mad in pursuit

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The Tau Tau: Looking for the Real Thing

the tau tau in our homeThe eyes engage me first. They are wide and worried, staring off into the distance, a woman looking for her children or watching for her husband’s boat on the horizon. Her mouth is a quiet line, betraying no emotion. Her naked breasts point straight down – an old matron. My husband takes this top half of the sculpture and fits it into the slot connecting it to the rest. He sets her upright on rotted feet and attaches the forearms. She is three feet tall. I run my hands over the weathered fruitwood.

“I got her at that new place on Jefferson Avenue,” Jim says. “It’s a tau tau. Barry just brought it back from Indonesia.” Jim doesn’t know what a tau tau is any more than I do but is attracted by her spare beauty. Our learning begins.

Some people go on pilgrimages to find their roots in Europe or West Africa or Korea, while others go to connect with their spiritual centers: Rome or Mecca or Jerusalem. My husband and I traveled to Tana Toraja – a collection of towns in the rice country of South Sulawesi — to see where the tau tau came from.

I’m sophisticated enough to understand that removing her from the context of her culture to admire her form and texture in our living room transforms her into Primitive Art. So sue me. We are Westerners, no denying it, who – like our colonial ancestors – love to buy neat stuff – not Airport Art, but Authentic objects imbued with the power of having been used by their makers in local rituals. The tau tau is changed by entering our home, but so are we by studying her.

This attitude usually keeps me satisfied, but the tau tau is different. The dealer drops off a book that has pictures and a bit of explanation. She is dryly described as an ancestor effigy but it is the photos that move me. Dozens of fully clothed tau taus are lined up on a high balcony set into a cliff. They look down over a village and I see in them the same wistful longing that I see in the eyes of our tau tau. The image has great power for me and suddenly our naked tau tau seems far from home.

As any collector of material culture knows, the passage of artifacts into the hands of private or public collections is fraught with controversy, raising the specter of sacrilege and crime. The high ground is claimed by the countries or tribes of origin who decry the loss of their cultural patrimony – even if it is their own people who sell off heirlooms or rob graves to make a quick buck. Collectors and curators, however, often claim to have preserved the artifacts from war, pollution, and the inability of poor countries to protect their heritage sites from vandals and the kind of thief who would knock the head off an intact statue because it’s more portable and nearly as profitable. As in any debate, there are extremists and conciliators on both sides.

Dealers become the arbiters of this system. Their dollars and sense of ethics (more and more guided by treaties and laws) determine whether cultural treasures and sacred places are desecrated or whether duplicative material can reasonably be shared to raise excitement and learning about another culture. We were never clear how Barry laid his hands on our tau tau – whether he’d picked it up from one of the roughhewn shops on Kebor Sirih Timur Street in Jakarta or went to Sulawesi himself to collude with a common thief. His shop closed and he left town by the time we knew enough to ask.

We decided to go to Sulawesi ourselves to learn as much as we could, like parents of a foreign-adopted child anxious to understand her culture, to be the best guardians possible of our new charge.

In January 1997, we set out.

Sulawesi is roughly south of the Philippines and north of Bali, east of what used to be Borneo and west of what used to be New Guinea. Sulawesi used to be Celebes and occupies that part of the ocean where they still make grand sailing ships by hand on the beaches to transport lumber and rice among the remote islands. We fly from Bali into the provincial capitol of Ujung Pandung. It is as far from anything familiar as I can think of.

The coastal areas of this skewed-X-shaped island are occupied by ancient seafaring people, the Makassars and the Bugis, who are Moslems. In the interior of  South Sulawesi (the lower left leg of the X) is Tana Toraja, or Torajaland, where the people still engage in the pagan practice of Aluk To Dolo, the Way of the Ancestors.

We arrive from across the planet expecting a place as different as different can be and the first thing we hear is… American music. Our guide is a slim young man who speaks impeccable American English, even though he’s never left Sulawesi. Yunus learned it from the music, and is mad for women pop vocalists: Barbra Streisand, Roberta Flack, Anne Murray, Celine Dion. He is very serious about its value as a teaching tool and wrote his college thesis on the subject, but he is hardly an anomaly. The restaurant in our hotel features a horrifying singer who, not having a firm grip on the melody, goes on to mangle the rock and roll lyrics, apparently having honed his craft in the city’s popular karaoke bars.

There’s a certain disappointment in traveling to the ends of the earth and finding the Beatles have gotten there before you. I want The Real Thing, The Genuine Article – the Other. We have just come from Bali, where indigenous music permeates the air, so my first thought in Ujung Pandung is that these people have a lot to learn from Bali about nurturing tourism. But wait. Are the Sulawesi people less Authentic playing rock & roll because they like it than the Balinese who never play American music in public places because it wouldn’t be Authentic?

As a romantic I love the idea of preserving isolated cultures, yet I can’t help but think there’s some benefit in messing around with one another’s ideas. Yunus tells us the story of a blood feud that occurred when one of his uncles – Makassarese – fell in love with a Bugis woman. So we tell him the story of Romeo and Juliet.

Our main objective in Sulawesi is Torajaland and learning more about the context of our tau tau. As luck would have it, a seven-day funeral for a noblewoman is just beginning there, so we jump in the car and head for the highlands amid a driving monsoon rain and strains of Roberta Flack killing me softly with her song.

Quickly we understand that death – or more specifically the funeral – is the center of Torajan culture. Funerals last for days, every day as elaborate a production as the most posh of American weddings. We enter the town of Makale in time to see some impromptu mock bullfights in a field – the bulls’ last chance to romp before being sacrificed. The town’s main street has been converted to an elaborate funeral ground, with seating and double-decker rows of draped  booths where families and friends can rest and socialize. We stop for awhile at Booth 58, which has been reserved for one of Yunus’ cousins.

On the drive up it was hard not to worry if we’d be experiencing The Real Thing – an Authentic Torajan Funeral – or some watered down Disneyfied spectacle to bring in tourist dollars. This demonstrates both my cynicism and my naivete. I want the performance but I don’t want them to perform for my benefit. Just act natural, I want to say as I snap my camera in their faces, realizing in the same moment that the locals find us to be an amusing spectacle in our own right, what with our hats and gadgets and photojournalist vests.

What we find is The Real Thing all right. Torajan culture is not moribund; they are not a sad troop of Seminoles putting on a show in front of a museum. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to think they haven’t already been profoundly changed by Dutch colonialists, Christian missionaries, and a powerful Indonesian government with a knack for new schemes to jam 300 ethnic groups into a semblance of coherent nationhood.

Like other modernizing cultures, their rituals have become less religious and more secular, less elitist and more democratized, yet the funeral still dominates. It not only forges the everlasting links with ancestors in the Land of the Souls, it also establishes the social and economic ranking in the community. Anthropologist Robyn Thompson refers to them as “tournaments of value, competitive events where power is manifest and status contested… Wealth is measured… by the elaborateness of the funeral, the number and status of those attending, the quantity and quality of buffaloes sacrificed and by the public display of other heirloom objects.” In fact, actual inheritance of rice fields is determined by which of the eligible relatives sacrifices the most bulls. As prosperity and democratic values seep into the culture more commoners are investing in buffaloes and joining the upward mobility that the funeral-driven economy can offer.

We join the funeral frenzy. The next day we stand along the street to watch the parade of guests – friends and relatives decked out in clan uniforms – line up with their offerings, the ladies with symbolic food and household items, the men with pigs trussed up on poles and buffaloes led by nose rings. They walk up steps through a building to the sacrifice grounds, closed off to us. Now and then a man runs by with the bloody head of a fresh-killed bull. Despite the unfolding of this status drama, it is endless and we grow restless to see the tau taus.

Because this is a seven-day funeral, a tau tau, commissioned in the image of the dead woman, is here somewhere as part of the ritual. Only the most elite, who can afford a seven-day funeral, employ a tau tau and its work would have started months ago, going something like this:

The old woman dies. It’s a big deal because she owns a lot of rice fields and is extremely wealthy. Her family has also contributed a lot of buffaloes to other Torajan funerals and it’s time to get paid back. But it’s going to take months to plan for such a big event. They can’t afford to have her declared dead yet so she is shrouded in many layers of cloth and laid out in the central room of the house. She is referred to as sick and provided with symbolic bits of food and betel leaf, which lull her soul to sleep so that it doesn’t make any mischief (like causing illness or disturbing sleep). (The Torajans have become secularized enough to embalm the body during this sickness, although Yunus told us his grandmother had not been embalmed and the stench was overpowering – an incentive not to dawdle over the plans.)


With grandma "sick," her family figures out how many water buffaloes and pigs will have to be sacrificed during the funeral to ease her reluctant spirit into the Land of the Souls (as well as to decide the heir of the rice fields and to preserve the family’s wealth ranking in the community). When they finally decide on the scope of the funeral, they commission the tau tau, which is carved from the wood of a newly felled jackfruit tree, aged, rubbed with coconut oil, and finally smeared with the blood of a sacrificed pig. Wrapped in a white sarong and sleeping mat, the tau tau is laid in a sleeping position next to the cadaver.

The tau tau is grandma’s visible soul.

At midnight on the day we arrive, a fire-lighting ceremony is held and her family finally acknowledges her death. The tau tau is awakened and stood upright. With that, the soul of the noblewoman is activated and free to roam around the funeral grounds checking things out.


We are not privy to the cadaver (this is definitely not a tourist extravaganza!), but we’re told that the cadaver, the invisible soul, and the visible soul (i.e., the tau tau) will be together throughout the seven days. If there are processions, the tau tau may be carried by the woodcarver who made her. He may manipulate her arms and move her head from side to side to show her vitality and her pleasure at the enormous sacrifices being made.


If grandma’s soul is happy with the funeral and adequately cleansed by the sacrifices, she will slowly move "south" to the Land of the Souls. If not, instead of assuming her role as revered ancestor bringing future good fortune to her family, she will become a restless and angry ghost.


We leave the procession to begin our exploration of Torajan gravesites. Although the richest of Torajans now build themselves flashy poured concrete mausoleums, sporting the tau tau in a glass case at the entrance, traditionally the graves are dug into the side of cliffs, high enough to protect them from grave robbers. The caskets are boat-shaped, like the elaborately carved houses and rice barns, which have led some scholars to think this landlocked people may have come from across the sea, perhaps from Cambodia. When the casket is sealed into its cliffside niche, the tau tau, relieved of its solemn duty as escort for the soul, is then provided an honored place in a gallery near the tomb and overlooking the village or fields.


We drive to the cliffs at Marante. It’s a quiet place where a few boys are playing. In shallow caves under a rocky overhang about 40 feet above us, the tau taus are lined up. They are old enough for their clothes to have faded to white. The vision of them is solemn and powerful – an odd community of watchers. Even more disturbing – a mystery we never get an explanation for – is the fact that many of the tombs are broken open. Amid the scattered old caskets are piles of human bones and bleached skulls neatly lined up in a macabre parody of the watching tau taus. The boys play among them unperturbed.


Royal tau tau at SuayaOver the next two days, we visit three other sites: Lemo, where we meet Yunus’ uncle; the royal graves at Suaya; and the hanging graves at Kete Kesu. Each has a distinctive flavor. Lemo is neat as a pin, with long tau tau galleries laboriously chiseled into solid rock, with wooden guard rails to prevent the brown-faced tau taus from tumbling off. Suaya has an ancient feel and the tau taus are totally faded to the same pale gray as their stone balconies, crowded in a way that makes them appear to be melting into one another.


Kete Kesu is a prosperous carving village that boasts the most elaborate of modern sarcophagi but their ancient coffins, which hang from the cliffs, are dilapidated and fallen open like the ones at Marante. Like Marante, the long bones are piled into common heaps and the skulls are lined up with their eyes facing the village. The tau tau gallery is not the shallow balcony typical of the other sites. A large grotto in the cliff has been fitted with a front wall of rounded stones, which has a neat oblong opening about three feet above the path – a proscenium stage. 


Inside, tau taus of many generations are grouped in a tableau stunningly like a the obligatory family portrait at a reunion. They huddle in various seated and standing poses, leaning in toward one another, adults holding children on their laps.  With the nod of a guard we draw closer and peer inside. tau tau at Kete KesuBehind the seated group, fitting the natural contours and bumps of the cave, a dozen more are standing in casual clusters as if they are having conversations at a cocktail party. As I write this I am staring at the pictures we took. The weather-beaten figures are chillingly undead, gazing out, their inlaid eyes wide with solemn watchfulness, creatures of duty and obligation completed, locked in timelessness.



I shift from the photographs to the “live” tau tau in our living room. She is still naked, even though I strung some strands of yellow and red trade beads around her neck. For a while I wrapped her in a sarong because the tau taus in Torajaland had clothes, but it looked stupid. I have to remind myself she is Primitive Art now. A fish out of water is… not a fish anymore. For a while I thought she might be returned to the niche she was stolen from, but there is no going back. A hooked fish can’t enter the same river twice. Her fate will be a museum.


I sent Yunus a CD of West Side Story and a CD of James Taylor, because by some quirk of the gods of karaoke, Yunus had never heard of him. And we sent him books banned by the Suharto regime. Life is not a culture museum.



Added Sept 9, 2014. Nice YouTube video showing the tautau galleries:

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