The old woman’s solemn, weathered face was worn with the passing of decades, transformation of traditions, arrival of modernity, and resurgence of culture. Her calm dark eyes, deeply sunken into their sockets had witnessed animist ritual, Christian conversion, political turmoil, and most recently an influx of tourism. Her tiny frame was wrapped in a bright sarong and her bare feet glided effortlessly across the narrow overgrown trail to the gravesite ahead.
Passing through a small metal gate long since broken and slowly being consumed by vines, the forest opened at a towering limestone overhang. Stalactites hanging like jaws loomed above and before us, dozens of wooden coffins were strewn about haphazardly piled one atop the next. The nearest was open and spilled over with dozens of skulls and masses of bones. Winding through the coffins choosing each step so as not to disturb the bones carpeting the ground, we were astonished to see such a large and nearly untouched gravesite brimming with ancient grandeur.
The limestone overhang shadows a cave entrance that holds further tombs. The coffins themselves are exquisite in their detail and beauty. The wood is hand-carved with intricate patterns, each unique and rich in Torajan symbolism. Several coffins are carved into the form of a buffalo or a pig, Toraja’s sacred animals. Many of these huge caskets are crafted out of a single tree trunk. These forest giants are now absent from the Torajan landscape due to generations’ of coffin and traditional house (tongkonan) construction. Our guides for the day and newly acquainted friends, Sarah and Ben, recently purchased the last remaining large tree from the forest near their village in hopes that at least one will live on in Toraja.
The existence of this gravesite and the countless others spread across Toraja’s breathtaking mountainous countryside, portray proudly the Torajan cult of the dead. Death rites define the Torajan ideology, shape its economy, and delineate their relationship to the natural environment. Death informs their politics and solidifies community bonds while both reinforcing and redefining social stratification. When the rites have been performed, the animals slaughtered, and ceremonies concluded the deceased continue to remain grouped within their ancestral communities in sites like these. Many continue to be used today and are regularly visited by relatives who after having dreamt about the deceased, will return with water, cigarettes, books, money, even umbrellas to appease their late family members’ supposed desires. This particularly old site known as Parinding, appears to have fallen into disuse due to age and therefore the more recently deceased desires’ to attend to.
Most strikingly, despite its proximity to the tourist center of Rantepao, Parinding has been largely overlooked by guides and tourists in favor of more popular graves sites such as Londa, Buri and Ketu Kesu among others. Located in the equivalent one tongkonan’s backyard it is quite difficult to find without signs or the help of a Torajan speaker. However, some small trickles of the wrong types of visitors are finding their way. Graffiti, the tell-tale sign of ignorant tourists and poor management have begun to appear. Most disgustingly most of the vandal’s names appear to be Indonesian and are scrawled across several skulls and also a few of the beautiful wooden caskets.
Parinding’s relative isolation makes it an exceptional opportunity to visit, but also makes it highly vulnerable. Without proper protection vandalism and theft, both for souvenirs and also sale to art collectors (read grave robbers) will likely lay waste to this ancient and sacred place. If funded by charging a nominal entrance fee, protection could be simple. Rebuilding the gate, paying villagers to escort visitors through the site and protect it against visiting thieves and vandals would add the needed security to keep the burial site at Parinding a treasure of Torajan culture.