Tana Toraja – Tales of Life, Death & Community

For us Indonesia was always on the list of countries we wanted to visit as part of our trip. However, we had a tough time deciding which island to visit, given there are over 17000!! Eventually we agreed on Sulawesi since it seemed less touristy than other islands and has a crazy shape on the map 🙂 We took (yet another) Air Asia flight and flew from Kuala Lumpur (or simply known as “KL” by all locals) to Makassar, the capital and biggest city in South Sulawesi. One long night bus ride north lies one of the island’s main tourist highlights – the highlands of Tana Toraja.

The Toraja – people of tradition and festivities

Tana Toraja is the “land of the Toraja“, an indigenous people of South Sulawesi with a population of about half a million. The Toraja are mainly known for their elaborate funeral ceremonies which are still practiced today. Locals told us that in the pre-colonial times their festivities were actually celebrations of life. However, the Dutch converted the Toraja to Christianity and, being austere Protestants, banned all happy ceremonies. As a consequence, the Toraja, who still wanted to celebrate, transferred their lively celebrations into elaborate funeral ceremonies.

A Torajan elderly at a local funeral

Funerals – ceremonies of complexity and community

Literally just minutes after we arrived, several guides already offered to take us to a local funeral ceremony. They told that the slaughtering of the buffalos will be at 8.00 in the morning so we better be quick. Since we had just groggily stepped off the night bus, watching buffalos being slaughtered sounded a bit too much. Luckily, it turned out that there would also be a different funeral the next day so we decided to go there. Furthermore, at this point we were not yet aware of the importance of buffalos and their slaughter as part of funerals – more on this later…

Local Torajans arriving at the funeral

The following day the owner of our homestay took us on a day tour hat included a funeral ceremony. After a stunning drive on a more than questionable road through amazing and incredibly green rice terraces we arrived at the ceremony, somewhere in the mountains north of the city of Rantepao. We descended a few meters through a beautiful bamboo forest and stumbled into the ongoing funeral.

A heavy bag of sugar as a present in one hand, the camera more or less in continuous shooting mode in the other. What should we photograph first? The dancing people in the center of a large muddy square? The elderly locals smoking and having an amazing time? The cut-up buffalo meat on the ground? The beautiful red coffin placed above the crowd on a bamboo structure? In any case, it was immediate clear were in for the real thing!

Guests obvserving the ceremony

The whole funeral arena was built around a rectangular center square with bamboo structures on all four sides for guests to sit on. We were offered to sit down on one side and started to observe what was going on while sipping delicious local coffee with tons of sugar in it.

Funeral area with the slaughtering field in the middle
Seating area for guests on one side of the slaughtering field
The whole thing is quite a social affair – coffee and chatting seems to be a main part

Here is what we saw and learned from our guide: Once people die, they are actually not buried immediately, but are rather preserved, and continue to “live” in the house until their funeral. This can be several months later, since often the family first has to come up with funds to pay for the whole ceremony. During this time the dead are not considered strictly dead but rather called “sick” and will be dressed every day. As one would treat sick people, they will also get meals and get dressed. We heard several stories if travelers staying with families who had to thank the “sick” grandma for their stay…

Once enough money is saved, a date for the ceremony can then be set. Since funerals are such a big thing here, distant friends and relatives and often whole villages are all invited and expected to turn up. The more people are involved in sending off the deceased the better. This explains why everybody is constantly involved in one! Foreigners are also very welcome, the more participants the better. Most of the funerals last for several days or even as long as 10 days and involve a strict sequence of activities.

Apart from buffalos pigs also play a big roal and are often slaughtered

The ceremony usually begins whit a buffalo-slaughtering on a designated field. (This is the part we missed by not being quick enough after our arrival. We are not sad about this though since things can get pretty bloody we heard.) Family members of the deceased are required to slaughter buffaloes and pigs as they believe that the spirit of the deceased will live peacefully thereafter, continuing to herd the buffaloes that have come to join him or her. Another explanation we heard for this was that the buffalos help transport the spirit to the afterlife.

The meat of the slaughtered buffalos and pigs is distributed to the guests
A guest taking home some meat…

In any case, after the sacrifice the meat of the buffalos is shared with the funeral visitors in accordance with visitors’ positions in the community. During this time visitors appear in groups at the venue, one group after another. Before they sit down they usually participate in a dance where all men dance together in a circle. Afterwards the whole group is led to a designated seating area. Visitors receive coffee and spend time together chatting and observing the ceremony.

Newly arrived guests are dancing in a circle
An important elderly walks a new group of guests to their designated seating area

One interesting element of the whole ceremony are the actual buildings where the funeral takes places. These buildings are only temporary and will be destroyed and not reused afterwards. This results in some crazy building activities around Tana Toraja. If you drive around you can spot a lot of busy carpenters.

During the ceremony the body is kept in a beautiful coffin

Our impression was that this is all strongly linked to a deep sense of community. It must create deep bonds among family members if you sit together on the back of a truck for hours and hours to make it to a funeral…

Buffalo economics – expressions of wealth and status

The number of buffalo in a funeral is determined by the status and wealth of the family of the deceased. Normal funerals require somewhere between 10 – 24 buffalos but our guide mentioned richer families who bought up to 240! Furthermore, the number of spotted buffalos which are mainly white (similar to albino) with dark spots and thus even more valuable is important too. We were told that some can cost up to the value of a new car and that a really rich family would get several of the spotted buffalos.

Typical traditional house – the more buffalo horns the higher the status

We asked our guide what usually happens with all the meat. Some, as seen in the picture above, is cut and distributed to guests immediately. However, most of the buffalos are given alive as a present to whole villages who are attending. The villagers then decide among them how many they slaughter for food and how many they sell in order to raise funds for village projects. So the funeral is a sort of a wealth redistribution scheme.

Somehow this buffalo seems to sense what is coming next…

Tau tau – statues of the dead

After the funeral, dead bodies are usually not buried but often placed in coffins that are put in rock graves or up on a cliff. In some cases a wooden statue resembling the dead person called “tau-tau” is then placed next to the coffin to represent the deceased and watch over their remains.

A whole balcony of tau-tau statues next to coffins on a cliff
Some tau-tau are surprisingly realistic

Coffin caves – places of bones and burial sites

Other coffins are sometimes placed inside caves. We visited Londa cave and found various coffins as well as numerous bones and skulls inside. To be honest it felt a bit weird to enter a cave without any guide and stumble into these burial sites.

A coffin inside the Londa cave – easily accessible for everyone

Baby graves – trees of sudden death

Another interesting location we visited were the baby graves of Kambira. Torajans traditionally bury babies in trees and this is one of the biggest of such graves in the region, holding around 20 deceased infants. By Torajan definition a baby is a child who hasn’t yet grown teeth. The babies’ bodies are buried upright and the belief is that they will continue to grow with the tree.

Baby grave at Kambira

What else we saw in Tana Toraja – land of plenty

The funeral ceremony was definitely one of the (many) highlights of our entire trip. However, cruising around with a scooter, two new friends and rain capes in Tana Toraja was definitely also an unforgettable experience. We got the impression of a rich land with happy people! 🙂 We saw endless numbers of cocoa and coffee plants as well as lush green rice terraces. Even though this area is supposed to be one of the most touristy in southern Sulawesi, we hardly met any other (Western) tourists. On the contrary, nearly everybody waved at us and smiled big-time when they recognized us as foreigners.

Tana Toraja is a great area to explore by scooter. The roads are fairly good, people nice, the landscape pretty and you may participate in a funeral ceremony. The Torajans believe if you are in Tana Toraja you are Torajan and thus most welcome.

Row of traditional Torajan houses near Rantepao
During harvest time everyone helps together to work the fields
Typical sight in Tana Toraja – rice fields and traditional houses
Beautiful green rice fields – different but equally amazing to Ifugao on the Philippines

Practical tips:

Lemo, Londa, Suaya, Kempira and Kete-Kesu are easily done in a scooter loop. Stay in Rantepao as a base. There are great trekking opportunities all around, but hire a guide for that.

Also if you attend a funeral bring sugar or cigarettes and a guide or will understand very little of all the going on around you.

Tana Toraja in itself is really well worth a trip to Sulawesi. If you want to learn more about the funeral ceremonies here is a great link:


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