Toraja by Nigel Barley

In 1985, Dr. Nigel Barley, then senior anthropologist at The British Museum, taught himself Indonesian and set off for the relatively unknown island of Sulawesi where he hoped to find unsullied cultures and unspoilt natives to study. Barley soon found plenty to wonder at and admire among the Toraja people, a remote hill tribe whose culture features headhunting, transvestite priests and gory buffalo sacrifices in funerals.

First published in 1988 as Not a Hazardous Sport, even thirty years after the events occurred Sulawesi remains a beautiful and mountainous island with multi-ethnicities, languages and religions. The book still gives an uncannily accurate view of life in Toraja through a series of vignettes observed while out walking, sitting in a house parlor, from a roadside cafe or from the sidelines of a ceremonial field. Though an urban sophisticate, the author travels with a cheerful and mischievous sense of humor aboard crowded rattletrap old trucks and buses over muddy pock-marked roads. One daunting 5-day journey takes him from Mamasa up into the mountains on a small horse, a harrowing ascent through forests bereft of human settlement until he is finally taken in by a farmer. Everywhere he turns his gaze, like a macro lens on a camera, he discerns texture, nuance and finely wrought detail that few other travelers are inclined to see.

In writing that is often rueful and self-deprecating, Barley gives a blistering account of his Aeroflot flight to Asia, a vivid portrait of Singapore’s Bugis Street, his chaotic reception at Jakarta’s new airport and foreboding approach to the squalor of the giant city, his first halting attempts at using Indonesian and an elephant-style bath in a bak mandi, visceral descriptions of the packed odiferous confines of a six-to-a-cabin Pelni passenger ship, of appallingly dirty, sleazy and ill-governed coastal towns, a Keystone cops retelling of an Independence Day parade, of joyful morning youth choirs emanating from churches, the downpours, braying of livestock and raucous, ritual filled rhythmic chants of death ceremonies amidst startling scenes of buffalo slaughter. In between anecdotes he holds forth on Indonesian sleeping and eating habits and delivers diatribes against tourists and ethnographers.

Barley visited Torajaland at a time when farmers still pounded rice in wooden troughs and blacksmith shops echoed with the clamor of iron forged on bellows-fanned fires. He gushes about the magnificent countryside, witnesses bags of bones hauled up cliff faces for burial in caves, describes the brutal blood sports of cock- and bull fighting, the visual and auditory intensity of a village coming to life in the morning, the process of making of palm wine and exquisite ikat glowing with natural dyes.

It’s not until the last chapter that we arrive at the book’s raison d’être. The author arranges for the passage of four Torajan woodcarvers to England to construct a traditional rice barn in London’s British Museum where a space is converted into a convincing building site, knee-deep in wood chips, scattered tools and teapots. The installation was a two-year project for which Barley had to overcome a cumbersome bureaucracy in order to ship tools and materials, as well as craftsmen with spears, swords and a priestly outfit aboard the aircraft. Three quarters of the book leading up to this culminating event provides the necessary background and context.

Though always a speculative enterprise, live ethnographic exhibitions are not new. Congolese pygmies, native American Indians, a family of Inuit and savage Filipinos eating dogs have all been chief attractions at natural history museums in the past.

In the case of the Torajan woodcarvers, these members of a faraway culture were not performing in a demeaning and racist way but fostering a skill under threat. Barley describes how Nenek, the 70-year-old team master, carved a beam with delicate confident curves, gliding over the black surface of the wood with the elegance of an ice skater. The old man’s feet were as essential as his hands for gripping and steadying the wood that is being carved.

The rice granary was in essence a miniature cultural representation of Torajaland, providing greater entertainment and instruction than dead objects behind glass cases. In the end, the exhibit made an important contribution by documenting and demonstrating the carpentry techniques used in the entire construction process, enabling researchers to collect information that would be difficult to acquire in the field. Because they were so honored and their exhibit so well received, the carvers’ time in London made them feel proud to be Torajan.

It’s impossible to predict what people from a developing country will find remarkable in the West. Although they never got to grips with turning off bathroom taps, the quartet of carvers soon discovered the joys of TV. Their favorite subjects were war, followed by sex, “pornographic” love scenes and advertisements featuring musical jingles. Not particularly impressed with the Houses of Parliament or St. Paul’s Cathedral, the sight of gorillas, orangutan and giraffes at the London Zoo terrified and fascinated them, as did the great variety of dogs on leashes walking along city streets.

Eight pages of photographs, which are indispensable to the book’s appreciation, illustrate all the icons of this mountain people’s culture and society – ceremonies, landscapes, architecture, attire, mortuary rituals, village commerce, arts and crafts. Three pages of black & white photos document the stages of rice barn construction. Barley is so good at explaining, he seldom uses Indonesian or local terms, obviating the need for a glossary.

Nigel Barley is the author of twenty books. It was in capacity as a researcher in the Department of Ethnography at the British Museum that he first travelled to S.E. Asia. After forays into Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan and Burma, he settled on Indonesia as his principal research interest, working on the history and contemporary culture of the archipelago since 2003. But Toraja is not a dry anthropologist’s monograph. In funny, clever and finely crafted prose, Barley infuses his observations with an enthusiasm not typical of the strict, clinical perspective of an anthropologist. He refrains from romanticizing Torajan culture, but gives this indigenous hill tribe their humanity, producing an insightful and informative portrait of a unique ethnic group in a little-known corner of the world.

Toraja is a travelogue that records the writer’s first hand experiences. Thus, the book holds a special place among Barley’s imagined works of historical fiction like Island of Demons and The Devil’s Garden that deal more in fantasy. Toraja is thoroughly entertaining, full of memorably eccentric characters, and Barley demonstrates a penetrating understanding of the Indonesian character. The four pages describing the sights that astonished, puzzled and delighted the Torajan visitors in London, and their confused cross-cultural reactions to Westerners and Western ideas, are alone worth the price of the book. This is storytelling at its best.


Toraja by Nigel Barley, Monsoon Books 2013, ISBN-978-9814423465, paperback, 248 pages, dimensions 13 cm X 19.5 cm.

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