John Tiong Writes About The Bugis In NST

Travel writer and poet John Tiong of Sibu, Sarawak recently visited Sulawesi, Indonesia, and got up, close and personal with the Bugis people of the island.

Coincidentally, they are descended from Sarawak's native Bidayuh people who live around the state's capital city Kuching.

Bugis seafarers and warriors were a fascinating lot. They were the Carthaginians of the Malay Archipelago.

The Carthaginians, who were precursors of the Tunisian Arabs, were people who established one of the longest-lived and largest empires in the Mediterranean (814BC-146BC).

Like the Carthaginians, the Bugis were master shipbuilders who commanded a large navy fleet that made them a force to be reckoned with in this region.

Till today, the Bugis phinishi is so famous that every museum in Indonesia has a section dedicated to this sea vessel.

A good example is the Museum Bahari in Jalan (Road) Ikan Pasar No. 1 in Jakarta and the Museum La Galigo in Makassar, the capital city of Sulawesi.

In the old days, the phinishi sailed as far as Madagascar before the Europeans made their presence felt there.

[The people of Madagascar, called Malagasy, were not Bugis but Javanese. But they were longtime friends of the Bugis and it was no coincidence that the Bugis dropped by to trade with the kings of the Javanese-descended indigenous Malagasy people]

The Bugis also traded with the Melanesian aborigines of north Australia, staying there for months to wait for the winds to change so they could sail home.

[In this endeavour, they were joined by the Bajau people of Sabah, who are also the people of the Philippines, Taiwan and Ryukyu, Japan]

This is why certain Bugis [and Bajau] words can still be heard spoken by the aborigines in north Australia today.

A visit to the traditional Bugis shipbuilding centre of Tana Beru in Bulukumbar, about 150km south-east of Makassar, confirms that the art of ship building is inherent in the Bugis.

It was also why they were able to establish an influence in many parts of the archipelago.

After a protracted civil war in their homeland in 1669, they made inroads into Sumatra as well as Peninsular Malaysia.

In the peninsula, the descendants of three prominent Bugis brothers — Daeng Perani, Daeng Merewah and Daeng Celak — settled down in Johor as well as Linggi (Port Dickson) and Selangor.

We are told that many Bugis families, particularly those in Tana Beru, still throw the placentas of their newborn into the sea, to affirm their affinity with the high seas.

At Tana Beru, we meet one of the most reputable Bugis shipbuilders, Bakri Tika, who can build a ship without any plan or design.

He has been building ships in the last eight years and has made 10 vessels including the phinishi.

His vessels cost at least RM50,000 each.

The unassuming Bakri says shipbuilding is in the Bugis blood.

“Everything comes from the heart,” he says, adding that the vessel that comes into shape feels like an extension of himself.

As the 50-year-old leads us to a phinishi he is working on, his hands are quick to hammer poles and planks that form the contour of the phinishi.

Bakri says it takes a Bugis apprentice about two months to learn the rudiments of shipbuilding.

After that, it all falls back on his talent and experience.

He and his team of 10 workers start as early as 7am and work till 4pm every day on their newly-commissioned phinishi that measures 30m long, four metres wide and 17m high.

“It may take as long as two to three years to complete a vessel, depending on the size.

In the old days, it would have taken longer as the wood had to be treated for months before they could be worked on,” says Bakri.

The main balancing element that runs through the centre of the vessel is ironwood while the supporting timber is mainly teak.

The timber is sourced from as far as Kalimantan.

The hull is usually made of a wood species that the Bugis call kandole.

This is available in Sulawesi itself.

The ships are built under thatched sheds to shield the workers from the heat.

As we walk along the road in the shipbuilding quarter, the jarring noise of machinery one can expect to hear in a shipyard is conspicuously absent.

Instead, the Bugis art of shipbuilding is emphasised through the magic of the hands rather than machines.

And instead of using nails, they use wooden “pins”.

This talent for shipbuilding has brought wealth to Tana Beru and orders for phinishi come in from various parts of the world, particularly Europe and America.

A modern phinishi is made with the dual facility to sail either by wind as well as engines.

They are popular with the rich and famous as cruise ships as the high-prowed vessel – usually painted white – looks sleek, exotic and smart on the high seas.

We also watch Bakri offering prayers by putting sticky rice cakes on the balancing mother pole of a half-finished phinishi.

This is to bless the vessel as well as to make sure that it will be completed with no setbacks whatsoever.

He says there are more complex rituals involved during the launching of a phinishi into the sea, such as the slaughtering of a lamb and chanting of prayers.

We are surprised to learn that the people of Sulawesi, be they Muslims or Christians, still hold on to such ancient rituals.

The Christian Torajans in Tana Toraja (the highlands of South Sulawesi, some six hours’ drive to the north of Makassar), for instance, place such great importance on burial rites that they would keep a treated corpse for years while they save money for the burial.

After a rousing and expensive funeral that includes the sacrifice of a special breed of male buffalo – pink Saleko with large blobs of black hair – the body is placed inside a cave or a crevice carved into the hillside.

Family members are buried together in one coffin or crevice.

At Londa, an ancient burial site for the Torajan aristocrats, one can see coffins with multiple skeletons.

Some coffins are placed on wooden beams on the cliff side.

Others are stacked inside caves.

Some old coffins have rotted, revealing the skeletons.

For the nobility (bloodline still counts a lot in Toraja society), an almost life-sized tau tau (carving) resembling the dead is placed in a gallery outside the burial caves to ensure the dead continue to oversee the affairs of the living.

You can see tau tau at Tikonna Malenong Countryside, Sangalangi District, five kms south of Rantepao city, Tana Toraja. [The Torajans are the highland Bugis]

Most of the 650,000 Torajans in Tana Toraja in Indonesia’s Southern Sulawesi province are Christians but they still hold on strongly to the aluk tolodo, their ancient rites of birth and death.

Historians and anthropologists believe that the ancestors of these highland people, and their close kin the coastal Bugis (Primary Bugis or Proto-Bugis) came to Sulawesi from Indochina.

The Torajans [and all Greater Bugis peoples] are distant relatives of the Minangkabau of Negeri Sembilan and the Johor-Riau of Johor and, like the Minangkabau, Torajan men enter the family of their wives upon marriage but have to leave after a divorce.

According to the Torajan legends, their ancestors came to Tana Toraja from heaven, so they regard their land as the Land of the Heavenly Kings.

As descendents of heavenly kings, the Torajans spend years or even decades saving up funds to give their dead a “proper” burial, so that he or she could journey back to the heavens.

A burial is always a community effort as everyone combines resources to have a big do.

However, in accordance with aluk tolodo, only the upper class can splurge on a big burial ceremony.

Toraja society is divided into aristocrats and peasants.

One is born into a class and does not leave it even if one makes lots of money.

For the upper class, a funeral can last up to nine days, with lots of festive excitement.

Apart from the mourning and weeping, one can expect music, songs, dances, poetry reading, buffalo fights and even boxing matches.

Palm wine or tuak is freely consumed and the climax is the slaughter of water buffalos and pigs.

Young boys take delight in collecting the blood from these animals using bamboo.

A burial ceremony can cost over RM100,000.

The sacrificial beast, usually a special breed of male buffalo called Saleko that the upper class prefers, can cost up to RM50,000 each.

Salekos are pinkish in colour, with blobs of black hair on their bodies.

Female animals costing only a few thousand ringgit are used by lower class.

Water buffalos are also sacrificed as the Torajans believe these can help ferry the souls to Puya, the next world.

Burial ceremonies are usually conducted between July and September, after the harvest.

For aristocrats, a burial ceremony is not complete without a tau tau (effigy or statue resembling the dead person).

These are placed on galleries on the cliffs where the dead are entombed.

The coffins can be laid inside a cave, in a liang (carved stone grave preferred by the rich) or placed on poles sticking out from the side of a cliff.

The most expensive is the liang, where a crevice is hacked out into the side of a cliff.

A liang holds the remains of an entire family as Torajans believe a family should be buried together.

Torajan death rites are performed in two stages over a week.

The “medicine doctor” first performs prayers with offerings of palm wine, rice and animals.

On the eve of the funeral is the Mabolong, when the body is moved from the back room to the middle room.

There are usually three rooms in a tongkonan (Toraja house with roofs that curve at both ends).

A pig and a buffalo are slaughtered to mark this occasion.

Only then will the dead person be considered dead.

The body is then placed in a coffin under the rice barn opposite the house.

The tau tau effigy is then commissioned.

These are usually carved from nangka (jackfruit) wood.

A lakkian (funeral tower) is constructed at the rante or village ceremonial place.

The coffin is suspended on the lakkian during the ceremony.

Animals are slaughtered and there will be mourning, music, dancing and feasting.

The blood and meat are cooked together and served.

Then the coffin is lowered and carried to the family tomb.

The Londa or ancient aristocratic cave is like a huge tunnel, filled with coffins placed haphazardly or stacked.

Access is via a small opening.

Inside, you can see coffins everywhere.

There are coffins outside too and some stacked on poles.

The wood has rotted and the skeletons inside are exposed.

Another fascinating sight is the tau tau galleries.

One gallery near the entrance to the cave, features very old and foreboding tau taus locked behind iron grilles.

This is to prevent theft.

Antique collectors are said to have offered lots of money for a tau tau.

Tongkonan belonging to the upper class are painted with cosmology designs and symbols of buffalos, the sun and cockerels among others.

The buffalo represents wealth, the sun represents the Torajans and the cockerel is for justice.

The colours used are red, black, yellow and white to symbolise blood, darkness, blessings and the soul respectively.

Lower class Torajans cannot stay in painted tongkonans or one with symbols.

The best places to see a traditional upper class tongkonan are at Kete Kesu (Bonoron countryside, Sangalangi District, about 4km south of Rantepao city) and Pallawa (about 12km north of Rantepao city).

The curved roof is said to represent the boats that the Torajans used to sail to Sulawesi.

The tongkonan is an iconic symbol used in many government buildings in Rantepao and as you reach Tana Toraja, you pass through an elaborate gate with a tongkonan roof.

Even a hotel in Makassar uses this design for its architecture.

The middle supporting pole of the tongkonan in front of the house usually boasts a row of buffalo horns that signifies the wealth of the owner who could afford all these animals for ceremonies.

A tongkonan is always constructed facing north as that is where the Torajan God dwells.

Note - The Toraja people are named for the phrase 'People of the Highlands' (To = People, Highlands = Raja).

The Primary Bugis (Proto-Bugis) are named for the phrase 'Fishermen' (To Ugi). They are also called 'People of the Sea' (To Lu or To Luwu).

The Makassar are named for the phrase 'White (or Water) Shirts' (To Makasa).

The Bugis are from the Bidayuhs of Sarawak.

The Bugis are the people who inhabit Sulawesi, Maluku, Tenggara and Oceania.

The Bajaus, who are from the Kenyahs of Sarawak, and who are the dominant people in Sabah and the Philippines (besides being the Taiwanese Alisans, the Japanese and the Ryukyus), are named for the phrase 'People of the Sea' or 'Fishermen'.

The Tausug Bajaus (of the Sulu Islands) are named for the phrase 'People of the Currents' while the Irranun Bajaus (of the rest of the Philippines) are named for the phrase 'People of the Rivers'.

Kenyah means 'People of the Mountain'. The Kayans who are the Kenyahs of Banjarmasin (Kalimantan) are named for the phrase 'People of the Original Homeland'.

Note - Bugis in daily usage in Indonesia only refers to the Primary Bugis or Proto Bugis who originated from Bone in Sulawesi.

The term Bugis used here refers to the Greater Bugis superstock that covers every indigenous group in Sulawesi, Maluku and the Tenggara Islands, as well as Polynesia and Micronesia.

The article is edited by Malaysiana1.