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Tana Toraja, land of rituals, Sulawesi, Indonesia

WARNING: Sensitive photos.

sunny 28 °C


Getting to Toraja, Sulawesi's remote Christian enclave famous for its peculiar funerary rituals, requires several stops. The connection to (gateway city) Makassar on the southern tip of Sulawesi is not listed, but we check-in and follow signs to a waiting area. Eventually, we're motioned to board but neither the gate nor the flight number match our boarding passes. It's the definition of blind faith!

Hotel Miko, outside the center of Makassar is modern, clean and much better value than the crummy budget places in the center.
Hotel Miko, Makassar (21 euros, double room)

Hotel Miko, Makassar (21 euros, double room)


We are the only foreign tourists in the neighborhood and EVERYONE greets us. I feel bad turning down the bicycle rickshaws vying for our business but we can barely squeeze in!
Riding in a Pete Pete (public minivan) with local girls

Riding in a Pete Pete (public minivan) with local girls


Makassar street evening

Makassar street evening


It's Ramadan and one of the few restaurants in town open during the day is Japanese. The food is delicious and with the vouchers they keep giving us, we end up eating most of our meals there.
Food vendor on the promenade, Makassar

Food vendor on the promenade, Makassar

With no (private) bus seats left to Rantepao, the capital of Tana (land of) Toraja, we hang around the bus station hoping to share a ride. After a couple of hours, one driver agrees to negotiate for just the 2 of us. The doors of the car can only be opened from the outside, there are no headrests, fittings dangle from the door and suspension is merely a theory.

9 hours later we reach Riana Guesthouse, well located in town inside a maze of small lanes. One colorful sheet on the bed (I'm always having to ask for a top sheet), no sink in the bathroom (imagine), fan only and paper thin walls. The good news is the shower's hot, and the owner, former chief of a village, is passionate about his Torajan heritage.
Rianna Guesthouse, Rantepao, 12 euros with breakfast for 2

Rianna Guesthouse, Rantepao, 12 euros with breakfast for 2

There are many ceremonies related to life; birth, marriage, new home, church building, etc., but it is the unique customs associated with death that define Torajan culture. While the Dutch controlled Sulawesi from the 17th century, they pretty much left the (highland) Toraja region alone. Torajans resisted all monotheistic religions but when the spread of Islam began to threaten their customs they chose to convert to Christianity which was willing to tolerate their animist traditions. As one guide put it, "Torajans were not going to give up pork or palm wine, an integral part of all ceremonies!"
Traditional architecture built into a church

Traditional architecture built into a church

The rituals are complex, expensive and require planning. When a person dies, it can take months, even years, for the family to organize the funeral. During this time, the deceased is kept at home and referred to as a toma kula or sick person. In order to prevent decay and foul odor, the body is injected with a formaldehyde based mixture that over time mummifies the body. The family continues to interact with the "sick" person placing gifts next to them, drinking coffee or having meals by their side. While, it remains a sad time, the transition from life to death is a slow and peaceful process strengthening family bonds and honoring the deceased.
A young girl sits next to her grandfather who died a month ago, Embang near Rantepao

A young girl sits next to her grandfather who died a month ago, Embang near Rantepao

There's a saying in Indonesia - always ask your way 3 times. Each time we ask, we are pointed in the opposite direction shuttling back and forth on the main road, offering a good laugh to the locals, before finding the turn-off. The back roads are an adventure. Our scooter bounces along the cratered pavement shaded by gigantic bamboo trees, immense boulders and tropical foliage.
On the road, Toraja, Sulawesi

On the road, Toraja, Sulawesi


We eventually find our hosts who lead us up a steep dirt track to a Tongkonan, the traditional Torajan house notable for its sweeping curved roof. We are greeted by a large family busy with tasks. Several men are carving designs on a wooden coffin, while the women are inside the main house dry roasting the (recent) coffee harvest. Always happy to provide entertainment, I step up and try my hand at roasting the beans over the thick flame.
Carving the traditional coffin

Carving the traditional coffin

Roasting coffee in the kitchen of the Tongkonan, traditional home

Roasting coffee in the kitchen of the Tongkonan, traditional home

We are then invited to meet the deceased who is lying on a woven bed in a room behind a thin red cloth The colorful blanket covering her is removed to reveal her face. Ne Redaq was over 100 when she passed away 2 months ago. Her younger sister, Mama Andi, delicately strokes her hair.
A toma kula or sick person at home near Rantepao

A toma kula or sick person at home near Rantepao

The tenderness and calm is surprisingly heartwarming. As the deceased is a woman, we have brought a gift of paan, the concoction of betel leaves, areca nut and tobacco that stains the mouth red when chewed. Mama Andi helps herself to a handful, stuffing it into her lower lip, before placing the gift next to her sister.
Mama Andi with a mouthful of paan

Mama Andi with a mouthful of paan

Following a vague hand-drawn map, we ride an hour and a half north of Rantepao through terraced hills and bamboo forests towards Batutumonga, the highest elevation in Sulawesi.
Boat shaped roof of the Tongkonan characterizes the Torajan landscape

Boat shaped roof of the Tongkonan characterizes the Torajan landscape

I no longer have any qualms about asking if there are bodies to be seen or turning down offers of those already in a closed coffin, but finding people who speak English in these remote areas is a challenge. Eventually, someone points me to the home of a British guy. Don't get him started on Torajan funeral practices. He is outraged at what he calls, "the pathological pursuance of traditions that is driving these people into outrageous debt!"
Rice terraces around Batutumonga

Rice terraces around Batutumonga

Funeral season in Toraja begins after the harvest in June and tourists are welcomed. Locating the ceremonies on your own is virtually impossible, so for the first one, we hire a guide. On the way, we stop to visit Kete Kesu, a UNESCO subsidized village. Despite an entry fee and souvenir stalls, this open-air museum is a fine example of traditional Torajan architecture and village planning.

Torajans believe their ancestors came from the heavenly north. The roof shape of the Tongkonan represents the boat which carried their forefathers and also resembles the horns of the sacred water buffalo.

Elevated rice storage barns with the same roof design face the Tongkonan. Their number is a sign of wealth. The lower shaded platform is the primary gathering place for business and social interaction.
Unique architecture. View of the rice barns that face the traditional houses at Kete Kesu village

Unique architecture. View of the rice barns that face the traditional houses at Kete Kesu village

Torajans firmly believe that the soul of the buffalo accompanies the soul to heaven. Sacrificing a buffalo is a sign of great love; sacrificing many, particularly specimens of a certain coloration, is a matter of great pride and displaying the horns on the central beam of the house is the ultimate status symbol.
Display of wealth on the Tongkonan, traditional house

Display of wealth on the Tongkonan, traditional house

A path leads to several burial sites in and around caves. The remains of coffins, are perched "hanging" precariously on ledges outside of the cave. On balconies, carved into the rock-face, stand Tau Tau (wooden effigies) of those buried here. Inside one cave, coffins and personal effects are on display. Men with kerosene lamps are on hand to guide visitors through the darkness.
Hanging grave, Kete Kesu village

Hanging grave, Kete Kesu village


Tau Tau, wooden effigies of the deceased, Kete Kesu village

Tau Tau, wooden effigies of the deceased, Kete Kesu village


Tau Tau (wooden effigy) maker, Rantepao

Tau Tau (wooden effigy) maker, Rantepao


Tau Tau (wooden effigy) maker sitting in front of buffalo heads used for decoration on houses

Tau Tau (wooden effigy) maker sitting in front of buffalo heads used for decoration on houses

At the market, a prize buffalo can run over $40,000 dollars!
General view, Bolu buffalo market, Rantepao

General view, Bolu buffalo market, Rantepao


An exceptionally valuable specimen, Bolu buffalo market, Rantepao

An exceptionally valuable specimen, Bolu buffalo market, Rantepao


Live pigs for sale, Bolu buffalo market, Rantepao

Live pigs for sale, Bolu buffalo market, Rantepao

Sold! Bolu buffalo market

Sold! Bolu buffalo market


Smaller specimens are thrown together in burlap sacks and hauled off.

It's 11:20AM as we pull off the rocky trail onto a large property. We leave the car and follow groups of black-clad guests (stepping off trucks that have carried them and their offerings; trussed, squealing pigs, buffalo, etc.) up a steep climb passing a new grave house that our guide refers to as "the house without a kitchen". Five days from now the coffin will be laid to rest here. Under a makeshift shelter, several men meticulously register guests and their "gifts" which will be faithfully reciprocated by the family at future funerals. Torajans work their whole lives saving for funerals and paying off their family debts.
A truckload of guests on the way to a funeral

A truckload of guests on the way to a funeral

Around the funeral field (the courtyard in front of the Tongkonan) temporary numbered structures have been erected to accommodate hundreds of guests.
General view of the funeral field, early morning reception ritual

General view of the funeral field, early morning reception ritual

The reception ritual is more or less ornate according to the family's social status. Guests line up by family at the entrance behind men in traditional hats with feathers who advance slowly in a war dance followed by a woman singing a melancholy song and a man playing a bamboo flute. As the group walks around the courtyard, their names are announced by an MC. Their offerings are also paraded around and then marked.
Guests in the procession of the reception ceremony

Guests in the procession of the reception ceremony


Gifts are tagged and registered

Gifts are tagged and registered

The family's youngest children dressed in traditional costume and heavy make-up stand at the entrance of the reception platform where guests enter to pay condolences to the immediate family. Once they are seated, female volunteers from the village serve tea, coffee and sweets while a group of men form a circle in the center of the courtyard and perform Ma' badong the ceremonial welcome dance. Next a group of women in beaded dress sing and dance for the group. After, the guests are invited to move to their numbered seating area where they are welcome to eat, drink and sleep for the next few days. Group, by group, this reception ritual repeats over several days.
Kids take a break in between reception ceremonies

Kids take a break in between reception ceremonies


Ladies seated on one side of the reception platform

Ladies seated on one side of the reception platform

The courtyard slowly fills with animals. Screeching pigs are taken off to the side (or not) and slaughtered. The meat is cut and separated into piles. Some of it goes to the kitchen for cooking, the rest is distributed to guests and a portion will be given to local villagers. A man hurls a bloody pork leg into the center of the platform I'm sitting on. It's quickly wrapped in newspaper and offered to my neighbor.

As the sun moves to the western sky, the coffin and its effigy are led in a procession around the property. The emcee (master of ceremonies) conducts the crowd in chanting and screaming to push away any bad spirits, while a group of women beat a fierce rhythm with thick (bamboo) sticks on a rice troth. The coffin is then heaved up a wide bamboo ladder to its temporary resting place on a high balcony facing west.
Ladies beat a rythym on the rice troth

Ladies beat a rythym on the rice troth


The red cloth symbolizes the bridge to the afterlife

The red cloth symbolizes the bridge to the afterlife


Heaving the coffin up a bamboo ladder to its temporary resting place

Heaving the coffin up a bamboo ladder to its temporary resting place

We rent a scooter and return on our own on the following days bearing gifts of cigarettes and candy each day. We are always greeted warmly and invited to sit with the family. Coffee, sweets, buffalo or pork cooked in bamboo with rice, palm wine, more sweets; you cannot refuse. Very few people speak English, but we manage to interact and learn the customs.

A variety of ceremonies and games take place each day. At one point the crowd rushes into the rice fields to watch water buffalo fight each other with men wagering huge sums of money. Cockfights are also auspicious with very high stakes.
Water buffalo fights are part of the entertainment at a funeral

Water buffalo fights are part of the entertainment at a funeral

Cockfight. The spilling of blood on the earth is considered sacred and an important part of the funeral ceremony.

Cockfight. The spilling of blood on the earth is considered sacred and an important part of the funeral ceremony.

The owner of our guesthouse invites us to attend a relative's funeral. It is the second day and the main activity is receiving guests. When it is his family's turn, he invites me to walk with them. Besides the color of my skin, I'm over a foot taller than most. I feel silly but don't want to refuse the honor. The women wear beautiful woven hats. Even the detail of the weave has meaning and social significance.
Guests line up for the reception ceremony

Guests line up for the reception ceremony

Weave quality of the conical hat indicates status

Weave quality of the conical hat indicates status


The Ma' badong, ceremonial dance is repeated for every group of guests

The Ma' badong, ceremonial dance is repeated for every group of guests

We skip the following day which is dedicated to slaughtering pigs (>100). On the 4th day, we attend the buffalo sacrifice. As the deceased was an important government official, about 60 buffalos will be sacrificed. Imagine the budget and here we are sitting on bamboo mats eating off newspaper. Fortunately, not all the animals will actually be slain. Some are auctioned off with the proceeds donated to the church and community. Still, it's a rather gruesome couple of hours as about a dozen buffalo succumb before us. It is matter of great pride to drag the knife across the animal's throat. Blood gushes out and the animal drops on its hooves. But death will neither be quick nor painless. The animal will die slowly, laboring to get up time and again, every effort cheered by the crowd. The animals are skinned and butchered where they fall. Some of the meat will be cooked and served. The rest will be distributed to local families. I'm given an honorary seat with the family under the central rice barn to watch the blood bath. A rather difficult moment for western sensibilities.
Buffalo sacrifice

Buffalo sacrifice

Men sit under the rice barns to watch the buffalo sacrifice

Men sit under the rice barns to watch the buffalo sacrifice

An elder family member watches the buffalo sacrifice from the Tongkonan (traditional house)

An elder family member watches the buffalo sacrifice from the Tongkonan (traditional house)

On the last day, before laying the body to rest in the grave house, a large procession accompanies the coffin to the church. As the family pays their final respects, it is one of the few times where people are really distraught.
Funeral procession

Funeral procession


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The priest receives the coffin at the church

The priest receives the coffin at the church

Church service

Church service


The widow

The widow


The grave house

The grave house

In between funerals, we visit a number of unique burial sites around Rantepao.
Inside Londa burial cave

Inside Londa burial cave

Posing next to a coffin, Londa burial cave

Posing next to a coffin, Londa burial cave

Downright bizarre are the baby graves; trees with small wooden doors on them. Only babies who died before their teeth came in were buried here. It was thought that their spirit became one with the tree. They are no longer in use.
Kuburan Bayi baby grave

Kuburan Bayi baby grave


Tampangallo burial cave in between Suaya and Kambira, south of Rantepao

Tampangallo burial cave in between Suaya and Kambira, south of Rantepao

Close-up of Tau Tau (wooden effigies), Tampangallo burial cave

Close-up of Tau Tau (wooden effigies), Tampangallo burial cave


Lemo, graves carved into the rock with Tau Tau (effigies) standing guard

Lemo, graves carved into the rock with Tau Tau (effigies) standing guard


Lokomata burial rock

Lokomata burial rock


Megaliths at Bori Kalimbuang aka Bori Parinding

Megaliths at Bori Kalimbuang aka Bori Parinding

Rock graves at Bori Kalimbuang aka Bori Parinding

Rock graves at Bori Kalimbuang aka Bori Parinding

Traffic in town and the poor condition of many roads make some journeys arduous. It's amazing to see what people carry on their bikes. One guy who passes us on a motorcycle has got a live chicken in one hand and a cell phone wedged between his ear and shoulder. This pig is screeching as it whizzes by.
Transporting a live pig, near Rantepao

Transporting a live pig, near Rantepao

Our first real encounter with the monsoon comes one late afternoon. A few drops of rain turn into a deluge within seconds. Totally unprepared, we duck under a leaky wooden bus shelter with a few locals. It seems like the more I will the rain to stop, the harder it falls. It's 2 hours and dark before we dare to venture out. The next day, we invest $2 in (lifesaving) plastic ponchos!
Waiting out the rain under a bus shelter, Rantepao

Waiting out the rain under a bus shelter, Rantepao

No end to the rain in sight, Rantepao

No end to the rain in sight, Rantepao

It takes persistence to find the ancient burial site of Erong Lombok. The road is so steep, the scooter stutters and I have to walk. I'm sweating bullets, (imagine how this lady feels) when the road finally plummets towards a house.
Woman with a heavy load on the road leading to Erong Lombok burial cave, Parinding

Woman with a heavy load on the road leading to Erong Lombok burial cave, Parinding


It feels like we're trespassing until a woman waves us thru the yard along slick, moss-covered steps through thick jungle before I quite literally trip into a giant cave filled with hundred-year-old rotted wood caskets, piles of bones and cobwebs. Straight out of an Indiana Jones film, it's so damp, even the skulls and bones have moss on them!
General view, Erong Lombok ancient burial cave, Parinding

General view, Erong Lombok ancient burial cave, Parinding

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With a week left on our visa, we make our way north to Manado, from where we'll fly to Singapore. It's a 20 hour bus ride to Palu, not even halfway. At the bus stand, I'm sitting next to a sealed cardboard box with a few small holes in it. There is a rooster inside! Everytime it cockles, the top of the box expands. It will be riding slingshot with a motorcycle and another rooster traveling in a plastic rice sack (all 3) attached to the back of the bus!
Motorcycle and bagged roosters ride on the back of the bus

Motorcycle and bagged roosters ride on the back of the bus

It's actually a pretty comfortable ride with frequent stops for food, toilets and various package pick-ups and delivery. The road, twists and turns the entire trip, peppered with insanely bumpy stretches. If you suffer from car sickness, this road is not for you.
One of the buses on the 48 hour trek from Rantepao to Manado

One of the buses on the 48 hour trek from Rantepao to Manado

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On the road in central Sulawesi

On the road in central Sulawesi

Rest stop on the 48 hour journey across Sulawesi

Rest stop on the 48 hour journey across Sulawesi

Bus ride through central Sulawesi

Bus ride through central Sulawesi

Onward public bus options from Palu are few, far between, and smoking is permitted, so we wait. Eventually, a minivan in search of passengers pulls up and we're off comfortably seated for the next 18 hours. Our driver, obviously in a hurry, pays no attention to the terrain and barrels thru as though it were smooth and straight. The best thing to do is close your eyes. It's 3AM when he spits us out in Gorontalo.
Gorontalo bus stand middle of the night

Gorontalo bus stand middle of the night

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We were hoping to stop here in Gorontalo to swim with whale sharks, but it turns out we're 2 weeks late. The next bus is in a couple of hours. I pace up and down the bus station hoping to deflate my ankles which are suffering from the long, seated journeys. One look at all the smokers on the 5AM bus and we pass. But again, hang around long enough and solutions present themselves. By 8:30 we are relatively well seated in a Kijang (shared taxi) for the remaining 10 hour journey to Manado. It's a bit of a fight, but we prevail and no one smokes in the car.

I hear the question... yes, yes, you can fly to Manado, but where's the adventure in that? While the villages are just shanty towns, the road cut though the jungle is a breathtaking palette of mixed greens, swollen from the intermittent rain.
View from the bus, central Sulawesi

View from the bus, central Sulawesi

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Manado is a sprawling city with several shopping malls and theme parks along the ocean front. Traffic is legendary. Blue, hop on/off public taxis called Bemos crawl up and down the avenues. In order to stand out, they're fitted with lights and mega bass sound systems blaring techno which is particularly entertaining at night.
Pimp my bemo, minibus shared taxi, Manado

Pimp my bemo, minibus shared taxi, Manado

Hotel Istanaku is clean and basic with incredibly nice staff.
Istanaku Guesthouse Manado (20 eu)

Istanaku Guesthouse Manado (20 eu)

With 3 days left on our visa, we head to Bunaken island (1 hour by ferry from Manado) which claims to be one of the best dive spots in Indonesia. We stop at a supermarket near the ferry and check out some of the local specialties...
Rats and bats for sale at the supermarket, Manado

Rats and bats for sale at the supermarket, Manado

Resting near the port, Manado

Resting near the port, Manado


Ferry to Bunaken island

Ferry to Bunaken island

Ferry to Bunaken island

Ferry to Bunaken island


View of Bunaken island from the ferry

View of Bunaken island from the ferry


View of Seabreeze Resort, Bunaken

View of Seabreeze Resort, Bunaken

We splurge for the sea front bungalow, $80/night all meals included, at Bunaken Divers. Fan, cold desalized water, but it's so hot and humid, it'll do. The place, like the island, is rustic with a nice laid back vibe. We only have one day for snorkeling. The boat takes us to 3 nice spots with, many, many fish, and walls of colorful coral. In the afternoon we swim with big turtles. Unfortunately, some spots have too much plastic floating along side the fish... You might not plan a trip here, but if you're in Manado, it's a quaint escape from the congested city.
Snorkeling in Bunaken

Snorkeling in Bunaken

Swimming with turtles, Bunaken

Swimming with turtles, Bunaken

Moray eel, Bunaken

Moray eel, Bunaken

Since we have to make a visa run, we decide to explore Singapore and Malaysia. We'll be back in Sulawesi in a month for THE most unusual death ritual in Toraja, perhaps anywhere!

Posted by SpiceChronicles 05:19 Archived in Indonesia

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Comments

Nicely done - and I know this is only a fraction of the pics taken...I would find it hard to return. It would be so much more productive if they would celebrate their lives as much as their deaths...

by steve

Fascinating!

by Leslie

Okay, not going to lie...although beautiful...had a bit of a hard time with this one...a little too brutal for me, eek...but the photos are, as always amazing... and the stories spectacular...love you XOXO!

by JoOnna G Silberman

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