In the Highlands of the Valiant

02 May, 2011 | Source: Jakarta Post Weekender

In their secluded mountain home, the Mamasan people of Sulawesi continue the traditional ways of their ancestors. For now.



Look at this insane plan of yours, I scold myself quietly. An icy wind pierces the two layers of clothing I’m wearing. I am weary, physically and mentally. And we still have hours to go.

I can’t remember how many gaping holes brimming with mud we’ve bounced across on this godawful mixture of pebbles, gravel and soft, pasty earth that is supposed to be a road. This is torture, I say to myself. I bite my lips. It doesn’t help: The cold remains knifelike, and the road ahead is as rough and wretched as the one we’ve endured for almost three hours now. An endless span of rocky precipice towers above us to our right; to our left is a steep rock face veiled by deceptively soothing mountain greenery.

Arka, the 20-something guy I’ve hired to take me on his motorbike, is starting to lose his resolve, too. We decide to stop. Shivering, Arka fumbles in his pockets for a cigarette; I grope in my backpack for a bar of chocolate.

This is only a third of the way,” Arka says.

I am not surprised. In fact, I sort of expected this. People in Polewali Mandar, a coastal town in West Sulawesi, told me it takes about five hours by motorbike to cover the 95 kilometers – mostly uphill – to Mamasa Valley, a dogged, rugged journey. Some said it’s six hours if you take the bus, nine if it rains, and if that’s the case you’ll need some extra tenacity.

But what I didn’t expect was that it would this deadly cold. The night wind numbs my fingers first, before gnawing at my ears, my neck, my nose – and finally my stomach turns, churning and roaring. Hell would be way fiercer if cold, I imagine, than glowing red hot. I can’t think of anything but to tell Arka to stop at the first inn we see.

Dead Set


Picture: A funeral ceremony of Mamasa

The verdant hills and picturesque valleys of Mamasa are home to a smattering of highly traditional villages belonging to the Mamasans, a tribe fairly secluded from tourism, yet very welcoming to strangers.

The Mamasans, and their far more famous next-of-kin the Torajans, have for ages believed in Aluk To Dolo. Literally translated as “the ways of our ancestors”, this mythos places a particular emphasis on reverence for the dead. Hence, their funerals are the grandest and most expensive of ceremonies, involving the ritual sacrifice of dozens of buffaloes and pigs.

Going the rest of the distance the next morning, I gain the impression that the Mamasans love to be showy. After funerals, horns from the slain buffaloes adorn their front porches – the more horns there are, the more wealth and influence the owners of the house have.

And the richer folks – well, the ancient ones, to be exact – enjoy an incredible setting for their burial sites. The corpses are placed inside wooden coffins shaped like a buffalo or a pig. Then, tons of cigarettes are strewn across them. The burial site in Buntu Balla village, off the main road just before entering Mamasa Proper, is arguably the oldest of them all.

Family Life

Picture: Mamasa traditional house and rice barn

In bowl-shaped Mamasa Proper, I visit the tallest of the Mamasan tongkonan, their traditional houses. Called the Banua Layuk (High House), it stands proudly overlooking Rante Buda village. At around 400 years old, it is among the longest surviving and best preserved of these houses.

Inside this motif-rich abode lives one big family – descendants of an illustrious chief who lived in the distant past. (As a gesture of respect, no traditional house built in Mamasa surpasses Banua Layuk in height.) True to the Mamasan custom of bequeathing male offspring with the farms and livestock and the women with the house and its contents, the proprietor of this culturally paramount heritage is a woman in her mid-40s.

Everybody in the village calls her Satriana. A modest housewife who radiates exquisite intellect with an aura of candor, she’s usually at home looking after small children while their parents work or leave town for an extended period. Her affable daughter Elen is a teenager, so when not studying or playing with friends, she helps Satriana take care of the kids.

Amid the deafening cockcrows around the house, Satriana tells me a story the kids love to hear over and over again. Hers are tuneful narratives of their ancestors, beginning with the union of bachelor Pongkapadang from the Sa’dan mountains and maiden Torijene from the sea. The Mamasans, who feel a strong, primeval connection to both mountain and sea, design the roofs of their high houses in the manner of a boat.

To this day, the Mamasans still build traditional houses, one of the few tribes in Indonesia continuing the practice. Constructing a tongkonan is a valued skill, inherited by successive generations over the span of centuries. Satriana and Elen might not be building houses directly, but nonetheless, they are achieving the equivalent: They keep their tribe’s stories and norms alive.

Fabric of the Community

Picture: Mamasa traditional weaving center

The marriage between the sea and the mountain is a common leitmotif in Mamasan culture. Not only is this theme apparent in the construction and decoration of the great banua and the high houses for commoners, the narrative has also left its imprint on the patterns of the tribe’s distinctive sambu fabric.

Sambu, the customary fabric of the Mamasans, serves several functions in the Mamasan way of life. The sambu cloths are at their most extravagant when used as embellishments in people’s gloriously gaudy funerals. But that is actually a secondary function. The main rationale for the sambu is, of course, to keep the wearer warm against the perpetual cold of the highlands. It is reasonable, then, that two of the most prevalent forms of sambu are sarongs and blankets.

At 150 cm square, these unusually thick sarongs have become an integral part of Mamasan dress. Mamasans, with a tendency toward showiness, have a flair for style, too. Instead of simply wrapping the sambu around the waist and wearing it like a skirt, the Mamasans sport their sambu boldly – as robes. In the frosty evenings and misty-dewed mornings, nearly everyone – from boys to the elderly – stroll through the village, their outsized sambu with the meticulous triangular or linear patterns in bold, majestic colors part of them.

Weaving sambu – it may take months to finish one piece – is a responsibility usually reserved for the women of each family. This age-old weaving technique, known as warp ikat, has been handed down from mother to daughter for generations, without much change. But if the technique hasn’t changed, the materials certainly have, at least in some places.

The painstaking practice of making yarn by spinning cotton and then dipping it into industrial or natural dyes extracted primarily from roots and vegetables is now somewhat confined to scattered communities. One such village that preserves the practice is Taibassi, whose woven fabrics are found to be among the finest in the region. But even they are increasingly using commercially produced yarn – I notice that most of the yarn is imported by the box-load from Bandung – rather than hand-spun yarn, leaving the practitioners of the Mamasan art of warp ikat on the verge of losing their tradition to the claws of industrialization.

Ever Onwards

Picture: Malimbong hot springs in Messawa and Kole - Rambusaratu′ Mamasa hot springs




Indeed, the whole Mamasan way of life may be at the tipping point. Their place of abode, once too inaccessible to experience much disruption by modernity, is now no longer so, with the “development” of sealed roads (with yawning potholes, remember) and the onslaught of motorized vehicles carrying supplies, albeit intermittently, from nearby Polewali.

Along the way back from Mamasa Proper to Polewali, we are treated to the sights of nature, at once generous and unforgiving, and the highlanders who choose, valiantly, to dwell here. We see the grins of two sambu-cloaked young men, each with a machete in hand, a tool of extreme necessity here in the thick of the jungle. The trailing glance of a mother standing with a towel wrapped around her body washing her naked baby in a rushing river beside the road – oh my, just imagining the cold fresh water rushing across my skin sends shivers down my spine. Ladies having a lively natter along a row of tiny kiosks, which they collectively call “the market”. Cheerful kids running about, playing chase with their chubby dogs, against a backdrop of high houses and satellite dishes. Shoving aside a host of daily adversities, these people’s rosy faces, characteristic of highlanders across the world, exude a persistent verve to never give up.

I’ll resort to Satriana’s wit to wrap up my reflection about her folk.

In the days of my great-grandparents, the young, unmarried women were locked inside the banua,” she told me.

But think about it: How would nenek Pongkapadang have met nenek Torijene and bred us all, if she’d been locked in all the time by her parents? Change is probably hard to stomach for some people, but sooner or later, ready or not, we must learn to live with it, or lose,” she says.

We’ve made a lot of changes in the past, see,” she hastens to add. “Certainly, we won’t lose.”


Getting there:

From Makassar, South Sulawesi, it is a six-hour road trip by minivan to Polewali Mandar, crossing the provincial border. For a more satisfying and personal trip, hire an ojek (motorbike taxi). Otherwise, buses leave for Mamasa from Polewali terminal every morning.

Things to do:

Trekking along the mountain trails and visiting the ancient traditional houses and tombs are the order of the day. Chilling out at a hot spring in Kole will be a treat after the fatigue from the bumpy ride.

Written by Chriswan Sungkono


Picture: Mamasa Town (Mambulilling Mount)


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