All that was missing was Indiana Jones.
The bones were there, heaped in headless piles. The skulls had been removed and arranged in neat, double rows or placed in shadowy niches where they gave a decorative touch to the gloom. Jumbled about were intricately carved wooden coffins, rotting and broken, some shaped like animals, others with prows like Viking ships.
The forest - palm trees, vines, groves of arm-thick bamboo - grew to the lip of the cave, fronds glistening in the steaming, saturated air. Above the carnage soared a dome of jagged limestone curving toward a black void while a half dozen little girls stood giggling as they watched us picking a path through their gruesome playthings.
What to us was incredible and macabre was small potatoes to them. They were Toraja children, for whom the dead were as much a part of everyday life as the rice fields that fill their valleys and the rugged peaks that surround them.
They had raced like mountain goats up the slippery path while we stumbled and clutched at branches and our clothing accumulated layer upon layer of mud. When we arrived they were waiting, eyes bright with mischief. They'd done this before but still delighted in Western reactions to their ancestors' burial place. Some of whom, though not perhaps these very bones, had been known to furnish their homes with other peoples' heads.
We were in Tana Toraja, a mountain fastness deep in the heart of Sulawesi, Indonesia. For millenia its inhabitants had lived isolated from the outside world, developing an intricate culture and cosmology that still - despite new technology, religions, and ever-increasing incursions of aliens - remains deeply embedded in the collective psyche.
For them, from there to here took forever. For us it was a five hour drive from Pare Pare on the coast, an ascent on a perilous one-and-a-half lane highway past rural villages and deep gorges until finally we breached the mountain wall beyond which lay a rich and fertile valley. But even ShangriLa had its down side and here it was a climate hot as Hades and a system of roads full of potholes.
And tourists. During the European holiday months of July and August busloads of French and Germans and English pour into the valley in the fervent hope of horning in on a local funeral. It's like a gigantic convention of ambulance chasers.
What they are seeking is the celebratory sendoff of a high-caste Toraja. This would be a man or woman of the former nobility, the class that now owns the tour busses and rice fields. In days of old there were four classes, the second being free farmers, third, the working masses, and lastly the slaves, bond and captured. These sometimes had the dubious honor of having their days cut short so that they could accompany their master to the great beyond.
The Dutch put an end to that practice in the early 1900's, but noone to this time has curtailed the sacrificial slaughter of water buffalo and pigs, symbolizing the release of the deceased's soul and the repayment of gifts that he or she had made on similar occasions. This, if they're lucky, is what the tourists will see, and a great deal more. When a high-born Toraja dies, the body remains in a brightly wrapped wooden coffin until the funeral takes place.
This may be months or even years later, during which time the spouse and the body remain at home. Neither is allowed to go out. In a burial field a village is built. On the periphery a continuous rambling structure of bamboo and thatch and carved and painted panels rises two and three-storeys high, punctuated here and there by upward curving roofs. Central and separate is a small house where the body will rest in the midst of the festivities.
Nearby are huge stone megaliths, mossy with age, to which generations of water buffalo have been tethered over hundreds of years of slaughter. The preparations proceed slowly, and when at last they are complete the date may be postponed time and again until most of the far-flung relatives - businessmen who've moved to Jakarta, sons and daughters in college - can return for the most important moment in every Toraja's life.
On that day the new guest houses fill with neighbors, friends and villagers. Buffalo are tied, pigs and chickens are penned, immense quantities of food are prepared. And the celebration begins. Dirges moan through the heavy hot air, dances of mourning are performed for the body, sleeping in its house until sacrifices release its spirit. Gifts repaying old debts are collected and carefully recorded. On succeeding days, the animals will be killed and eaten, the greater the quantity, the greater the family's honor.
For entertainment there will be buffalo fights, great beasts crashing horns until one turns tail and makes for the rice fields. Kick boxing is another favorite event, dual matches often degenerating into free-for-alls that leave men senseless on the ground, not unlike the effect caused by a fermented drink of sugar palm juice called Tuac which is served in hollow lengths of bamboo.
To cap it all off, the body is, or at least was, interred in a vault carved high in a limestone cliff. Lifted by strong and agile men who clamber up rickety bamboo ladders, it is sealed with other members of the family along with objects that will accompany it to the other world. And finally a tau tau will be place in the door of the tomb, a wooden effigy of the deceased, whose white, staring eyes gaze over the valley and recall for all time the memory of the dead.
This is the ritual performed according to the traditional religion Alak Tadolo, the "way of the ancestors." The truth of the matter is that most Toraja today are Protestant. So it's likely that a minister will fit some words from the bible into the ceremony. Nor is it unusual to see in the countryside a small house-like mausoleum surmounted by a Christian cross with a plate glass window behind which a full size wooden likeness of its other resident sits cross legged in a chair, dressed in modern clothes and wearing gold rimmed glasses. And along the road are mammoth boulders with square cut incisions designating tombs where items for the afterlife have been arranged: umbrellas, sunhats, bottles of coke.
Fortunate visitors will be able to observe a funeral or one of the other celebrations that punctuate Toraja life. Most will not. But even those are unlikely to be disappointed. Assuming you're on a tour (most visitors are,) take an early morning stroll while the others are having breakfast in Rantepao where your hotel is most likely to be. Within a few blocks of this third world city you'll see phalanxes of pedi-cabs waiting for customers, rickety frame houses with woven mat walls, small outbuildings where piglets stand on hind legs to poke their snouts over the fence, bare-shouldered mothers wrapped in bright sarongs plunging squealing babies into outdoor cistern baths.
By the side of the road women are cutting wild greens for supper, old men sit shaded from the already intrusive heat chewing with blackened teeth the ubiquitous betel nut, children in spanking clean uniforms are trouping off to school. Everywhere bougainvillea blazes crimson, orange, and purple and Datura trees - the deadly nightshades - hang their thick, bell-shaped blossoms.
When the bus drops you off at the requisite tourist spots, sneak off on your own down the path to the side. You're likely to discover a cluster of ancient buildings where life goes on as it has since before time was recorded. There may be rice fields where water buffalo do the Toraja Wallow, where groups of farmers thwack enormous golden sheaves on the ground to loosen the kernels and women gather and spread them on mats to dry in the mercilous sun. A trail up the hill may lead to a cave where aged skulls stare blankly over bright green valleys to distant mountains layered in mist. Below in the flat, flooded fields ragged scarecrows or tiny flags draped on string flutter to keep away the birds.
And the houses. The bus has stopped at Ke'te Kesu' or another traditional village. Above your head soars a fantastic upcurved bulk like a giant Cape Cod dory about to launch into space. This and the
roofs next to it are thought, according to one discredited theory, to represent the boats which brought the original ancestors to the land. More likely the sharp-sweeping ends point to the Pleides, a more commonly accepted starting point.
In any case they are remarkable to say the least. At once graceful and hulking, layered thatch and hundreds of interlocking bamboo drains keep the three room house on which they sit cozy and snug. The whole is raised well above the ground on stout legs and every square inch decorated with intricately carved and painted symbols abstracted from nature. Above the porch, a life size wooden sculpture of a water buffalo head majestically hangs with real-life broad-spanned horns. On a display pole that rises to the roof, more horns are fixed, remnants of sacrificial animals as are the jaw bones of pigs hanging on the side of the house.
Marvelous, yes. Mystical, no doubt. And if the ducks and chickens picking at stray grains of rice, the women and children busy with their chores, the men lugging heavy baskets on poles that dig into their shoulders speak of more mundane concerns, even these take place in an atmosphere that is much more than just physically foreign to a westerner.
The little girls watched bemused as we scrambled about the cave to get the best juxtapositions of bones and coffins in our viewfinders. From their clothes - T-shirts and skirts - they were no different than children in Florida or Michigan or Maine. Later they will join uniformed classmates in overflowing schoolrooms like kids everywhere, and years from now, if they are very lucky, may even go off to college.
But periodically, when a relative or a friend of the family dies, they will return from wherever they are and once more plunge into the way of the ancestors. They will participate in the dancing and chanting, observe the ritual sacrifices, help with preparing the feast. For even more than the modern mythology which has invaded their valley, the motorbikes, transistors, and color T.V's, Alak Tadolo remains fixed in the consciousness of the Tana Toraja.
Tana Toraja (meaning land of the Toraja People) is a region located in the southwest of the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi which is separated from Borneo by the Makassar Straight. It can be reached by Garuda Indonesia Airways, tel. 800 342-7832 or 213 387-3323, alone or in combination with major international airlines.
The writer visited Tana Toraja as part of a Society Expedition's cruise. This tour is no longer available, but a unique luxury tour that includes Tana Toraja as an optional extension is Abercrombie and Kent's "Cruising the Spice Islands of Indonesia" which uses twin-hulled cruise ships and inflatable zodiaks to explore remote destinations. A ship's lecturer provides on-board seminars and background information about the excursions. Cruises operate year-round. The Torajaland extension is custom designed, cost depending on individual requirements. For information, call 800 323-7308 or 708 954-2944.
Geo Expedition, P.O. Box 3656-L7, Sonora, CA 95370, tel. 800 351-5041, includes 4 days in Torajaland on their 18 day "Indonesia Cultures " trip. Other destinations are Bali and Java. Small groups travel by air and mini van.
Select Tours International specializes in trips to Indonesia and offers several packages to Torajaland. Contact them at 310 374-0880.
Pacific Discoveries, 213 383-1302, offers a 4 day, 3 night package that includes accomodations, meals, and travel by coach.
Creative Adventure Club, 800 544-5088, also custom designs trips to the area.
Other Los Angeles-based tour operators for Tana Toraja are GOH (Garuda Air's your department), tel. 389-4600, Tedjo Express, tel. 387-7838, and Faya Tours, tel. 487-1433 (all area code 310).
The best time to visit Tana Toraja is from April to October when it is dry and hot. Mosquitos are not a problem. The rest of the year is less desirable because of the rain. Passports valid for 6 months after date of entry are required, but visas are not. Inoculations are not required for Indonesia, but it is suggested that you con sult your physician for medication recommendations. A useful and highly apppreciated phrase in the Indonesian language is "terima kasih," which means "thank you."
For further information about the islands of Indonesia, call the Indonesian Tourist Office at 213 387-2078, or write to them at 3457 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90010.