Enter Tana Toraja in South Sulawesi and you will soon find yourself impregnated by the animist myths and rituals that mix deads and alives in vibrant ceremonies. In this mountainous region, the mist adds up to the mystic atmosphere that embraces the strange boat-shaped bamboo roofs of the Tongkonan, the Torajan ancestral houses.
In Torajan life, death occupies a central place. Funeral ceremonies are the most important of all : it might take months or even years before the family of the deceased can gather enough funds to cover the funeral expenses. At this occasion, hundreds of pigs and water buffalos are sacrified by the family and guests ; Torajans believe that the deceased will need the buffalos to make the journey and that they will be quicker to arrive at Puya (land of souls) if they are accompanied by many animals. Ceremonies are usually attended by hundreds of people and may last for several days. Some locals told us that nowadays this tradition is shifting to becoming a platform for families to demonstrate their wealth by killing even more buffalos.
When the rite is completed the body will be buried : the coffin may be laid in a cave or in a carved stone grave, or hung on a cliff. It contains any possessions that the deceased may need in the afterlive. A wood-carved effigy, called Tau tau, is usually hanged above the coffin and watches over it. In some villages, babies are buried in little coffins that are inserted in the trunk of trees.
Before the 20th century Torajan people still lived in an untouched environment and had relatively few contacts with the outside world. Then Dutch missionaries brought Christianism in the early 1900s – a religion that, beside islam, is still worshiped by many Torajans – and in the last decades tourism developed in the region, significantly transforming social life and local customs.