February 09, 2016

I have just arrived at Sultan Hasanuddin International Airport in Makassar, South Sulwesi for a business trip. The welcoming billboard of Tana Toraja with its picture of three women dancing colorful hairpieces reminded me of a festive celebration eight years ago.
The memory came to me so clearly, an unforgettable moment. It had been my very first time in Sulawesi, a fine morning at the end of August 2007, when my cousin, Ka Ina from Makassar invited me to attend the Tana Toraja Festival.
Ka Ina said that Tana Toraja Regency was celebrating its 50th birthday. Also, the day remarked 760th anniversary of Tana Toraja itself, so the people from the surrounding villages and districts did not want to miss the excitement. The full event was held for the entire month of August that year, and the last day was dedicated to a colossal feast, hosted in a Komando Daerah Militer (Kodim) field in Rantepao.
The Torajans were excited for this annual celebration. The streets were teeming with throngs of people from all over Toraja; not one of the 40 regencies was absent from the festivities, and each one had its own unique performance to offer to the audience. Sinjai Regency, for instance, gave a performance called Mambola Sipatan, where a boy climbed a bamboo structure supported by several men laying on the ground. It was a bewildering show!
It was also at this festival that I learned that the popular Asmat Tribe that is found in Papua are actually Torajans! They returned to their homeland for the event with its theme, “Love Your Country Preserve Your Culture” I also particularly enjoyed the Tira dance attraction, where a group of boys from the regency of North Makale danced to the music of bamboo instruments.
Merok was one of the myriad special attractions at this festival. Merok is a traditional ceremony of Toraja Sa’dan, North Toraja, held as a form of gratitude. The performance included the sacrifice of a water buffalo using an extremely sharp blade so that with only a single quick slash the deed was done. What an eerie moment for outsiders like me.
In Tana Toraja, the buffalo sacrifice is often done as a part of their elaborate multi-day funerals. They believe that the deceased’s soul travels to the afterlife on a buffalo. For the noble, more than 25 buffaloes might be slaughtered, but at least one of them must be particular breed of white-mottled buffalo, which comes at a high price. Afterwards, the horns are cut off and kept as trophies to be hung in the family home. The number of horns hanging in a home demonstrates the wealth and importance of the family.
Ka Ina told me that for Torajans, life very much revolves around death. This unique custom has lived in their society for centuries. For them, a funeral is a great celebration of life, much like a going-away party, and is an occasion in which the entire family of the deceased and members of the village take part. This ancient tradition is known to be one of the most complex funeral traditions in the world.
The Pagellu Dance is a welcome dance for patriots returning glorious from the battlefield. Pagellu means an expression of happiness. That year, in 2007, the largest ever Pagellu dance was staged. At least five thousand students from the Tana Toraja regency danced Pagellu on that very day.
Nowadays, Pagellu is often performed at weddings, at harvest time or to welcome VIP guests. Adorned in gold and silver, the dancers tell the story of the women of Toraja, the cycle from birth to death and the daily activities of the Toraja girls.
There were also the Nondo and Ma’Badong Dances. The difference between the two lies only in their context. Ma’Badong is performed in funerals, while Nondo is performed at moments of joy and celebration. The dancers wiggle their pinkie fingers as they move in a big circle.
The festival of Tana Toraja in 2007 was really a huge event. I have never witnessed a greater festival in Indonesia. Last year, Toraja International Fetival 2015n was held in Kete’ Kesu Village on August 14-16 and successfully amazed both local and international tourists. The festival included a music group who blended traditional music with contemporary tunes. International musicians attended the feast. Traditional dances were again performed. It also showcased Toraja traditional arts such as tenun (handwven fabric) as well as local food and coffee. The event was considered a success.
As the government strives for Toraja tourism, the event will be back again in 2016. It will possibly be held in August. As the event become more popular and international, there will be more peculiar ceremonies, bigger dances and music collaborations performed. More local talents, artists and international musicians are expected to come. The venue and theme have not been published, but wherever it is, I plan to be there!
Toraja International Festival 2016 schedule
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Source: Journey Indonesia, January 2016