Ghosts of Sulawesi

2004, Society  -  51 min Leave a Comment
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The dance these men are performing indicates that in a small village called Kete someone important has just died. Now his relatives must organize very complicated and very expensive funeral rites, which will mark the return of the deceased to the world of his ancestors. For the Toraja it is very important that the funeral should be a success. If the dead man is satisfied he will watch over, protect, and bring luck to his family.

The ceremony will last for several days and once it is over the coffin will be placed in a sacred rock along with his ancestors. But before that moment arrives, the family must build a city, sacrifice over 40 buffalo and welcome and entertain over 2,000 guests in a ritual, which is unique in the world.

In the highlands of Sulawesi, the island in the shape of an orchid, the rice fields are ready to be harvested. Rice along with the coconut palm is the base of the Toraja's economy and even the tiniest scrap of land is used to grow it. For centuries they have gradually sculpted terraces along the valleys and mountains creating, in the process, one of the most beautiful landscapes in Asia.

The land here is rich and generous and, in a good year, it is possible to obtain three crops. But this dominance of rice cultivation is relatively recent. In the past these people lived by hunting and gathering and their constant tribal conflicts forced them to adopt a nomadic lifestyle. But with the arrival of the Dutch Empire, peace returned to the island and its inhabitants began to settle and cultivate the land.

Though the Portuguese were the first to arrive on the island in 1512, the Dutch began to impose their supremacy from 1607 when Sulawesi became an important province of the Dutch East Indies Company, a government enterprise whose monopoly extended from the Cape of Good Hope to the Magellan Straits. These companies were created in Western Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries in order to exploit trade with Asia and the most important of them had deeds of constitution granted by their respective governments, which authorized them to acquire territories and exercise government functions over them.

On the lowlands the rice fields give way to the palm groves, the most important economic resource in Sulawesi. Thanks to the palm, its people are among the most prosperous in Indonesia, especially in the north where alongside the coconut palms there are plantations growing coffee, vanilla, and cloves. The possibilities these trees offer the inhabitants of the island are almost unlimited.

They eat the flesh of the coconut and drink the milk. They use the wood of the trunk to build their houses. The palm leaves serve to make roofs, hammocks, baskets, and ropes, and the oil is used for cooking and lighting and is sold to the cosmetics multinationals to make soaps, perfumes, moisturizers, and even nitroglycerin.