Tana Toraja and Madagascar

Terrace farming, Sulawesi

Terrace farming, Madagascar

As I’ve said many times before, much of what is great about traveling in so many different places, especially within a relatively short timeframe, is that many connections can be made.

As you may know, the Malagasy (as the people of Madagascar are called), although they live just off of the coast of southeastern Africa, originally came not from Africa but from Asia. The Austronesian ethnic group arrived by boat from now Indonesia (across all those thousands of miles of Indian Ocean), and settled on the huge island of Madagascar over a thousand years ago. The island was not yet significantly inhabited by Africans from the mainland, who have arrived since to intermarry with the Asian Malagasy. To this day, especially in the highlands of central Madagascar, people look pretty much Southeast Asian. Even relatively African or dark-skinned Malagasy, as you find on the western coast, are quick to distinguish themselves from “black” Africans, who are thought of as a somewhat inferior race. (One man, who was to us indistinguishable from a black mainland African, when we said that we were American, remarked that we too had “red” people like him.)

Although we had not been to Indonesia or Malaysia prior to our Madagascar trip, some “Asian” aspects of the Malagasy were obvious to us. First, as I mentioned, many Malagasy look Asian. Second, they speak an Austronesian language that I understand is most closely related to a language spoken on Borneo. Third, they grow rice, and not the grains common to mainland Africa. Now in Tana Toraja in southern Sulawesi, I see even more clearly the genuine cultural closeness that the Malagasy retain to their Indonesian ancestors.

The most distinctive and telling of the new connections I have made is funerary customs. When we visited Madagascar in 2005, we had read much about the unusual local traditions, including the infamous famadihana, or the turning of the bones, in which the bodies of the deceased are disinterred so that they can be covered in a clean shroud and reburied. The custom may seem quite morbid to us, but it is really a huge celebration demonstrating the Malagasy connection to their ancestors, a continuation beyond death of the familial relationship. We were in Madagascar during famadihana “season,” but did not have the fortune to be invited to an event, which are, perhaps thankfully in this age of mass tourism, still largely private affairs.

We are now in Tana Toraja (the “land of the Toraja”) in central south Sulawesi, and learn that they have similar funerary traditions, including a ceremony remarkably similar to the famadihana. Again we did not see any such disinterment, but we were fortunate enough to be invited to and present for part of a Torajan funeral–alas, tourism here has caught up to tradition. Upon the death of a loved one, the body is left within the home for up to one year (and continues to be treated as a member of the family), until an elaborate funeral ceremony is prepared for after the next harvest. The Torajan relationship to the dead to be at least as intimate as the Malagasy one. Some pictures of a Torajan funeral:

The elaborately decorated coffin and the “emcee”

A team of women working a local drum-like instrument

The location of the funeral, a rectangular lawn surrounded by traditional houses. The people walking alongside the left of the picture represent one of many delegations paying their respects to the deceased, bringing with them gifts of livestock. One water buffalo has already been killed and skinned. We were not there for the day of the great slaughter, but were told that up to fifty animals would be sacrificed.

The Malagasy and the Torajans are also similar in their unusual choices of burial locations. We saw cliffside tombs in Madagascar, and, in Sulawesi, coffins in cliffs, caves and trees. All in all, most unusual.

Tombs cut out in a cliff, Sulawesi

Detail of the “tau tau” effigies protecting the tombs

Coffins hanging on the side of a cliff, Sulawesi

Tree tombs for babies, Sulawesi

Cave tombs, Sulawesi

Cliff tombs, Madagascar

There are many other connections. Both the Torajans and the Malagasy have caste systems. Both the Torajans and the Malagasy excel at terrace farming of rice. Both the Torajans and the Malagasy place great value in the ownership of cattle (water buffalo, especially albinos, in Sulawesi; zebu in Madagascar), the number of animals in particular being a primary indicator of status in excess of the actual utility the animals provide. If there was any doubt that the Malagasy indeed came from Southeast Asia… The persistence of culture over hundreds of years and thousands of miles is truly astonishing.

Zebu market, Madagascar

An albino water buffalo, the most prized of all, Sulawesi

7 thoughts on “Tana Toraja and Madagascar

  1. Bit of a mix-up with the Zebu market and the Madagascar rice farming pics here.
    Otherwise great photos and story, as usual.

  2. nice blog ,, you’ve been travel to toraja ,, and thats nice .. I’m
    torajan. you are a very lucky man cuz no one place in the world like toraja. world culture heritage. ^_^

  3. I really enjoyed your post… Thanks for it!

    Along the numerous population displacement in Africa, the people of madagascar are very Asian like…
    I've been searching for Malagasy roots for years and once came across a documentary on the Toraja…

    Like you, I'm convinced by their affiliation.

    By the way, do you have any note on the Jarawa: a tribe originated from Africa living in some Indian islands since ages.

    Cheers, hope to read you soon on challenging and interesting topics 😉

  4. Interesting information,

    I knew some for Toraja tradition, since I'm from Sulawesi but the connection with Madagascar tradition is something new for me

    Thanks anyway
    Keep posting,

  5. Wow, I don’t know how you managed to tie these things together, I had never thought about the connection until now. 2 of my craziest experiences relating to death happen to be attending a turning of the bones ceremony and a Torajan funeral. Great stuff! Travel on!

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