- Discover Indonesia Online

You are currently in > Indonesia > Sulawesi island > Tana Toraja > Religion

Aluk; the ritual of the elderly

During the first days of the maro, a rite that is related to the fertility of the fields, there is hardly any activity. People are just talking; they are practicing a kind of speech, which is seen as very powerful. The Toraja priests express a special 'higher language', filled with metaphores and repetion. The visitors are said to be spirits, which don't understand a lot of words according to humans. Still this remarkable language is essential in this rite. Men who are able to speak this language are highly respected.
Six nights of ritual speech is done before the more dramatic and public activities of the maro, in which a tower of bamboo and fabric (bate) is made: a visual representation of the change from death to life. For a funeral similar towers are build, in which the bamboo point is stuck into the soil. In the maro, the bamboo stick points to the heaven, the direction of growth.
In a small, scarcely lit house are twelve young men on the floor. Little boys have stretched out over the legs of older men. Women are boiling water and rice which should keep the singers awake throughout the night. The men, all ritual priests, to minaa, sing and follow their leader, the 'mother of the music'. They sometimes sing strong and sometimes sleepy, in between eruptions of laughter and sometimes an arguement. The subject of the song is the search for the bate of wealth. The bate, they say, bends like a tree to places as close as the nearest village, and as far as America, or the 'edge of heaven'.
On the seventh day the bate are gathered in an arena at sunrise, where sacrifices are brought. Each bate is carried to a field in a noisy procession. There, all kinds of spirits are attracted to descend by the songs of the priests; they are envited to take over a body of those who are dancing or are in trance. Men and women swirl around, loosen their hair, jump on brums, walk on knives and cut themselves with swords, but don't bleed; the power of the spirits prevents them from being injured. Late in the afternoon the spirits leave, the exhausted people go home. The priests bless the bate and break it down. Is this adat or aluk?

Stylising life because of aluk

Before the Dutch occupation of the highlands in the 1920's, the Toraja language didn't have a word for 'religion'. People were not aware of a separate domain of thoughts and deeds, which are aimed at the world of spirits. Instead they had aluk, the way on which all rites should be performed. Aluk has to do with the daily life, with the way houses should be build, rice should be boiled, and the way children and village heads are spoken to. It contains rules for the number of buffalos that should be sacrificed during funerals, but also the location of the stars when the seedlings should be planted. One of the basic principles is that there is a continuous series of of gifts, blessings and even curses between the living and the spirits of the ancestors.
The missionaries, which followed the first Dutch colonial servants in 1906, remarked that the Toraja lived in a world of spirits and ancestors which demanded food and regular offers. Many Toraja still speak about their religion as the 'feeding of the ancestors', pa'kandean nene.

Picture: Badong

The first representative of the Reformed Missionary Union (reformed church) failed in his efforts to stop the extensive death-cult of the Toraja. He saw that many lost their estate due to ritual obligations, but in 1917, his breach into the traditions lead to a wave of violence in which he died of a stabbing wound in his chest. The church finally refined it's tactics; they now fought for a better separation between 'habits' (adat) and 'religion' (aluk or agama in Indonesian). It was seen as acceptable to sacrifice a waterbuffalo, unless the meat was devided among the living - a normal social thing - and wasn't given away to the spirits. It was however completely unacceptable to make pictures of the deceased; it was a sin.
You could say that the rituals were allowed to be held, while the system in which they were based, slowly degraded. Nevertheless the Christian conversions in the Dutch period only concluded ten per cent of the Toraja. After the independence, when the Islamic revolt brought unrest and scare, the number of conversions increased dramatically. Towards 1965, about fourty per cent of the population was officially registered as Christian. Nowadays this percentage is much higher.
The traditional religion of the Toraja, nowadays considdered as aluk to dolo, 'the rites of the ancestors', was officially recognised by the government in 1969 as a branch of Hinduism. This remarkable change took place when Tana Toraja was brought up as touristic alternative for Bali; a protestant Tana Toraja would be less attractive than a 'pagan' area.
The government's revival of aluk didn't succeed. Several intellectuals still maintain the rite, but most aluk-supporters are inhabitants of remote villages, ritual priests (to minaa), very old and very young men. It's clear that aluk will disappear, especially because the younger generation leaves for work. But even if aluk is the all-purpose meaning is on it's return, as idea it has revived and it has given the Toraja a strong feeling of identity.

Rising smoke, descending smoke

In 1972, a team of National Geographic described an encounter with 'a population that is so happy, that even burials are festive'. The Toraja rites surrounding funerals are indeed remarkable, but poeople often don't see that funerals are just a part of a ritual cycle that stretches over the entire year. The article names it a cycle of 'descending smoke', which are related to death ('rambu solo'), and 'rising smoke', which is related with life ('rambu tuka'). This contradiction doesn't give full right to the wealth of the ritual cycle, which is deeply related with the agrarian cycles of life and rebirth, with planting, taking care and harvesting of the rice. However such a cycle doesn't have a real begin or end, we can see the first weeks of the new seeds in the new year as the starting point.
In many parts of Tana Toraja, the season of death and the funeral-riotual is ended in September with a rite which is known as me'datu. In the past me'datu also was related with the time that some Toraja brought treasures to the ruler or datu of Luwu', in trade for blessings of the rice seed.

Picture: Buffalo fight

Nowadays the aluk-families prepare the seed, sacrifice young chickens, and direct prayers to the spirits which are responsible for the fertility of the wheat and the fields. It's not likely that a visitor gets to see this secretive ritual; it takes place on fields and near sources: everywhere where the spirits or deata stay. After these mini-sacrifices the children and other people at the scene are given little pieces of chicken to eat. The rice seed is taken from the shed and ground (not by hand, as is usual, but by foot, in which women loosen their hair). After that it's cleaned and put in baskets which are brought to the ricefields. There they are submerged for several days.
The rice seed is put on nursery-fields to grow. In November and December the landscape looks like a padded sheet of green nursery-fields. When the seedlings range in height between ten and twelve centimeters, they are ready for the maro, a ritual related to the fertility of the field and with curing, but also with the fulfilment of desire of wealth, offspring and the ancestral house. When the seeds have grown good enough and the family has enough means of existance, the maro can be held before planting the seedlings out on the fields.

Funeral rites

The funeral rite is very important in Toraja, it is even held when someone has died at sea or in another country. In an aluk-rite which is known as 'catching the wind', members of the family and a priest climb a mountain, where the ask the wind to fill a sarung. When it's filled, the sarung is closed for some time before it's released. After that, a piece of bamboo (the representant of the deceased) is taken home where it gets a real funeral.
All funerals in Toraja, how big or small they are, are meant to keep the spirit safe in the next world whether this is the Christian heaven or the Puya from the aluk. They are also meant to liberate the relatives from their relations with the deceased and to integrate them into the world of the living again. For poor people, a symbolic sacrifice is enough a chicken egg or even touching a chicken basket or pig shed. However a symbolic gesture is pleasing the spirite, a real sacrifice of an animal is the core of a socially accepted ceremony in Toraja.

Picture: Fake fight

Aluk demands a strict separation of life and death. When the last rice is harvested, a period which is dedicated to death starts. The seasonal relation of such rituals is possible because the Toraja don't directly bury their dead. When someone dies, the body is wrapped in cloth and kept in house for months, sometimes even years, while preparations for the complicated burial rites are made. Scattered families have to come over and huge numbers are mobilised: money, cattle, servants, friends.
Funerals differ in each area and status of the deceased: from a simple rite of a formal slave and children, to the spectacular plkayes that even draw (inter)national attention in the media. These last rituals are usually held with the slaughter of hundreds of pigs and buffalos. Thousands of guests have to be housed in specially built, temporary shelters made from bamboo. The traveller will probably see at least something that is somewhere between simple and huge.

Behind the scenes

An aluk death ritual only really starts after family members and village heads have agreed upon a time. This should be coordinated with other rites and with the position of the moon. The start of the socially accepted death is marked by sound and sacrifices: beating of the bell and a typical drum which announces a death, echo through the surrounding villages. Family members, which were perhaps drinking coffee outside, now enter the house to be the witness of the transfer of the body from 'hot' do 'dead', a transition that is being executed by sacrificing chicken and later that thay with a pig and a few buffalos. The surviving partner is wrapped up in a big cloth and isn't allowed to eat boiled food for several days. The next day the mebalun ('the one that wraps') wraps the body with many layers of cloth. The following days, small sacrifices are brought when relatives and family show up, which help with the preparations and which sing badong at night, a song to remember the deceased. Men in sarung hold hands and move in a circle with stamping their feet. In the middle, a fire burns. A slaughered animal will be prepared there later. Ma'badong tells the story of the deceased in high ritual language, while the women near him sing asong, the ma'londe It is said that the voices should sound as one breath.
The ritual activities are continued for several days, in which singing is done and sacrifices are made. The relatives, the 'remains' made from cloth and bamboo are finally brought to a special field (rante), which is surrounded by a circle of stone, monuments of important ancestors. Here is the climax of the ceremony, the long awaited moment which brings glory or shame to those who paid fot the ritual and the guests. It's likely that outsides can see this part of the ceremony.

Guests and debt

The day before the funeral the guests arrive in processions (rombongan), with buffalos, pigs, ricebaskets (in Christian funerals) and huge amouns of ricewine or maybe some beer or whiskey. After that the men follow, approximately arranged to age, status and even height. On the same day the women follow in the same arrangement.
The sound of the bell announces the arrival of the group, after which the procession slowly moves towards the ritual field. The guests appreciate the size of the buffalo, the number of pigs or the nice fabrics of the guests by clicking. Or they are grumpy about the skinny animals or bad clothes. After a ceremonial welcome and offering sirih to the leaders of the rombongan, the participants retreat into cabins in which they are served coffee, tea and later rice. The success of a ritual is partially depending on the smoothness of the kicken, lead by women of the organisating family.

Picture: Burial

When the day passes the ground is scattered with screaming pigs and the buffalos are gathered. The biggest interest of these animals is not only the meat. Each animal represents a debt and so a social relation. The history of a big is a complicated story which dates back many generations.
When the pig represents the payment of a debt, everyone knows that the pig 'has eaten vegetables': the debt is paid off. Buffalos also represent debts. When someone brings a completely new buffalo to the ritual in name of someone else, it starts a new relation of debt. Every Toraja has complicated networds of such debts, inherited by adoption, loyalty or other strange facts in the history of the person. All debts are written down. The government also sends a representative. He demands slaugher tax.

The slaughter

When the slaugher of the buffalo happens in the right way it goes very fast: a single hit in the neck with a long la'bo'-knife, the machete or parang. When the animal dies, young boys run to it to catch some of the hot blood, which is used in the kitchen. The meat is cut into pieces, separated and thrown down a high bamboo platform. When a piece of meat is thrown, the cutter (to mentaa) names someone in the crowd. When the meat hits the ground, that exact person is there to pick up the meat. This all might look like chaos to the average tourist.
It's not uncommon that tourists also get a part of the meat, sometimes one of the best pieces, hanging on a rattan rope. This sign of the status of the guest of honour should be accepted with courtesy. Foreign guests are welcome, because they help to transfer the ritual field, even if it is for a moment, in what is should ideally be: the center of the social unversum, which attracts important visitors from far away.

Your website for tickets in Indonesia!
Looking for e-tickets for flights in Indonesia? Here's your solution! Order your e-tickets at
Add this page to your email, your own blog, MySpace, Facebook, or whatsoever via AddThis:
Bookmark and Share

Additional information, updates or feedback? Send them in!

Feedback Form


9 pictures in this gallery 

Created by · feedback & contact · © 2000-2021
Other websites by · · ·

146,894,432 pageviews Discover Indonesia Online at