, doors garlanded with the deceased's personal effects; or the few remaining hanging graves, up to eight centuries old, although many have now fallen to the ground and smashed, scattering their ancient white bones.

Best of all, however, is the funeral itself. No wonder many visitors - myself included - secretly hope that some one has died. They are rarely disappointed, which is why, within days of my arrival at Rantepao, a tourist guide has good news: a funeral is about to take place in a nearby village.

Rantepao is an excellent base for exploring Toraja as there are numerous treks to burial sites or the raised traditional tongkonan houses which display buffalo heads beneath horn-shaped roofs. These ancestral homes are intricately carved, constructed using a tongue-and-groove method (no nails) and always face north.

Rantepao is also the best location for ceremonies, which usually occur between May and the rice harvest and, despite being a nondescript town, there's a weekly livestock market and its people, like most Indonesians, are hospitable and ever-smiling.

My guide, Paulus, will take me to the funeral on the back of his moped, but before the journey I must go shopping.

"It is good to take cigarettes as a funeral present," Paulus says. He notices my face. "Honestly."

An assistant meticulously gift-wraps my carton of cigarettes and we leave Rantepao for its mountainous surrounding countryside. It's a bumpy ride, mostly on dirt tracks alongside rice paddies. We pass other guests in sarongs and black shirts walking towards the funeral, using umbrellas or coolie hats to shade their faces from the sun. As we approach the village laundry is drying on bushes while freshly picked cloves shrivel and harden on outstretched mats. Meanwhile, young palm fronds, dangling aloof green fruits, squeeze out the beginnings of a ceremonial brew.

Tuak, the fermented sap of the Induk palm, is the traditional drink at all Torajan ceremonies in Sulawesi and a popular local tipple. Green stems of bamboo are often seen at roadsides, foaming at the neck from the cloudly coloured palm wine inside. Since the morning's brew is ready by the evening young men often wait patiently outside food stalls until given the safety go-ahead - it produces a nasty stomach-ache if drunk too early.

Our final destination is a rante - a field specifically used for funerals. It contains bamboo pavilions surrounding a dry, dusty quadrangle and a funeral tower, all specially built for relatives and guests. I notice a couple of minibuses on the outskirts of the field and soon spy a small group of French and Italian tourists, conservatively dressed as instructed, and all carrying gift-wrapped cartons of cigarettes.

Paulus introduces me to Marcos, a teenager wearing jeans and a black T-shirt. He acts as host for any tourists present - most are unaware that the glittering shroud in the funeral tower conceals his grandmother.

Paulus informs him of my wedding gift and Marcos is not only pleased but delighted by the presence of assorted uninvited strangers at his grandmother's burial. "I am very happy," he says, "because people have come from all over the world to my village."

The tourists are installed on the second tier of a bamboo building and immediately served refreshments. Indonesians drink tuak straight from its bamboo container but foreigners often find this impossible so, in deference to the size of our noses, Marcos graciously serves tuak in wide- necked glasses.

As he does I notice a gold crucifix around his neck. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world but Torajans are predominantly Christian. Their original animist traditions and customs, however, remain. The result is a fusion of both beliefs, where church services are often followed by animal sacrifices, and a funeral is no exception.

Four hefty water buffaloes nearby stand tethered to wooden stakes. Each beast is led in front of the relatives' pavilion and felled by a single knife blow to the jugular. Despite being squeamish, I am transfixed.

It is a clean kill but there is blood everywhere and, after the buffaloes have thrashed and shuddered, children dash to the gaping wounds with bamboo tubes. "They are collecting the blood," Paulus explains. "It will be mixed with buffalo meat, rice and coconut and then roasted inside bamboo for traditional Pa'piong food."

Marcos examines the four carcasses with pride. "Is this how buffaloes are killed in your village?" he asks.

As the souls of animals are believed to follow the deceased into heaven, a great many buffaloes, pigs and chickens will be sacrificed.

The wealth and social class of a family determines the length of the funeral. The shortest burial takes just one day. Marcos' grandmothers funeral, however, is classed Dirapai'- for people of the highest class - so the ceremony will lasts from five days to a week, and 30 buffaloes and up to 600 pigs will be slaughtered and cooked to feed guests numbering up to 1,000.

A funeral is one of the most important and expensive ceremonies in Toraja because, if held incorrectly, the spirit of the deceased cannot enter puya - or the hereafter. If a body is to be buried in a stone or cliff, graves take months to cut out of the rocks, and if the budget runs to it, tau taus must be carved from the white wood of a jackfruit tree. The extent of this preparation, practical and financial, means bodies are often not buried for months, occasionally years, after their death.

Marcos's grandmother, for instance, died six months ago. During this time her mummified body was kept in the family home, since they believe a dead person is only sick and will be restored. The presence of the deceased also reassures the family during this time of sadness, while relatives across the archipelago are informed of the funeral date.

Gambling is illegal in Indonesia, and so are cockfights - and both usually take place at a funeral. The crowd is predominantly male and the fighting cocks are held face to face by their owners to peck and draw blood before they are aggressive enough to be released for the fight. Sharp narrow knives have also previously been wrapped around the birds' spurs for maximum impact. Men cheer and children scramble up trees to get a better view of the flurry of feathers. It is over within 15 seconds.

The limp dead bird is swiftly removed from the grassy arena and, once wads of crumpled rupiah notes exchange hands, fresh contestants are sought for several more fights.

On the second day of the funeral, hundreds more relatives and friends arrive, bearing cigarettes and betel nuts. Endless processions of men, women and children circle the gaily festooned reception canopy.

Each village or family displays gifts of squealing black-haired pigs, inverted and suspended from bamboo poles. Only half the pigs will be sacrificed over the next few days - the rest will be returned to the donors. Cockerels roam everywhere, and there are two prized white-spotted buffalo. After a while I grow used to the snortings, squawks and screeches and climb nonchalantly over trussed pigs. The sacrificed buffaloes have been skinned and their meat is being prepared by women on the grassy banks nearby. I stop for a moment beside the family pavilion and watch young girls perform a thanksgiving dance, to makatio. It is a collection of slow, graceful movements interrupted by the occasional flurry of red handkerchiefs held delicately between finger and thumb.

During breaks in the procession a group of boys are more energetic. Foil buffalo horns adorn their heads as they yelp and hop several circuits of the war dance pa'randing. Challenging the air with shields, they nimbly avoid treading on the increasing number of real horns from the day's sacrifices.

I will not be present for the final day, when the body is hauled up a bamboo scaffold to its resting place in a cliff.

Returning to Rantepao, Paulus decides to show me one final type of grave. This time we are in woodland - and there's not a rock in sight. He directs my attention upwards and there, on the trunk of a tree, I notice small thatched pegged doors. "There are babies inside there," Paulus says, "those who die young - before they get teeth."

This particular tree is chosen because its wood eventually envelopes the grave. The babies' souls then grow, united with the spirit of the tree, upwards towards the heavens.

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: Sulawesi is one of the larger Indonesian islands located about 500km north east of Bali. The high and mountainous area of Toraja is in the south-western leg of the island, the main tourist centre there is Rantepao which is about 320km north of the island's capital, Ujung Pandang. From the beginning of September Trailfinders (0171 938 3366) has a return fair of pounds 638 to Ujung Pandang via Singapore. Alternatively STA (0171 361 6262) has return flights to Jakarta from pounds 472 (pounds 414 for students) from where it is a day's boat ride to Sulawesi.

FURTHER INFORMATION: British passport holders can stay in Indonesia without a visa for up to two months.

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