The Tombs of Isalo National Park
The Tombs of Isalo National Park: Isalo national park is over 800km2 of arid sandstone formations, canyons and forests in southwestern Madagascar, about three hours by bus from the coastal city of Tulear. It is one of the most popular places in Madagascar and the details of how to get to Isalo national park are relatively simple. It’s just a matter of getting to the village of Ranohira and organising the trip from the park office.
As Madagascar tourist attractions go this is one of the biggest of them all with the dryness of the rock almost tangible from a distance with only the occasional green enclave visible but once you get into the park there are rivers, pools, lush forests and canyons which are home to Ring-tailed and Verreaux’s Sifaka lemurs among others.
Although no one lives within the park bounds nowadays the Bara tribe, the largest ethnic group in the area, are still allowed to bury their dead here.
After about half an hour into Isalo, Hery my guide, pointed at a cliff face which has a small cave high up with the entrance closed over with stones.
“That is a tomb. Those types of tomb are used by the Bara tribe,” he said, before explaining the death rituals of the tribe.
There are two types found in the tombs of Isalo National Park used by the Bara, the provisional and final. The provisional tomb is a cave at ground level and is where the body is placed for the first few years after death. When the body is placed in the provisional tomb the cave entrance is covered over with stones to protect it but the Fossa, a cat like carnivore, can smell the corpse and can sometimes dig its way in and feed on the body. The tomb high up on the cliff face is an example of a final tomb and is the final resting place of the body.
The body is left in the provisional tomb for 2-5 years with the length of time depending on how wealthy the family is. If they have the means the family can remove the body sooner but if they don’t then it remains in this tomb for longer. It is very costly because it is a major celebration and can take 3-4 days to complete. The body has to be transferred to a special house within the town, music needs to be paid for, and food and alcohol for everyone who comes to join the celebration has to be provided. This works out at a large expense for the family so dictates when the body is moved.
Family and friends come from all around to join in the celebrations and on average one zebu per day of meat is needed to feed those present but for larger and wealthier families this can increase to two.
The celebration starts when the stones which cover the entrance to the provisional tomb are removed and the bones placed in a special box for transport to the designated house in town used for these types of ceremonies. The clothes are left in the tomb and when walking around Isalo it is possible to see provisional tombs with the stones removed and the clothing of the dead person still inside. These provisional tombs can be used again but only by the same family who used it in the first place.
As we walked around the park we came to one such transport box which will not be used by the family again and has probably been left for the benefit of tourists but nonetheless it was very interesting and informative. The one we saw is made of metal and in the shape of a house which means it has come from a wealthy family as they are usually made of wood.
The box is multicoloured and each colour represents something different. Blue is used to represent the sky, black is for grief, red is for blood and white is for purity. The box has a small blue house at the apex of its roof in the centre which represents the special house in town the box will be taken to for the celebration. There are also two black zebu at either end of the roof apex which means the animals are grieving for their owner. Two rectangular shaped mirrors are on the slant of the roof to represent reflection of life. This box also has one Ariary coins attached around the side. These coins are rare enough these days and in three months in Madagascar I one ever saw one and this was one I found in a hotel.
The boxes are normally about two feet in length but this one is about twice that size and must have been difficult to carry long distances.
When the box reaches the house it is placed in the north east position. East represents the sunrise and north is the direction to the afterlife. Before the Makay trip we sat in a small room of the bar and I ended up in the north east position which caused great amusement. I didn’t really understand what was happening at the time but now I do. At least they didn’t follow the whole ceremony through and put me in a permanent tomb!
As the celebrations continue a close family member goes to look for a permanent tomb which is always off the ground and sometimes very high up on the side of a cliff. After a suitable spot is found a good time is chosen to transport the bones to their final resting place, a good time being when the weather is fine and everything feels right. After a final ceremony the bones are placed in the tomb and it is covered over with stones.
The highest of the tombs of Isalo National Park we saw is over 100ft in the air and looks a precarious spot to get to. Hery explained the bones for that tomb were carried up the hills on a winding path until the top of the cliff was reached. After the ceremony, ropes were thrown over the side and the box with the bones carried down by the family.
“That must have been very scary,” I commented.
“Yes, but before they do it they have a few drinks,” Hery replied.
“Is that a good idea, would it make them more likely to fall?” I enquired.
“It will help steady them because it will be terrifying looking down from the top,” Hery said, convincing me that alcohol would make it a bit safer.
“Yeah but they wouldn’t want to overdo it because that would be worse,” I said, before asking, “Does anyone ever fall down when they are doing it?”
“Yes, very rarely but it is a sign that something is wrong with either the person or the bones,” Hery assured me, and not because they have had a few too many rums.
The visit to Isalo and its tombs proved to be more interesting than I could have ever expected.