Unique Burial Rites in Tana Toraja

The picturesque mountainous region of South Sulawesi, in Indonesia, is home to an ethnic group called the Toraja. A large number of its members live in the regency of Tana Toraja or "the Land of Toraja" at the center of the island of Sulawesi, 300 km north of Makassar, the provincial capital of South Sulawesi. These simple minded people who practise animism – the view that all non-human entities such as animals, plants, and even inanimate objects or phenomena possess a spiritual essence, have developed some of the most elaborate funeral rites in the world. These include tree burials reserved for infants who died before teething, and parading of mummies who died decades ago.

Toraja funeral rites are important social events and occasions for entire families to gather, and for villagers to participate in communal events, renewing relationships and reconfirming beliefs and traditions in the way of the ancestors. These events last for several days.

A tree of baby graves in a village in Tana Toraja.

When a Torajan dies, family members of the deceased are required to hold a series of funeral ceremonies, known as Rambu Soloq, over many days. But the ceremonies don’t take place immediately after death, because a typical Toraja family often lacks the funds needed to cover funeral expenses. So they wait - weeks, months, or sometimes years, slowly raising funds until enough has been saved. During this time, the deceased is not buried but is embalmed and stored in a traditional house under the same roof with his or her family. Until the funeral ceremonies are completed, the person is not considered to be truly dead but merely suffering an illness.

Once enough funds have been collected, the ceremonies can began. First, there is slaughtering of buffaloes and pigs accompanied by dancing and music as young boys catch the spurting blood in long bamboo tubes. The more powerful the person who died, the more buffalo are slaughtered at the death feast. It’s not uncommon to sacrifice tens of buffaloes and hundreds of pigs. After the sacrifice, the meat is distributed to the funeral guests.

Graves dug out on a rocky mountain and decorated with wooden effigies of the dead.

Then comes the actual burial, but Toraja tribe members are rarely buried in the ground. They are either placed in caves dug out in the rocky side of a mountain, or in wooden coffins that are hung on a cliff. The grave is usually expensive and takes a few months to complete. A wood-carved effigy, called Tau tau, representing the deceased is usually placed in the cave looking out over the land. The coffins are beautifully decorated, but over time the wood begins to rot and the bleached bones of the deceased often drop to the bottom of the suspended burial ground.

Babies are not buried in caves or hung from cliffs but buried inside the hollow of living trees. If a child dies before he has started teething, the baby is wrapped in cloth and placed inside a hollowed out space within the trunk of a growing tree, and covered over with a palm fibre door. The hole is then sealed and as the tree begins to heal, the child is believed to be absorbed. Dozens of babies may be interred within a single tree.

The burials are completed, the guests have feasted and returned to their homes, but the rituals are not over. Every few years, in August, a ritual called Ma’Nene takes place in which the bodies of the deceased are exhumed to be washed, groomed and dressed in new clothes. The mummies are then walked around the village like zombies.

Tana Toraja’s peculiar rituals surrounding the dead today draws thousands of tourists and anthropologists to the island each year. Indeed, since 1984, Tana Toraja has been named as the second tourist destination after Bali by the Ministry of Tourism, Indonesia, giving the Toraja a celebrity status within Indonesia and enhancing the pride of the Toraja ethnic group.

More graves.

Wooden effigies of the deceased.

Hanging coffins.

Baby graves inside a tree trunk in Kambira Village, Tana Toraja.

The wooden covers on this tree mark the graves of newborn infants.

Villagers prepare a mummy for Ma’Nene celebration.

A dead woman gets a fresh coat of paint.

A mummy fully dressed and ready for parade.


The Penguin Population on Falklands’ Minefields

The Falkland Islands are an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean about 300 miles east of South America's southern Patagonian coast. The islands are a British overseas territory since 1833, but Argentina too maintains claim to the islands having been in control of the islands for a period prior to 1833. Argentina’s long dispute escalated in 1982, when the country’s forces invaded the islands resulting in the Falklands War. Over a period of ten weeks, some 650 Argentine military personnel, over 250 British military personnel, and three Falkland Islanders died. In the end, the islands were returned to the British Crown. But the real winners were the island’s penguins.

The 18th century was a popular time for whaling. The whale oil industry was booming, and the Falklands was an ideal place for catching whales and extracting whale oil. To produce whale oil, the blubber is separated from their bodies, and the fat is put on fire in gigantic vats of boiling water. But the Falklands is completely devoid of trees. The only vegetation here are a variety of wind-resistant dwarf shrubs that are entirely useless as fuel. Without wood to keep the fire going, the whalers started using another plentiful resource that made a suitable fuel - penguins.

Unfortunately for them, penguins have considerable amount of fat under their skin, and the whalers knew that fat is inflammable and makes a great substitute for fuel. The animal is also flightless and docile in nature, making them easy to catch. So whenever the fires got low, they simply grabbed a few penguins and threw them into the fire. By the time the whale oil business died out, millions of penguins have been burned. 300 years ago, before the Europeans arrived, the islands were teeming with an army of penguins 10 million strong. This figure was reduced by 95%. Then the Argentinean invasion happened.

The Argentines wanted their islands back, and to deter the British from reclaiming the area they captured, its military laid down more than 20,000 landmines along the beaches and pastureland near the capital city. After the war ended, the British government made an effort to clear the minefields but it was a dangerous and laborious effort. Instead, they decided to fence off the explosive zones and put up signs warning people to stay away from the area. With humans out of the way away, these minefields have since become accidental sanctuaries for the islands’ penguins. These animals are light enough to hop about the minefields without setting off a mine, so they move around busily finding partners, preparing nests and waddling about the mating grounds. Over the last thirty years, their numbers have risen. Today, the Falkland Islands are home to 1 million penguins. These odd sanctuaries have proven so popular and lucrative for ecotourism that efforts exist to prevent removal of the mines.