Journey to the afterlife: Indonesia’s Toraja live among the dead

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This photo taken on September 11, 2018 shows a guide holding a light over the remains of bodies interned in a burial cave in Londa in Tana Toraja regency. (AFP)
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This photo taken on September 11, 2018 shows a human skull at the entrance of a burial cave in Londa in Tana Toraja regency. (AFP)
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This photo taken on September 11, 2018 shows the entrance to a burial cave in Londa in Tana Toraja regency, where wooden dolls known as Tau Tau are dressed in Torajan traditional clothes and displayed to represent deceased nobility. (AFP)
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This picture taken on September 12, 2018 shows the people of Toraja carrying a coffin during a funeral ceremony known as "Rambu Solo" in Londa in Tana Toraja regency. (AFP)
Updated 10 November 2018
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Journey to the afterlife: Indonesia’s Toraja live among the dead

  • Traditionally the embalming process involved sour vinegar and tea leaves but these days families usually inject a formaldehyde solution into the corpse
  • The Indonesian government is trying to promote Torajan death rituals as part of ambitious plans to boost tourism across the sprawling Southeast Asian archipelago

LA’BO, Indonesia: Martha Kande’s family lived with her greying, shrivelled corpse at their home in Indonesia for seven months, as they prepared an elaborate funeral that is central to the Toraja people’s centuries-old death rituals.
“We keep the body in a coffin at home,” Meyske Latuihamallo, the 81-year-old woman’s granddaughter, told AFP.
“But it’s kept open before they are buried because we see them as sick so they are brought food and drink every day.”
Torajans — an ethnic group that numbers about a million people on Sulawesi island — have few qualms when it comes to talking with an embalmed corpse, dressing them up, brushing their hair or even taking pictures with a mummified relative.
Traditionally the embalming process involved sour vinegar and tea leaves but these days families usually inject a formaldehyde solution into the corpse.
“After a week, there’s no odour anymore,” local tourist guide Lisa Saba Palloan told AFP.
It may seem a ghoulish practice to some: living side-by-side with an embalmed body for months — or even years — before paying homage in a ritualistic display of blood and guts.
But the Toraja believe that a person is only dead — and their soul freed — after an elaborate funeral known as “Rambu Solo.”

Wild boars howled and blood poured from a sacrificial buffalo’s throat as Kande’s family prepared her mummified body for the afterlife.
Following the five-day ceremony, the octogenarian was placed in one of the many burial caves scattered around the mountainous region, where skeletal remains are arranged by social hierarchy.
They sit alongside wooden dolls in traditional clothing, representing deceased nobility, while some bodies are kept in coffins that hang from steep cliffs — owing to limited space.
“These are the customs of our ancestors,” said Kande’s 72-year-old nephew Johanes Singkali.
“We maintain them to preserve these traditions and keep them sacred from outside influences.”
Although most Torajans are Christian — a product of Dutch colonialism — they have held onto earlier traditions rooted in animiztic beliefs.
The more elaborate a funeral the more likely the person’s spirit will reach the level of the gods.
But it comes at a cost.
As many as 100 buffalo could be slaughtered for a noble person, while as few as eight will suffice for a middle-class Torajan.
Funerals can set a family back up to two billion rupiah ($133,000) — an extravagant amount in a country where more than half the population live on less than $5.50 a day, according to the World Bank.
“We used to be animizts, so we buried people with boars and buffalos to offer the spirits on the way to the afterlife,” Singkali said.
“It costs a lot and there are a lot of preparations while all the relatives living outside Toraja must come too.”

Hundreds gathered in La’Bo village for Kande’s spiritual send-off, along with dozens of picture-snapping tourists.
Her body was put into a red coffin — in the form of a traditional, boat-shaped house — which was then placed in front of her home.
Relatives clad in black dragged dozens of pigs into the center of the village for slaughter as family members danced.
At midday, a prized buffalo was led out onto a blue tarpaulin where its throat was slit — confirming the woman’s death — and the carcass butchered for a big dinner to follow.
Finally Kande’s coffin was carried around the neighborhood in a symbolic goodbye.
It’s not for the squeamish, but American visitor Ellie Eshleman took a philosophical view.
“I am passionate about death,” the 29-year-old said.
“I would like to help restore it to its spiritual place in the Western world. So, I came here to see their death customs and how it can be a time of celebration.”

The Indonesian government is trying to promote Torajan death rituals as part of ambitious plans to boost tourism across the sprawling Southeast Asian archipelago.
While the Toraja region draws tens of thousands of tourists annually, it is a fraction of the millions who descend on holiday hotspot Bali.
Growing Toraja tourism faces several hurdles, although opposition from locals does not appear to be among them.
Rather, poor infrastructure and the absence of a major airport in the highland region make travel difficult.
Furthermore, it is difficult to plan a trip to see a Rambu Solo ceremony because dates can change as families struggle to save enough money for one.
But many visitors are still willing to take a chance and drive for hours from the nearest major airport to see one of the world’s most unique funeral rites.
“Toraja is a piece of heaven on earth,” said Harli Patriatno, North Toraja’s head of culture and tourism.
“Its natural beauty combined with the Toraja people’s spiritualism and funeral rites is extraordinary.”


No politics please for Baghdad bikers aiming to unite Iraq

Updated 20 January 2019
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No politics please for Baghdad bikers aiming to unite Iraq

  • That is why the first rule of his bikers club is: you do not talk about politics
  • The Iraq Bikers — who now number 380 — are men of all ages, social classes and various faiths

BAGHDAD: Roaring along Baghdad’s highways, the “Iraq Bikers” are doing more than showing off their love of outsized motorcycles and black leather: they want their shared enthusiasm to help heal Iraq’s deep sectarian rifts.
Weaving in and out of traffic, only the lucky few ride Harley Davidsons — a rare and expensive brand in Iraq — while others make do with bikes pimped-up to look something like the “Easy Rider” dream machines.
“Our goal is to build a brotherhood,” said Bilal Al-Bayati, 42, a government employee who founded the club in 2012 with the aim of improving the image of biker gangs and to promote unity after years of sectarian conflict.
That is why the first rule of his bikers club is: you do not talk about politics.
“It is absolutely prohibited to talk politics among members,” Bayati told Reuters as he sat with fellow bikers in a shisha cafe, a regular hangout for members.
“Whenever politics is mentioned, the members are warned once or twice and then expelled. We no longer have the strength to endure these tragedies or to repeat them,” he said, referring to sectarian violence.
With his black bandana and goatee, the leader of the Baghdad pack, known as “Captain,” looks the epitome of the American biker-outlaw.
But while their style is unmistakably US-inspired — at least one of Bayati’s cohorts wears a helmet emblazoned with the stars and stripes — these bikers fly the Iraqi flag from the panniers of their machines.
The Iraq Bikers — who now number 380 — are men of all ages, social classes and various faiths. One of their most recent events was taking party in Army Day celebrations.
Some are in the military, the police and even the Popular Mobilization Forces, a grouping of mostly Shiite militias which have taken part in the fight to oust Islamic State from Iraq in the last three years.
“It is a miniature Iraq,” said member Ahmed Haidar, 36, who works with an international relief agency.
But riding a chopper through Baghdad is quite different from Route 101. The bikers have to slow down at the many military checkpoints set up around the city to deter suicide and car bomb attacks.
And very few can afford a top bike.
“We don’t have a Harley Davidson franchise here,” said Kadhim Naji, a mechanic who specializes in turning ordinary motorbikes into something special.
“So what we do is we alter the motorbike, so it looks similar ... and it is cheaper.”