Indonesia, Sulawesi: Peculiar culture of Tana Toraja

After exploring the island of Papua, we boarded a ferry and five days later reached Sulawesi, one of the four biggest islands of Indonesia. Sulawesi is located east of Borneo and comprises of four long peninsulas, which creates a funky shape of the landmass. It’s known for its coral reefs, diving and national parks. However, our interest was quite different. We got on the mission to explore the peculiar culture of Tana Toraja, renowned for their animistic beliefs, unusual burial sites and funeral ceremonies.

How to get there

Tana Toraja is a highland region in Southern Sulawesi, some 300km north of Makassar, the largest city of eastern Indonesia, the capital of the province and also a port where we stepped out of the ferry. While Tana means land, Toraja is the name of people, the ethnic group living here. The easiest way to reach ‘Toarajaland’ is by bus, even though impatient travellers can take a plane. Several bus companies are operating the route, which takes approximately 10 hours. The best drop-off point is Rantepao, the cultural centre in the northern part of the region. It’s a small town where you can easily find your way around even without previous booking. The specialities you definitely should not miss out, before exploring the very culture, are Saraba – traditional hot creamy ginger drink sweetened with vanilla and Terang Bulan – something between cake and pancakes with plenty different fillings. If you are a sweet tooth this is a must, it’s incredibly delicious. Just watch out, the portion might be bigger than you expect. The best Saraba in the town is served at the small local stalls on the square with the tiny Ferris wheel.

Tongkonan, the weird houses

Most of the villages are close by. You can make the most of it on a bike, the roads don’t seem to be made for cars anyway. Rent a scooter, meet a local or hire a guide if you wish and start to explore.
The first things that catch your attention are the unusually shaped houses with upward-sloping roofs reminding me of a pirate hat. These are the traditional Tongkonan used as storages for harvest. Besides the practical purpose, they also play an important role in the social life and customs. Locals believe that spirits of their ancestors, the deceased and unborn travel through the house helping them to reach the other side. That’s why they are always built in north-south or west-east direction. You can easily spot the roofs pointing out through the trees, the houses stand high on wooden piles and have beautiful wooden carvings on the exterior painted in red, yellow and black. The front porch or sidewalls are decorated by buffalo horns, which symbolize the power and the wealth of the family. Toraja traditional society is divided into social classes with kings in lead.

Beliefs and funeral ceremonies

Everything in Toraja indigenous belief system, polytheistic animism, is centred on the ancestors, the life and the death. It’s a law, religion and habit. The death rituals are the most preserved and practised until today. Traditional Toraja funeral lasts for several days but the preparation takes several weeks, months or even years. It’s an obligation of the family to carry out the proper death feast after which the soul can begin its journey to Puya (the land of souls or afterlife). An entire ‘festival village’ is built only for this purpose. Different kinds of bamboo structures are used as barns, shelters or ceremonial sites for hundreds of attendees. A particular number of water buffaloes, a minimum of two, must be obtained and consequently slaughtered as one of the main spectacles of the ritual. The richer the family, the more buffaloes. And the better the chance for the deceased to arrive at Puya. The family has to raise enough funds to conduct the ceremony and that’s the main reason why the preparation takes so long. Meanwhile, the late relative is wrapped in several layers of cloth and kept inside of the house, waiting for their buffalo to ride.

Unusual burial sites

The entire community wants to be a part of such a death feast. People sing, dance, chant, mourn. It’s full of colours, games, sounds and smell. Besides the buffaloes killed in front of your sight step by step, skin to meat to bones, there are pigs and chickens slaughtered to secure enough food for the audience. It’s surprisingly easy to take part as a visitor. Although Toraja like to keep their rituals very traditional, they are very proud of their culture and open to welcome anyone. Just ask around if there is any funeral held close by and drive there. You are only expected to bring some small gift, for example, a block of cigarettes.
After the festival is over, it’s finally the time for burial. The coffin can be simply laid in the cave, placed in a carved stone grave or hung on a cliff. It’s possible to see different burial sites in villages Pallawa, Nanggala or Londa. Most of the time the graves are guarded by Tau-Tau, which is a wooden effigy in life-size of the deceased. You can see these in the village of Lemo. They are like dolls sitting on small balconies in front of the grave, looking out over the land. The relatives even change their clothes according to the season. If you still didn’t get enough, visit one of the trees that serve as baby graves, for example in Kambira village. Children under the age of one are wrapped in a cloth and placed inside of a hollow tree. It’s not difficult to recognize such a tree there are many small doors all around the trunk. The bodies are usually eaten by rodents.

By now, the impression of Toraja culture is most likely –weird. It might seem necro-centred or even sick but to be fair, it got quite misshaped by the Dutch missionaries who struggled to convert the indigenous people into Christians. Part of their efforts was a prohibition of performing life rituals, and thus only death rituals were preserved. You might wonder why I do as well. However, the fact is that we will never know how beautiful life ceremonies could be considering all of the glory accompanying the funerals.

Other things to see

If you are worried that your stomach might not be strong enough for this, it’s not all there is to it. It’s a region with beautiful landscape, mountainous roads and endless rice fields. Take a walk, go for a hike, hitch a kijang (Toyota’s series of pick up trucks which functions as a local transport) and enjoy the view with hundred shades of green. Batatumonga is worth a trip. Visit a durian town Palopo, meet a local king or attend a tea session with hospitable locals. If you are a coffee lover, Toraja’s Arabica carries a high reputation. Tana Toraja is one of the most special places I have ever visited, it leaves a deep impression inside whether you want or not. It’s an astonishing combination of nature and culture. It isn’t hard to imagine why it got its nickname the ‘Land of the Heavenly Kings’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *