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The population
Huge ethnical diversity

The huge diversity of Sulawesi's landscapes is only surpassed by the big ethnical, cultural and regligious diversity. Over half of the Sulawesi population lives in the fertile valleys and plains in the south, while another large group lived around Manado and the neighboring Minahasa region in the northeast. Makassar, the biggest city of Sulawesi, is a melting pot of populations and cultures.
Most well-known are the coastal- and lowland-populations from the south: the Buginese (about 3,5 milion), the Makassarese (1,5 milion), the Mandarese (half a milion) and the Toraja (one third of a milion) in the highlands. There are dozens of less known groups: the Wana, Mori, Kaili, Taijo, Pendau, Lauje, Kahumanoan and other groups in the rough inaldn; and the Tolaki in the southeast. In the north, the Minahasa are the big group, but there you also have populations like the Sangirese, the Bolaang Mongondow and the Gorontalo.
Names only cannot express the wealth and complexity of the cultural life. While these groups both have common and separate social conventions and expressive art, there also is much variation. The Minahasa have a strong identity and still speak six different (related, however) languages. The Mandarese, which mainly live from fishery and trade and are usually matched with their southern neighbors, the Buginese, speak several different languages (mainly Mandarese and Campalagian).
The name 'Toraja' (from the Buginese to riaja, 'highland population') was used for most non-islamic populations in the highlands. But the southern (Sa'dan) Toraja speak a language which is more related with their Mandarese and Buginese neighbors than to the western or eastern Toraja languages. However the Luwurese speak a language which is closely related to that of their Toraja neighbors, they are seen as 'Buginese', because of their islamic culture. The Toraja in their turn emphasised their identity the last decades, to oppose them against islam and for the tourists.
Outside the city- and official situations, where Bahasa Indonesia is spoken, it's more likely that the traveller hears the more lively local languages. Many people both speak several local languages as well as Indonesian. And when they are ritual specialists, they may even speak some of the 'high' poetic forms which are rich with metaphores. Many of these old literary and ritual forms are disappearing quickly however. In the recent history, translations of these ritual languages into Indonesian have appeared. What decreases as well is the power to read the old manuscripts, in which the histories of the kingdoms in the south are written in old local writing.

Migration of ideas and humans

Sulawesi has always been open for new ideas from far worlds. This already took place in the time of the Austronesian speaking farmers and sailors.
In the big century of the trade, the Pabicara Butta (a sort of 'prime minister') of Makassar, Karaeng and Matoaya had a library with European books; he studied the newest developments on mathematics and optics. Influences from abroad were biggest along the coasts and in city seaports and centers. They had a harder time penetrating the dense forests and high mountains, where many populations maintained their branding character until today.
As everywhere in Indonesia, the Chinese on Sulawesi are mainly to be found in the larger cities. Ever since the 17th century there are Chinese in Makassar and Manado, and at the moment about one per cent of the population is Chinese. However most of them are currently officially Indonesian citizen, several thousand were registered as Chinese or stateless in 1990. Many of them are christian, but there are also a few buddhists and confucianists.
Over the last decades, Sulawesi has also become the area where transmigrants from Jawa and Bali got to live. They are transported away from their overcrowded islands to lesser populated and (hopefully) more productive ground. Balinese migrated from the beginning of the 20th century to several parts of Sulawesi, and probably form the biggest group of the about 50,000 hindus which were registered in the census of 1980. Since 1962, almost 54,000 Jawanese have settled on the island. A big and successful Jawanese community can now be found in Wonomulyo, along the western coast, north of Parepare.

Islam, chrisianity and adat

However the majority of the population is currently muslem, the Portuguese and Spanish spice traders - and their catholic priests - had important relations with the states at the western coast and in the north in the 16th century. In the second half of that century, several local rulers in Siang (at the western coast), Siau, Manado and Kaidipan were baptized together with thousands of followers. In most areas such conversions were short-lived, especially after the Portuguese captain from Ternate (on neighboring Maluku) had killed the sultan there in 1570. The anti-Portuguese crusade, started by the son of the sultan, caused Gorontalo, Buton, Banggai and other parts of Sulawesi were converted to islam.
According to legends, islam was introduced on South-Sulawesi in 1603 by three holy mand from Minangkabau on Sumatera. After they had converted the ruling elite of the Luwu' and Makassar, they went ahead in the southern Buginese kingdoms, among them Bone. In 1611 they had moved all the rulers of South-Sulawesi to support islam, accept those of Toraja. Islam was (as well as christianity) known much earlier in the south. Malaysian islamic traders lived in the south ever since the 15th century, however South-Sulawesi was one of the few meeting points in the trade network between the islands where islam wasn't officially supported.
Islamic conversions in the early 17th century were radical, but didn't always happen peacefully. A report describes the obligation of the first royal mosque in South-Sulawesi: on the evening before the first Friday prayer (the most holy time of the week) the prince of Gowa slaughtered a pig and spread blood all over the mosque. This deed is seen as sacrilege of the worst kind and was ironically done to get back to pre-islamic dedicational rites, in which blood of bigs is put on people and objects. In Bone and Sopeng there was a strong opposition from the royals against the new religion; islam finally entered Gowa with the tip of the sword.

Picture: Horse driver

Nowadays, 80 percent of the population is islamic. It's the islam of the sunnite tradition with some sji'itic remains, like the festivities around Maulud, the birthday of the prophet. In all Buginese, Makassarese and Mandarese areas in the south, Kaili, Donggala, Palu and Tolitoli along the western coast, Gorontalo in the north and Buton in the southeast, the domes of mosques can be seen everywhere. The monotone call for prayer wakes every villager and city worker before dawn every single day.
Islam on Sulawesi was and is still remarkably flexible. This doesn't mean that it's not very serious, or that the followers aren't strict; even the revolt which started in the 1950's, was put in fierce islamic words. But the muslems on Sulawesi have found ways to combinate their islamic devotion with local habits, related to ancestors and the spirits of the earth, the rice and sea, a long time ago. These combinations can be seen in numerous actions: from the boat blessings to the esotherian recitals of transvestite bissu-priests; from the magical power of the Thursday evening (malam Jum'at) and forumula's for witchcraft, to the use of ask for favours at the graves of islamic holy persons or ancestors.


The substantial christian population on Sulawesi (17 percent is protestant, two percent is catholic) is concentrated in the North (Minahasa and the archipelago's of Talaud and Sangihe), in the district of Poso, and in the southern highlands of Tana Toraja, where a faast conversion process took place soon after the independence of Indonesia. Most cities know christian minorities.
The north, where the European presence has a long history, only came under complete Dutch rule after 1800, at that time, the big conversions to protestantism took place. This conversion was strenghtened by the spread of schools: at the end of the century there was a school for every 1,000 people in Minahasa, while on Jawa, there was a school for every 50,000 schools. However the protestant church has the majority, there are nowadays dozens of other sects and churches. Not all of the north is christian: the population of Gorontalo and Mongondow is almost entirely islamic; the last has only adopted islam in the 19th century.
Many missionaries, varying from the reformed church to the Salvation Army have been active in Central-Sulawesi since the 19th century. Christianity later came to Tana Toraja, where the first reformed missionary was killed in 1917; his followers showed more passion with the traditional rituals. While the ritual live nowadays still blooms and has public attention, the protestant and catholic church are still working on discussions about their relation with local religion and habits.

Sea Gypsies

One of Sulawesi's interesting groups are the Bajau, formerly known as 'sea gypsies'. For centuries they have had a nomadic life on board of little, wide boats. The Bajau are in fact one of the groups which have settled on the coasts of the Riau- and Lingga archipelago, along the coasts of Borneo and the eastern coast of Sulawesi. The origin of this sailing population is still unknown. Since the time that the history about Sulawesi is written down, the Bajau were always somewhere related to the Makassarese and Buginese centers of power. The name Bajau ('Bojo' in Buginese) probably originated from ajo, one of the semi-independent stated in the neighborhood of Bone and Luwu'.
As profound sailors and gatherers of sea products - especially seacucumber (tripang) and turtle shields -, the Bajau managed to supply many of Sulawesi's export products for trade with China. Traditionally they spent their entire lives on boats, looking down on the people who lived on the mainland. They traded with them for fabrics, food and other elementary goods.
Like many formerly nomadic populations, the Bajau are currently curfewed by the government, competition of big industries and international agreements on fishery. Many of them have merged with the populations on the mainland, but several groups still live on and around the Banggai Islands like the about 1,000 people which are moored off the coast of the islands outside Teluk Kendari in South-Sulawesi. Fishing and collecting are still their source of existance for these last semi-nomadic Bajau. Their beautifull ships are just off the coast.

Rites and the spiritual world

Sulawesi is probably most known for the small percentage of the population, which doesn't see itself a member of a 'world religion' (officially sanctioned religion), but still supports a form of animism. This term has been made up by 19th century antropologists. Animist believe tells that the universe is drenched in some kind of cosmic energy or power of life. This power spreads over the world, but often as points in the landscape (rocks, trees, mountain summits, little rivers or rainbows), or in an technical way: roofs, center points of boats, fabrics of ancestors or swords. Wealth depends on finding this energy; people bring it to the community as well as to individual people by trance, spiritual cults and healing rites, meditation and dozens of other habits.
Rites are on Sulawesi, just as elsewhere in the archipelago, not only a part of the complex social structure, but also a way to call for health, wealth and fertility. They also form the center of the battle for power within a family, the community, the state and the cosmos.
The most well-known rites are those around the deceased of the Sa'dan Toraja. They only represent a small part of the rich ceremonial live on Sulawesi. A rite can be as simple as the placing of a bowl of rice with incense at the center column in a house. This is what the Mandarese wife does when her husband goes to the sea. It can also be as dramatic as putting a boat in the water in the same village, with numerous sacrifices and enlightening the prahu on the beach in the night. Over the entire island there is variation. Wealthy Buginese and Mandarese circumsisions are not ritually performed in Toraja.
Rituals on Sulawesi are partially about status. The Toraja funeral is maybe the most impressive example. The participants compete to bring up the best water buffalo, or to house the biggest number of guests. But status and connection with the spiritual power are very hard to separate. The maro-ritual of the Sa'dan Toraja for example, demonstrates the rank of a family but leaves everything open for what trance and possession by spirits. Even drumming and calling for a spirit by a Wana-sjamane in the hills of Central-Sulawesi is not only meant to heal the patient, but also to attract audience, so they raise the authority of the sjamans.

Attending traditional rites

One of the big pleasures of travelling on Sulawesi is attending rites, however it's an ongoing frustration, that people don't understand what takes place. Still, attending a ceremony, executed as an important part of the cosial life, is a privilege which few Westerners can enjoy in their own society.
Rites on Sulawesi offer the visitor a view in the social life, which seems more healthy than that of the Westerner. It's a world in which rituals have a meaning, in which a community is bigger than the number of individuals in it, and in which the sacrale hasn't been lost, but reinforced. However this all is true, travellers should take in mind that a too romantic vision on 'being different' can bring you in problems. You should not forget that people on Sulawesi, just as everyone on this planet, are living in the 21st century. They are also involved in the crises of nowadays, in doubting about the meaning of their rites; they also see fractures in their communities, and discover problems concerning the spiritual and political power. A funeral service of the Sa'dan Toraja is more than just a prehistoric rite; it could well be a fiercely discussed demonstration of a family claiming status, or a drama which emphasises the tensions between animists and christians, or a great show that will find it's way to European and American tv-screens.
The experience of the traveller on Sulawesi would be improved dramatically if they understand that they don't see numerous copies of never changing, perfect rites, but of drama's which are personal and political and of which the result is always unknown.

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