Indonesian Rantau

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    By John Michael Gorrindo

    Indonesian Rantau

    Chapter 5:  Tanah Toraja- “Of Life Faces East and Death Faces West”

    Cock Fighting in Toraja Since the early part of the twentieth century, Indonesia has been trying to formulate and promulgate the essence of its identity as a people.  Since the founding of the republic in 1945, the policy of unificasi has been the government’s primary tool of policy in attempting to unify the vast array of peoples across the archipelago whose ethnicities, religions, customs, and languages differ. 

    Knowing that diversity is what best characterizes Indonesia’s peoples, the government resorted to a national motto which both celebrated the nation’s regional differences, but stressed the importance of its people unifying their efforts towards creating a single national identity.  The national motto “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” or “Unity through Diversity,” can be found written into the heart of the shield as found on the Panca Sila.

    The young republic’s canon of laws have not always recognized this diversity, as the great power of certain Islamic groups have historically had disproportionate power in fashioning Indonesian law, making illegal some cultural traditions as practiced by indigenous groups across the archipelago.  Sharia, or the laws derived from the Koran governing Muslim belief and practice, is one scriptural source that has shaped the Muslim legal agenda.  Indonesia’s centralized form of government has in many cases been forced to accommodate the Islamic lobby, allowing Sharia to provide a moral basis for some of the most important cornerstones of the legal system.   

    Although Indonesia is 90% Muslim, and the world’s most populous Muslim nation, the government has remained a secular state, and has so far held unificasi as the most important mission of the republic.

    Certain banned activities in Indonesia have such widespread popularity and cultural importance that law enforcement often looks the other way.  Cockfighting, or Sabungan Ayam, is a vivid example.  Government law doesn’t frown so much on cock fighting itself, but the gambling that accompanies it.  The Koran clearly forbids gambling, and that part of the Sahria has taken root in Indonesian law.  Even betting on a card game in the confines of someone’s personal home can lead to arrest.

    But trying to ban cock fighting in Indonesia would be like trying to put an end to bull fights in Spain. 

    Cock fighting has been driven underground to some degree, or more specifically, into the jungle. Corruption monies may prompt authorities to turn a blind eye, or simply removing the cock fight from public view is enough to satisfy law enforcement.

    Early into my second journey to Indonesia in July 2005 I was invited to a cock fight.  The invitation came about serendipitously, happening as I was on my way to a restaurant, traveling by van with a guide and driver while touring villages in South Sulawesi’s famous “Tanah Toraja” (Land of the Torajans).  My guide, Anton, spotted a man he knew on the side of the road who motioned us to stop and follow him into the forest.  We parked our vehicle, got out, and briskly followed the man who took us several hundred meters into a beautiful stand of forested jungle which separated neighboring rice fields. 

    “There’s a cock fight!” Anton exclaimed. “You do want to come, right?”

    As we drew closer, voices could be heard, rising and echoing amongst the trees.  The trail narrowed, and as we walked through some tall vegetation while turning a corner, a large flat clearing appeared, crowded with maybe two hundred  people, almost all of them men.

    There was a lull in the action.  It was in between fight rounds, and men meandered about, holding their prized birds, preening and petting them.  Many of the cocks were magnificently colored.  Some bore plumage of burnished reds, deep blacks, bright yellows, and white.  I’d never seen cocks with such brilliant looking feathers. Men with their birds kept circulating; quietly studying over potential opponents and their owners as well. Those who did not have cocks were primarily there as bettors and spectators.

    A man with a fighting cock might stop another to ask for a fair comparison of their birds.  First there would be subdued exchanges of hushed conversation.  If mutual interest arose, an inspection of the birds would follow.
    Both men would then kneel together, facing each other.  Swapping birds, each would handle the other’s cock, squeezing leg musculature, and by hand forcefully stroke from the fowl’s crested head down the neck to test for head and neck strength.  Then each man would “weigh out” the other man’s bird by lightly lofting the creature in one palm and bouncing it up and down gently in the air. 

    If after inspection each man felt their fowl were a good fighting match, they proceeded to negotiate a bet.  If all was agreeable, the two men announced as much to the presiding “ring master” who then alerted the crowd that a new fighting round was in the offing.  Once the crowd had taken a good look at the new challengers, those interested in betting began to circulate with money in hand, seeking to make a wager.  Even I was approached- the only foreigner present- but I declined.  I’m not a betting man, and a Torajan cock fight didn’t seem the appropriate place to try my hand at gambling.

    The ring master circulated as well, listening in on the wagering.  Once the group betting had died down, the ring master directed the crowd to form a sizeable ring within the flat clearing, and only the two challengers and their birds were allowed inside.  A fever of anticipation began to pass through the crowd, and the tension became audible as a roiling murmur.

    By this time, each owner had bound a single lance onto the underside of one cock leg, securely tied off by looping a slender string several times around it onto the slender foreleg just above the claw joint.  Cocks fight with their beaks and claws.  By beating their wings, the cocks elevate their bodies above the ground; churning and gouging in rotary motion their legs thrust out in front of them, attempting to rip through feathers and skin of the opponent’s underbelly.  The lance’s position allowed the bird to spear, tear, or puncture their opponent to death.

    But first each cock needs to be enraged before they would commit to fighting to the death.  Each man again knelt facing each other, holding their birds out front of themselves.


    Positioned near the center of the human ring surrounding them, each man in turn proceeded to allow the opposing cock to peck and rip away at the head of their own bird.  Neck and head feathers flew as they physically restrained their cocks so that neither retaliation nor defense was possible.  This inflamed not only the tempers of the birds, but of the crowd’s passion as well.  Local palm wine, frothing in hand held lengths of green bamboo holders began to flow more heavily than just a few minutes before, and what had been a crowd murmur just a few moments before had suddenly become a feverish resonance of excited voices.

    The two men released the birds simultaneously, and the fowl began to beat their wings with violent fury.  The crowd could no longer be restrained, pressing forward and closing down the ring to half its original size.  Unrestrained cries and hollers leapt from the crowd’s collective lungs.  Many waved their bets wildly in the air, their arms outstretched above the heated throng.  A clear view of the fight was difficult to manage as the action was so close to the ground.

    Death always came quickly, the loser knifed viciously within a quick thirty seconds.  The crowd’s roar rose and fell with each retreat, regrouping, and renewed charge of the two cocks until one of the birds fell, mortally wounded.  Suddenly the crowd grew quiet.  The ring master inspected the fallen cock as a referee would a pummeled boxer, or trauma doctor a victim of violent accident, pronouncing either a “TKO” or “DOA,” depending. 

    The victorious cock was then quickly scooped up of the ground by its owner.

    The climax of orgiastic violence now passed and results in, those who placed their bets circulated once again, either paying off losses or collecting winnings.  The ring master presented the victorious bird’s owner with the bloody carcass of the loser, who would take it home and eat it later that evening.

    Another lull in the action returned, and the entire sequence of events repeated itself once again once two more men came to a fighting decision.  Cock fights are open-ended events, and often continue as long as two challengers are willing to step forward.

    Cock fighting is a cultural institution in Tanah Toraja. It is a blood sport staged by and for men and is in keeping with the grand theme of animal sacrifice that is central to many rituals practiced by the Torajan peoples over the last seven hundred years.

    The Torajans resisted colonial interference by the Dutch until as late as 1905, entrenched in their mountainous stronghold in southern Sulawesi, two hundred and fifty kilometers north of Makassar. Though some 90% of modern days Torajans nominally claim Christianity as their professed religion, their animist ways are seen and felt much more strongly on the ground.

    Tourism in Toraja has a brief history.  Only thirty-five years ago did the Torajans open their sacred lands to outsiders.  Both the beauty of their highland valleys amongst towering cliffs, gorges, and mountain peaks; as well as their strange mortuary rites have compelled a world of travelers to beat a path to their door.  Toraja rapidly became Indonesia’s second most popular tourist destination; Bali being the first.

    However initially resistant the ruling class of Torajans was to the idea of allowing the outside world access to their culture, the profit motive was sufficiently strong enough to eventually win them over.  Acquisition of wealth was fully in keeping with Torajan cultural values anyway.  To be wealthy was a prerequisite to achieving high social and religious status in Torajan society.  Personal wealth in life allowed a Torajan to become a deified ancestor in death.  

    Toraja, also known as “Tator,” had all the right stuff to profit from tourism without sacrificing their culture.  Like the Balinese, they possessed a strong enough cultural identity to maintain their traditional values, beliefs, and practices in the face of commercial development while catering to an international tourist clientele.

    Even the sectarian violence that plagues the neighboring region to the east (in Poso and Tentana) has not significantly hurt the Torajan tourist trade.  Even more impressively, the Torajans have made sure to conserve the natural beauty and agricultural character of their land, wisely understanding that their bond to the earth was their most profound heritage, and made possible their entire civilization possible. 

    Tator is almost untouched by development, while Bali let itself go, becoming an island whose tourist areas now look and feel like theme parks dreamed up by the most crass and pandering of public relation minds employed by the likes of Disney corporation.   Tanah Toraja has opened up its sacred lands to tourism on its own terms, and so far seem to have done it with a self-interest tempered by self-respect, for both themselves and their cherished ancestors.

    What actually draws hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists- mainly Europeans- to Tanah Toraja each year?  The term “blood sport” comes into play again, but needs some qualification in all due respect to both the Torajans and the tourists involved.  The Torajan’s funeral ceremonies include the sacrifice of sometimes scores of animals, including chickens, dogs, pigs, and most notably, water buffaloes (kerbau or Te dong).  It is upon the soul of a dead water buffalo that the dead ride in the afterlife en route to “Puya,” (Land of Souls).  In order to accomplish this, buffaloes must be sacrificed, and the more the better. 

    Tourists attempt to coordinate their visit to Toraja with the scheduled event of a funeral- hopefully that of a noble or Torajan of wealth.  The higher the social rank of the dead, the greater the number of animals sacrificed- especially as counted in water buffaloes. 

    The rites surrounding Torajan funerals can be blood-letting spectacles few cultures in the world can compete with.  In terms of tourist attraction, the blood letting at a Torajan funeral is a major draw, but there are other compelling reasons to experience it.

    I am not exempt from this morbid curiosity either.  And who can blame a westerner for desiring a glimpse of blood?  We eat meet whose slaughter is hidden from public view.  And in terms of death, western death rites wrest the body of the dead out of the hands of their family ands into a mortuary home where “agents” apart from the family wash and embalm the body, family presence excluded.  The dead person is now referred to as a corpse. The corpse is now a “ward of the state;” a public health hazard and commodity for financial exploitation by the mortuary industry.  And a coroner must determine cause of death in order to certify death for the public record.  Otherwise estates and inheritances cannot be distributed.  This conveniently coincides with Christian mores which views a dead body as wholly diminished in value.  The soul has moved on as of the moment of passing.

    Death in the West is removed from sight and smell as well.  It is sanitized and often a taboo subject to discussion.  “Death anxiety” is a psychological disturbance that has been given clinical status in the American Psychiatric Clinical Desk Reference.  Torajan society gives the outsider, however morbidly curious; an opportunity to consider not so much a different “vision” of death, but to suggest that a much more direct and expanded set of mortuary rites surrounding the conception and handling of a dead body will give rise to a profound bonding with ancestors and heaven.

    For a Torajan, when somebody dies, he or she is still thought of as being amongst the living.  Rather, the newly dead is considered to be incurably ill.  The sickness is always thought of as located in the head, as the hair rumples within days after death.  The Torajans believe the head hair is rumpled as caused by the soul exiting the body via the head.  The spirit moving through the hair is likened to a wind, and once the spirit has passed on, rumpling the hair in the process, the Torajans declare the death decree-“his wind stops.”

    The soul then roams its home village, not yet allowed passage from the earthly realm.  Meanwhile, the family sets to task saving the money to pay for a proper funeral, and this period of time may take weeks, months, or even years.  During the interim the dead body is wrapped and laid to rest inside the family home where it is treated as a living person.  In the immediate days following death, family will often sleep next to the body.  Meals are prepared and placed next to the wrapped body as well.  Offerings of betel nut and tobacco are also placed before the deceased by both relatives and friends.

    Once enough money is saved and rice collected, the grieving family can call upon the death priest to commence with the death ritual.  Only then do the incurably ill officially become the truly dead.  This momentous day is deemed the day of “sending out breath,” and the death priest kills one buffalo which is symbolic of the deceased’s real death.  Depending upon the deceased’s social ranking and wealth, the death ritual can last for several days, and in some Torajan villages followed additional mortuary rites.  In any case, many pigs and buffaloes are ritually slaughtered and eaten on the spot.  During the ceremony, the death priest performs many functions: symbolically wrapping the corpse, sacrificing the animals, cutting up the meat for distribution, and officiating at soul offerings.

    Closure to this initial death ritual comes as the dead is buried in a temporary coffin, again placed in the family house.  A waiting period of one or two years then ensues until the second funeral ceremony commences.  It is only at this stage in an already long-term process that the tourist observer comes upon the scene.  If it is the funeral of a noble or rich individual, elaborate preparations must be made before hand and include the construction of temporary ritual structures in front of which lies a ceremonial field called the “rante.”  In the center of the rante is built a structure representational of the traditional Torajan house, called the “tongkonan.”  Next to it is erected a meat tower.  Water buffaloes are slaughtered in the rante and are tied to megalithic-style stones planted upright in the earth.  Traditionally the rante was razed to the earth by fire after the funeral, but now they are preserved for future use.

    Once preparations are completed, the funeral procession is scheduled carefully making allowances for mourners’ abilities to come and take part.  A funeral cortege at the funeral of a rich noble can number in the thousands. Pall bearers carry the dead to a funeral site in a bier resembling a tongkonan.  Just behind and in procession, the surviving spouse is carried aloft on a platform, sitting in mourning inside a black tent.  Third in line is lofted an effigy of the dead.  Attached to the bier are arms of a red badge which are stretched out and carried along side by grieving relatives.  A chant for the dead is sung, and the procession follows with gong beaters, war dancers, and buffaloes led by ropes secured to nose rings.

    But this only marks the first of what may be many days of funeral rites.  Several more days of ceremony can follow, and will include formal reception of mourners, buffalo fighting and slaughtering, badong dancing, cockfighting, and plenty of eating and drinking.  The favored alcoholic brew is palm wine, served in sectional lengths of bamboo. A festival-like atmosphere prevails amongst the mourners and guests.  In between scheduled ceremonial events, people lounge and lunch picnic-style on the greens of the rante, socializing and playing cards.

    At this final funeral ceremony, arguably the most important event is the slaughtering of a superior buffalo whose horns and hump are extraordinarily large, for it is upon the back of the soul of this buffalo that the dead soul will most safely and securely be transported to Puya.  This buffalo’s slaughter signals the actual transition between life and death.  The journey to Puya is potentially perilous and always arduous.  A strong buffalo is added security.  The deceased’s surviving family has a lot vested in the journey, as once the dead soul has arrived; it is transformed into a deified ancestor who has the power to confer luck and prosperity upon the surviving relatives in the world of the living.

    Of equal interest, and recalling an earlier theme concerning cultural preservation, concerns how the Torajans have managed to synthesize their native religion of ancestral worship with Christianity.  How is it that such death rituals and ancestral deification can be reconciled with Christian beliefs?  The answer is a complex one, but elevates our view while providing another living example of how the complicated reality of modern day religious life in Indonesia weaves together a whole from the strands of religious influence that at first appear incongruous and even anathemas to each other.

    The Torajan creation myth and cosmology draws some parallels with those of Christianity.  In the beginning, there was an a priori Torajan god, who was the creator. The Torajans call him Puang Matua.  At creation’s genesis perfection prevailed, and there was no opposing dualism between heaven and earth.  Adam and Eve lived in Eden; naked without shame before the eyes of the Lord.  Earth was as heaven.  In Torajan mythology, a celestial ladder connected heaven to earth, and the first humans created by Puang Matua could freely climb up and down the ladder between the two harmonious spheres.

    After Eve was seduced by the snake and ate the forbidden apple, there was the Christian fall from a state of grace.  Torajan myth speaks of a fall as well, referred to as the “Myth of the Broken Celestial Ladder to Heaven.” 

    The myth recounts how two slaves were sent up the celestial ladder by the second generation of original humans in order to ask Puang Matua if two of their children- one boy and one girl- could wed one another.  There existed so few humans at this juncture in creation that finding a marriage partner was well nigh impossible!  The two slaves found the trip up the ladder so long and exhausting that they turned back before completing their journey, and upon their return, lied to their masters, telling them that Puang Matua had bestowed his blessing on the marriage proposal.

    A marriage ceremony was held, but Puang Matua was enraged as he actually held incest as taboo.  He proceeded to turn the wedding site into a lake, drowning everyone in attendance.  This took place in a site that is part of present day Toraja, interestingly called “Erotic Mountain.”  The psycho-sexual parallels existing between the Christian myth of Eve eating the forbidden fruit and the violation of the incest taboo in Torajan creation lore qualifies for serious consideration!  Sexual shame can be interpreted to exist at the core of both the Christian “fall’ and the Torajan “Breaking of the Celestial ladder to Heaven.”

    Subsequently, a dualistic world followed in both mythologies- a world divided into opposites- heaven and earth; god and man; good and evil.  And in Torajan cosmology, this applies to directionality as well.  North is the head of the earth, and south, its tail.  The head of the earth points towards heaven and together with the east- the direction whereupon the sun rises- create the “sphere of life.”  South points towards Puya, the “Land of Souls,” and together with the west, where the sunsets, creates the “sphere of death.”  Offerings to god are mad by priests who do so facing north and east.  Priests facing south and west make their offering to the ancestors, who live in the “Land of the Souls.”

    Finally, upon death and after the completion of the mortuary rites already described, the dead person’s soul rides its buffalo’s soul to Puya where it will meet its judge.  Both Christian and Torajan myth have their own version of Judgment Day.

    It is no wonder that an astute Dutch missionary stationed by the Dutch government in Tanah Toraja during the second decade of the twentieth century reasoned that these distinct parallels between Christian and Torajan myths could be used to help convert the Torajans into good Christians.

    The leader of the Calvinist Mission Alliance, Van de Loosdrecht, happened to be that man.  He also knew he could make appeals to the Torajan’s based on yet other grounds- that both Torajan and Christian religions had a genealogical basis where deified ancestors were worshipped and helped transmit the covenant and commandments of god down to man.  Abraham, Noah, Moses, and other Old Testament patriarchs appealed to the Torajan sense of ancestral reverence.

    But conversion could not succeed by means of leveraging myths and genealogies alone. Van de Loosdrect had to employ more concrete measures.  In time, he was able to discover the Achille’s Heel of Torajan society and exploit it with deft brilliance.  The Torajan civilization had a fatal weakness- it practiced slavery.  Slaves came in two varieties- those by right of heredity, and those forced into servitude as a result of being captured in wars between village chiefs.  Hereditary slaves were especially a vanquished lot.  Their ancestors having been slaves- the lowest social rankings in Torajan society- permanently placed them into a lifetime of unpaid work at the behest of Torajan nobles.  There was no possible escape from their lot in life, as ancestral lineage was all-important in the delineation of Torajan social hierarchy.

    Slavery was still a functioning system in the early years of the twentieth century in Torajan society.   The social rank just above that of slaves- the commoners- didn’t have things much easier.  Van de Loosdrecht made a direct appeal to these groups who constituted the Torajan underclass.  He offered them free education in Dutch-built schools whose construction he both ordered and supervised.  The presence of the Dutch military insured his plan would proceed peacefully as the Torajan nobility were none too happy with the idea.  Van de Loosdrect was also able to count on the Dutch government to fund this special program, as Dutch colonialism had become progressively more ethical in the fair treatment of at least some Indonesian peoples.  A generation earlier, and it would have been the case.

    It was in the interest of the Dutch to attempt converting the Torajans, as the Torajans had successfully turned away Buginese invasions of the past; resisting in turn conversion to Islam.  The establishment of a Christian enclave in South Sulawesi, a most militantly devout stronghold of Islam, would be of strategic importance to the Dutch, who were having great difficulty in subduing Sulawesi and bringing it under political and economic control, even as late as 1920.

    Most crucial to Van de Loosdrecht’s conversion scheme was the cooperation and enthusiastic response the Torajan underclass offered in return for a free Dutch education.  The slaves and commoners were looking for a way to throw off the shackles of strict control that Torajan nobles had held over them for centuries.  Torajans are known as hard working, ambitious people, and the underclass was no exception.  They had ambitions of their own, and knew a Dutch education- a most sought after perquisite by some Indonesians- would free them economically, even though it would mean having to leave their homeland to seek the kind of work such an education would prepare them for.  But even permanent displacement from their homeland was better than a lifetime of toil in a soggy rice field over-lorded by hereditarily-determined masters.

    Van de Loostrecht included religious training as part of the educational curriculum, and shrewdly inculcated the young Torajan students with the notion that Torajan society had long been in degeneration, having grown progressively more repressive and corrupt following the “Breaking of the Celestial Ladder to Heaven.”  He was able to successfully convince the children- and in turn their parents- that the saving graces of Christianity would restore their own god, Puang Matua, back to his rightful position of beneficent power and make right the wrongs that men had wrought in the land of the living.  Moreover, Van de Loostrecht was able to convince the students that Puang Matua was one in the same as the Christian god.

    His plan worked, and within the span of one generation, half of all Torajans had converted.  The old Torajan guard was allowed to continue their traditional practices, too, which not only placated the rich and noble, but insured the preservation of their seven hundred year old religious rites.  And like so many other cases across the archipelago, a revolutionary religion took hold, fusing two seemingly antithetical doctrines together into a new, dynamic whole. 

    Any visitor to Toraja can better appreciate the strange and unique sights this exotic land offers bearing this history in mind.  The stone graves hand-chiseled high into the sides of vertical cliffs with adjoining stone balconies filled with hand carved effigies of family ancestors looking out over rice fields take on deeper meaning.  One can sense the presence of ancestral spirits; their concrete representations in life-size form complete in likeness to the deceased; there to confer blessings of health and prosperity upon all they survey.  One may even walk away filled with wonder having experienced such a spiritually imaginative invention that celebrates the dead and literally raises them above the land of the living but still within sight, keeping their souls close and within touch of the senses.  Morbidity and obsession with death seem out of place in such a setting.

    At ground level, there are some villages that have appropriated caves as burial sites where less wealthy Torajans can keep the skeletal remains of their family members amongst the outcroppings and nooks and crannies of rock.  Stacks of leg and arm bones sit in piles next to skulls, and though no one is allowed to move or pick up the remains, they can be touched.  As I cupped my hand around the cranial vault of a green tinted skull in one such ossuary, there was no accompanying sensation of revulsion or sense of violation.  Deep inside my body and mind, death was made more real, and restored to its natural place in the order of things.  The sensation was at once physically calming, and spiritually righting. 

    What may have been a confusing muddle of a disarrayed firmament suddenly became an ordered cosmos as my hand gently rested upon the aging skull.  What was most startling was how comfortable the skull felt in my hand.  At that moment in time I could not conceive of any higher function my hand could fulfill than to be resting there, as if the wisdom of the ancients was channeling up through my hand and arm into my heart and mind.

    In the West, death is taken from us, and in turn we not only fear it, but deny ourselves a deeper understanding of life in the process.  A double loss occurs, and in our ignorance, fear becomes almost irrevocable.

    My paternal grandfather died when I was thirteen years of age.  I had been particularly close to him, and to this day I feel the loss of being prohibited to attend his funeral.  My parents, uncle, and aunt decided none of the grandchildren save the eldest should be allowed to attend; that our age was to tender and the experience too potentially traumatizing to be risked on us.

    What a grave mistake that was.  I can only imagine it would have enraged my grandfather, who dearly loved all his grandchildren.  Later, my father agreed to show me a photo of my grandfather in his open coffin; dressed in a blue suit with tie; his face sunken and pasty white.  The visage as seen in a clinically cold, color photograph was horrifying.  At the time I didn’t know why, but it just was. 

    Now I can intellectually understand what at the time I could only emotionally feel.  Instinct told me this was the wrong way to view a dead ancestor, regardless of my age.  Today I can attach an explanation.  This experience was one of dehumanizing thievery.  Simultaneously, my grandfather and his grandchildren were robbed of the rite of mourning, and our disrespected humanity diminished in the process.

    I don’t think I ever forgave anybody responsible, but that is my failing, not theirs.  However, that drives the point’s steely blade deeper home.  My obstinate unforgiving was bred by the older generation’s ignorant fear.  The connections were clear.

    It was also becoming clearer why the Indonesians did not fear death.  To say their fear was better invested in knowing where the next rupiah was coming from rather than when the grim reaper would make his entrance would probably strike them as cause for howling laughter.  But I am a product of a society whose taboos include the most universal of human experiences- death.  Some people never marry, have children, nor have sexual relations.  But we all must die.  I knew my understanding was still in an embryonic state.

    I only know that some mysterious things happened to me in Tanah Toraja, which at the time was enough to make me want to double back on the next bus out of town.  The trip into Toraja was a grueling ten hour bus ride starting in Makassar and traveling north along the coast route until reaching the turn off which wound its way high up into the highland to the east.  Arriving in Rantepao at 9:00 PM, and checked into Wisma Maria, the first-ever hotel to open its doors to tourists in Tanah Toraja some thirty-five years ago. 
    Rantepao is the largest town in Tanah Toraja, situated in the heart of the Torajan homeland.  It was a moonless night, the sky so inky black that it seemed to suck up the artificial night lights into a light sink, as would a black hole in some distant realm of the universe.

    Lugging my baggage upstairs into a depressingly shabby rectangular prism of a room, I felt like I had just paid to sleep for a few days in a prison cell.  A fifteen watt bulb was screwed into a socket in the ceiling above me, casting eerie shadows across the paint- flaked walls.  An aging wash basin stained by years of hard water flowing across its chipped surface stood attached to the wall across the room a few feet from my sunken bed mattress supported by a creaking metal frame.  A broken mirror hung above the wash basin.  Rattling about the room was a huge, black, flying beetle, bouncing noisily off the walls, its wings generating a train of crackling pulses, mad with desire to escape the room’s prison-like confines.

    Scenes as such would repeat themselves again several times during my travels throughout Indonesia, but it was early in my journey, and I wasn’t yet accustomed to the charms of such lodging.  Wired-up with eye lids pinned open as I usually was after hours of travel, I laid on the bed staring at the ceiling, my head buzzing with its own nest of flying beetles bouncing off the inside of my skull.

    Eventually I managed to fall asleep, though being in the heart of Toraja gave me an unsettled feeling.  As often is my habit, I didn’t manage to turn off the sole room light.  Succumbing to a Hieronymus Bosch-like nightmare, I was transported into the horrors of my recently ended professional life and career as a private school teacher; a scenario whose story line was a rerun, but whose presentation values were pure Hollywood; complete with special effects, and six channel sound. 

    The accompanying mental and emotional reactions were completely true-to-life.  It was the kind of nightmare where the terror drives your adrenalin glands to pumping, and you begin to force a conversation with yourself in a rarely visited corner of the brain’s limbic closet set aside for Richter scale ten nightmares in order to wake yourself and pry your terrorized unconscious out it its hell.

    But my awakening was caused by a startling and wholly unusual event- a full blown audio hallucination.  The force of a high decibel, sustained alarm suddenly blasted me out of my dream and onto my feet, but I was sure it had an external source.  It was a sound a professional at torture could use to drive a man insane, like an electronic synthesis of a thousand screaming harpies being stung by a swarm of angry hornets angered at being trapped inside my skull.  I stumbled around the room as if an air raid siren had just sounded, attempting to locate the sound source.  The sound seemed to emanate from all points surrounding, as if the room had been emerged in the point source itself.

    After an interminable ten seconds, the sound abruptly terminated.  All was calm outside the hotel room.  I looked at my watch.  It was 1:10 AM.  Nothing and no one seemed disturbed.  My conscious sense returned- acute, and active.  Suddenly I realized it could only mean one thing- I was hearing a sound from inside my brain.  My psyche had been ringing off-the-hook.

    Only once before had I experienced such sonic hell.  At the age of four, I lie on a gurney in a hospital recovery room, having just been given a tonsillectomy. Surfacing from the effects of ether, a now outmoded anesthesia whose side effects are hallucinogenic, I was cast into a synesthetic hell of pulsating lights and grating, electronic-like noises.  The hospital staff left me to scream until I had fully recovered consciousness.  I was sure I had been abandoned to a hellish world for an eternity.

    So forty-nine years later in a gritty hotel room in Tanah Toraja I experienced a flashback of sorts.  Somehow managing to fall asleep again, I awoke a few hours later with the light of day and sat up; staring at the wash basin with its broken mirror across from my bed. 

    I suddenly realized that a grand catharsis had just been triggered inside of me.  The fear and loathing and years of depression which had grown knotty roots throughout my brain and body had been given a violent yanking, like a pair of pliers taken to a rotting molar.  I knew instantly that it would be a long process; that several more nightmares would necessarily follow; that the process would be a great psychic trial.  I would also have to busy myself during my waking hours with supplanting my former life- now dead and decomposing- with a new, vital path.  I also knew I would be unmoored for a long period of time, not unlike the dead spirits of Toraja who roamed the village where they had lived all their life; not yet allowed passage to Puya, the Land of Souls.  Proper funeral rites of this past life had not yet taken place, and there was this transitional period during which I would be on the roam, too.  “He not busy being born is busy dying,”- yes; but the message in Toraja was more profound.  “He must busy himself with death in order to live again, reborn.”

    I struggled to ready myself for the busy day ahead, as I had scheduled a guided tour of several Torajan villages.  As I was taken from one grave site to another, I slowly emerged from the fog of my nightmares’ trauma, and it was in that cave when I cupped around the aging, green-tinted skull that the inklings of a new life started its sideways creep into my peripheral vision.  That life begets death and death, in turn, begets life had suddenly become a concrete reality, and I was holding it securely, pressed tightly but comfortably up against my palm. 

    It was in Tanah Toraja that my road to a new life had its first light of day.  However unsteady and off-balanced I was- taken off-guard and thrown into a journey that would test me in unpredictable ways in strange places and with unknown people-a certain faith still informed my senses and had entered my blood stream.  That I would carry it through somehow seemed certain; even though I couldn’t fathom how it would be done.  There was no plan; no twelve steps; no prescribed path to enlightenment; only a long and winding journey that afforded few glimpses of what was ahead.  Surrender was essential though, and I had to allow the forces at work to draw me along the path created for the journey.

    Looking back, I can say the path has led me here; to this written page. And in Tanah Toraja, they say life faces East, and death faces West; that North points to heaven; and South to the land of souls. 

    Somehow, the compass fits in the palm of the human hand, and all four directions we will in turn inevitably face and follow.