As you may have noticed, the spirit houses in Toraja are some of the most unique homes in the world. You can check them out at our photo blog, if you haven’t already (rothtravelphotos.blogspot.com). Our guide in Toraja, Doud (pronounced as “down,” only with a d at the end instead of an n), who has been studying under an old community wise man, explained their strange shape to us.
Long ago the people who are now called Torajans (which means “people of the mountains”) came from south China in boats, of course. Upon arriving at the “land of ore” or Sulawesi, they took Sa’adan River until it became too shallow. At this point, they hung boats from trees and lived in them. When they began to settle and build houses, they kept the shape of the bow and stern. This shape resembles the head and horns of a water buffalo, their symbol of hard work and wealth.
The house, which always points north and south, is split into three areas that resemble life here on earth. The lower, where the stilts are, was where animals were kept – chickens, buffalo, pigs. (Understanding sanitary conditions better today, they have separate pens away from the house for livestock now.) The middle is where the meals are prepared and the people sleep. The upper is where the family heirlooms are kept. Windows play a role too. The windows on the east are to -----. The western windows are where funeral garments and funeral paraphernalia are passed. They are not taken down the stairs, only through the window, because the west represents death.
In the south end of the home the dead relative is kept, facing south, where spirits go after they die. They are kept in this area of the home anywhere from a few days to a month before being taken to the final burial site. They are referred to as “sick” during this time. Meals are served and household activities carry on as usual. To keep the body from, well, stinking up the place a family may choose from a couple of different options. They could simply use formaldehyde or they could hire a shaman.
Doud told us that when his aunt died, his mother hired a shaman. The shaman touched his tongue to the tongue of his “sick” aunt, and then washed the body. After he was finished washing the body, he filled a section of bamboo with some of the water used and hid it in the jungle. After that she did not smell, Doud said. He watched this all as it happened and could not explain it.
Sarah and I were able to go inside a spirit house that was about 200 years old. A little old-timer lived inside, and he just sat on the floor and smoked while Doud explained the house functions to us. The Torajans are proud of their culture and they do not mind people coming to ask questions and have a look around.
Sarah and I really felt this when we went to a public gravesite within a system of natural caves. At first you feel a bit apprehensive, like a gawker, like maybe you’re desecrating a sacred site. But after a while you realize that these people love and respect their dead. They want and like to visit them. And they like others to see their old family members and give them cigarettes (there were piles of unsmoked cigarettes next to skulls) and listen to stories about their own Romeo and Juliet and so on. They do not view the bule as disrespectful.
Sarah and I agreed that we had never seen an actual human skull in all our lives. In two days we saw hundreds and had our pictures taken with them… at the prompting of our guide.
Some of the kindest people we’ve met in Indonesia live here. But the reality is that this is a culture that is slowly fading away. Soon the roads will improve and maybe flights will be offered to Toraja in a couple of years. Funeral processions will only be performed and demonstrated someday. The worry is it will all become contrived and commercial. Maybe no one will really live in spirit houses soon. Ugly square homes with corrugated rusted roofs will soon be there instead and spirit houses will be museum pieces. And that’s too bad. I wish more people could see a culture that views death without as much fear and sadness as the West does. I thought it was all an honest attempt to understand life and find meaning in death… even though I didn’t agree with it all.