My first day here, I hired a guide, a man named Newman, to give me a tour of the Southern part of this country. I hadn’t intended to go with a guide. When I stumbled upon his “tourist information” place on a side street and asked him a couple questions, he got out a map and gave me clues on where to go. He was so enthusiastic describing what was available! Listening to him, I realized there was a lot to learn about this valley and the burial rituals of the ancient religion.
I’ve heard stories of guides who told people there was a funeral and “today is a good day to go” only to find out it wasn’t. My friend from Denmark was impressed when he asked Newman about going to a funeral. He picked up his phone and started making calls until he discovered the best place and time to go over the next several days.
Our first stop was a place called Lemo. Parking the bike and walking down the path, we were embraced on one side by the tourist booths selling souvenirs and on the other by a stunning view of rice fields in various shades of green. Down many steps and turning to the right, I was surprised by the doors and effigies in the side of the mountain. From a distance, I would see more than a dozen of them with more above barely concealed by the vines growing down the hillside.
This spot has been used for around 400 years. In those days, it took craftsmen three to four years to carve out a hole the same size as the door. Rudimentary tools were used as that’s all that was available. The craftsmen were generally paid by barter system and might have been paid meals for their labor.
At the base of the wall were tiny traditionally shaped houses. The peaks represent the horns of the buffalo, a sign of strength and courage. These tiny houses cover a platform where coffins or bodies are placed when transported to the burial cave.
Only noble class is buried here. If a person couldn’t afford at least 12 buffalo, they couldn’t be buried here and might simply be left outside. The buffalo is a crucial aspect of the burial ceremony here making an offering to help the journey of the Soul. Lower class might only be able to afford 1 to 3 buffalo, middle class 5 to 8 buffalo (or generally less than 12) and the nobility 12 buffalo or more.
Today’s value of a buffalo ranges from $1,500 to $20,000 US. I saw an albino white buffalo with blue eyes being fed at one of the homes there. The people living there are paid to feed the buffalo every month for the owner and it will be used for a funeral ceremony one day. This buffalo cost $20,000 US!
The caste don’e change. Noble class are usually the land owners, they own the paddies and fields where the rice is grown. The lower caste are the poorest cast and the middle sits somewhere in between.
Today, the caste system is a bit strange because of money. Many locals go to Borneo to work in the petroleum industry or to Papua to work in the gold mines. In Toraja, a single man might be able to earn $100 to $150 per month, enough to buy cigarettes and palm wine. A family with two children that’s middle class might earn as much as $500 a month. When a family member goes to Papua to work in a gold mine, the minimum payment there is $700 a month, that’s starting wage. Some earn $1,000 to $3,000 a month sending money home to family and have more than one person working in the mines.
Because of the economy challenge here and the fact that nobility won’t work in mines but get jobs with the government working behind the desk, the financial status doesn’t equate to social caste. The way Newman described it, the caste sit in different areas during a funeral ceremony. A noble class person will be sitting in that caste but have no money in their pocket. A lower caste person will sit with that group but have a ton of money, big new house, nice car and so forth. It really must cause some confusion!
As we drove through the country side, occasionally we came across a really nice painted concrete house in the midst of the more typical wooden homes. Those are homes with family working in the mines. Of course, working in the mines also means a much higher risk so they heave to deal with that.
Once a person dies, they believe the body dies but not the Soul. Within a day, they go to the pharmacy for some chemical they inject in the body. Two or three days later, the body is dried out and the put it in a coffin. The coffin sits in the house with the family from several months to several years.
They treat the “person” as if they were still there. The ceremony is crucial to them to help the Soul make it’s journey which is why they wait as long as it takes to make a great ceremony. They put food out by the coffin to nourish the Soul, call it at dinner time and so forth. Often, it takes several years to get plans laid and money put aside for the funeral ceremony which might involve 500 to 1,000 guests.
A King in the South died. He was in the coffin in the home for 5 years before they had the ceremony. Because of his importance, they offered 60 buffalo at his ceremony which may have cost well over $150,000 and had over 1,500 guests. In the North last year, a family not of nobility but of money from the mines, had a ceremony with 100 buffalo offered, perhaps $300,000 US spent on the buffalo!
I didn’t go to a funeral ceremony but traveled by several. The yard is littered with the heads of buffalo, entrails, and so forth which was a bit gory for me!
Back to the burial caves, the effigies are clothed. They normally would get together every 3 to 5 years, have a ceremony and then replace the clothing on the images of their deceased family members. Yes, they are carved in a likeness of the person who departed.
Today, that ceremony is more difficult because of changes in the environment of all things! The area around Lemo has no irrigation. There is a river but it is lower than the rice fields. Because it doesn’t rain as consistently as it did in the past, the rice harvest has changed. In the past, all the rice was harvested the there was a period where people could concentrate on the ceremony.
Today, the water is carefully channeled to where it is needed the most. Rice cultivating into a plant needs about 5 weeks to grow big enough to be planted. Then, it needs another period of 5 weeks to be established. If there isn’t enough water, plants perish so it’s now planted in smaller lots. Water is channeled to where it is needed the most while other paddies might be empty. I looked down the valley at fields below having just been harvested while fields above were being planted. This new cycle makes it more difficult to have an extended period of time for the clothing ceremony.
When I was cycling yesterday and this morning, I rode through areas that have irrigation. All the fields are in the same phase of growth having just been harvested!
Now, as I ride around, I’m finding myself guessing the value of the buffalo I see! The most prized buffalo are the large, thick animals with the largest horns. Most prized of all, the albino which cost up $20,000 US or more for the perfect animal.