The people of Madagascar originated in Indonesia-- I had heard this suggestion a dozen times, but being afraid of boats and the ocean, I guess I just assumed that the uncanny similarities between these two peoples had somehow happened as a result of continental drift... (!)
No-- it seems that the long ago people now known as Indonesians rode the trade-winds across open waters on outrigger boats that were said to resemble great swimming spiders. The ancient Greeks reported seeing them as far west as the Red Sea, and wikipedia says these ancient Indonesians hailed either from Borneo or from Southern Sulawesi (I assume this is from DNA testing).
Eiji Hattori, however, claims they had to be the Torajans, and he bases this on their very similar funerary customs.
Other evidence fits as well-- first, that there is a similar people in Borneo located near the large lake on that island that are thought to be related to the Torajans. The Torajans, however, did not originally come from Sulawesi or Borneo as they are original inhabitants of South China or Indochina...and so the story goes ....when you start trying to disentangle where any group of people originally comes from, things get complicated.
What we know for sure is that a group of people (the proto-Torajans) washed up a very long time ago shipwrecked on the spider-shaped island of the mythical Celebes (now known as Sulawesi). And there, they begin to build great houses in the shape of gigantic boats.
Perhaps they set out again for Borneo and for Africa-- or perhaps those were a different wave of the same original southern Chinese? I prefer to think of them as the unlucky boat people, who setting off, washed up on the shores of southern Sulawesi where, heart broken, they began building their houses in the shape of the boats that had brought them there. Trying to get back home, they attempted several trips back-- only to wash up on Bornean shores and then way across the ocean on yet another island off the coast of Africa. There is no evidence whatsoever that their spider boats ever touched shore anywhere else in East Africa, but on Madagascar, Hattori claims, you see boats just like the spider boats described by the ancient Greeks right there bobbing up and down in the harbors.
Remember the boogyman? Well, he also lives in Indonesia. Fierce pirates, the bugis descended on the southern coast of Sulawesi-- subtle as a typhoon. The Torajans had no choice but to leave behind their homes along the seashore and head north-- deep into the mountains. At that point now so far from the Sea, they must have known that their cause was truly lost.
Hattori compares them to the famed gassho-zukuri ("Prayer hands" construction) houses of Japan. I thought they most resembled longhouses like you see in Borneo but just with those inexplicable roofs. Housing large extended families, behind each house you will see a granery built in the same construction (only smaller). Everything is up on piles-- but of course this is common practice throughout Oceania and Asia.
When I was traveling in the Land of the Toraja (Tana Toraja), given my love of astonomy, I was more impressed with the galactic explanation of the houses which suggested that the Torajans believed themselves decended from a peoples of a planet in some distant galaxy and that these boat houses were actually symbolic of the rocketships which had carried them there.
Now, though, I somehow find myself far more impressed with the seafaring explanation.
I remember it was a very early morning flight from Denpasar to Ujung Pandang (capital city of Sulawesi and home of the Bugis). Crossing the Wallace line, we arrived into a beautifully exotic harbor city, which rather than being full of pirates, was full of more mosquitoes than I was comfortable seeing in one place!
We borderd a bus and passed mosque after mosque.It was a full day on the bus and arriving into the town at nightfall, the driver deposited us right at the door of our hotel before honking his goodbyes and driving off. The town of Rantepao, in which we had just arrived, is the center of Tana Toraja.
In Tana Toraja people repeat the phrase that "dying is the biggest event in a person's life." That is a misfortunate expression I think. However, it is true that traditionally funerals were the biggest and most important communal event of life in Tana Toraja.
When a loved one dies, the body is kept first in a room in the great house. If they can gather the necessary funds quickly enough the funeral happens within a year but if it takes longer, they might temporarily bury the body under the house.
In fact, many traditional cultures have this concept of a two-phase funeral. The Japanese too in ancient times believed that the souls of the dead resided very closeby until gradually fading into the spirit of the trees or mountains.
That thought of the dead being somehow very close in proximity to the living is as old as the mountains. We forget this since all the major world religions posit a heaven that is in a separate realm-- and while Buddhists, Muslims and Christians may entertain the thought of purgatory (or a day of judgement) in general the dead make a hasty trip to paradise after death. Hattori explains that at least in three cases that he knows of-- that is in ancient Japan, the Torajans and on the island of Madagascar there is this two-tiered funeral custom. (I've heard they have it in Borneo too as well, which is how the jars are used).
It is during the first preliminary funeral that the Torajan effigies are made. Called Tao-tao, they are effigies thought to embody the soul of the dead person.
When the the second funeral is feasible (this is single the largest expenditure a family undertakes and sometimes it can take several years to raise the funds), several temporary structures are erected to house the guests and animals for slaughter. As the funeral lasts around 5 days, the family not only has to pay for the ceremony itself but has to feed and house the hundreds of guests for the entire time.
We had somehow stumbled on day 5 of a funeral being held in a village outside Rantepao. The last day of the funeral, it was the day when everyone said goodbye to the deceased, and the family insisted we join in. This is from my journal:
"They had placed the casket and the tao tao in two separate chariots, which people then danced around for what seemed like hours. Forming two big circles, we went around and around, singing and dancing around them. After this, they set fire to the structure that had housed the tao tao for the past 5 days. The tao tao looked like a small old woman, with glistening white eyes (with dark pupils set right in the middle). They then cut a puppy's ear and let the blood drip on the casket. And this was followed by a food fight said to scare away any evil spirits. I thought this was odd for Christians (which the Torajans are) and then as if to punish me for such a thought I got hit on the head with a flying piece of roast pork!)
We then followed after as they traipsed way back into the mountains and then watched in amazement as two men climbed up rope ladders (like the kind you imagine used in the deep caves of Southeast Asia where men collect bird's nests for soup). They somehow manueavered their way to the very top holding on to the coffin and the tao tao where they then placed both in a special hallow cut out of the face of the mountain. The coffin was placed way back in the depths of the hallow, while the effigy was propped up front, right again the balcony where it stood looking down on us."
It had not even been two years since my own father had passed away. Since we were not raised within a Church, my father's funeral had been conducted hastily and truly uncomfortably (as if we were all wearing clothes that did not fit right). After the funeral, pictures of dad were slowly removed from here and there around the house and that was that. There were no real rituals to help us get through the days, weeks and months-- well, let's just say it-- there were no rituals to get us through the years following his death. Because there were no real rituals, my grief was never given a voice. I had no way to collectively express grief-- and no where was I more aware of this than in Tana Toraja.
In Japan, of course, Buddhist funerals include ceremonies which are performed for 49 years-- held on the anniversary of death every year to mark the death of a loved one.
Watching the ceremonies in Tana Toraja, I couldn't help but feel that rather than being morbid (morbidly clinging to the dead) that these ceremonies were a celebration of family, love, and more than anything of life itself.
A few years after my short trip to Sulawesi, I was in Bali again and had the chance to meet Lorne Blair of Ring of Fire fame in Ubud, Bali. He was in the process of building a gorgeous house with a huge pitched roof in a village outside Ubud. Made entirely of wood, it had a roomy wooden veranda encircling it. The interior was open and airy and everywhere there was art which he had brought back from his travels to remote places. In that beautiful airy house, we spoke of funerals the entire time. He agreed with me that in fact remembering the dead is a form of deep reverence for life itself. To mark a life lived and to give voice to the great sadness of those left behind must be one of the most basic human instincts of all.. we discussed the ancient Persian towers of silence-- and of course about the Torajan funeral customs as well.
I told him that I would very much like to make it to the far north of Sulawesi-- to Manado, the town located at the very northern tip of the island. That was before fighting between Christians and Muslims took the bloody turn it took. It was also before the discovery of the miraculous fish, the coelcanth-- another East Africa-Sulawesi link?? was discovered in the waters off the coast there.
Not long after that, Blair fell down a manhole in Ubud and died from complications. The village he lived in-- along with his family-- organized an elaborate Balinese funeral to which the entire vilage turned out for. When I heard about it, I thought how much he would have liked that.
I have written before that my own story began in Indonesia. Studying dance, it was from that place from which I began my journey. Robert Harrison, author of Dominion of the Dead, says that he thinks it is in the mourning of the dead (and the disposal of our human remains) that most distinguish us as a species. I would say that it is in our story-telling and meaning-making capacity in which our humanity is most clearly evoked. But I agree with him that the dead do not belong to themselves as much as they belong to the community of loved ones that mourn them and that, indeed, this act of communal mourning is perhaps the greatest celebration of life.
As I was listening to a show he did on Post-humanism, in which he was talking of mourning and the human need for rituals and ceremonies surrounding death, I suddenly remembered a heart-breaking image that I saw in a BBC documentary about one of the schools washed away in the tsunami in Japan in 2011. Of the children lost that day, there were a few from this school never found. The parents could not rest. One mother would wake up every morning and spend her days on a bulldozer shoveling the debris for a sign of her daughter. She knew her daughter was dead but her need to care for the remains was impossible for her to ignore. Days passed and finally her daughter was found--not by her but by a fisherman. It was only the head.. The scene was just heart-wrenching as the mother said, "she traveled very far in the water." This was not the end for her though, for she continued to search for the other children unaacounted for since she could not stand still while other parents were still suffering, unable to mourn.
Photos by my talented sister--from that time when we crossed the Wallace Line♥
For more, see my blog post, shanghai--and the lady from shu (bedhaya hagoromo) and below again is Rick Emmert's magical performmance of the noh play Hagoromo to Javanese gamelan with Javanese dancers.