Tana Toraja, Sulawesi


Tana Toraja, Sulawesi.

Tearing myself away from idyllic Flores I decided my next destination would be a specific region of Sulawesi, famous for the extraordinary funerals that take place during or directly after rice harvesting.

With two connecting flights to get me to the capital city of Makassar I was convinced this would be the first time me and my backpack would part company but no, all was well.

Makassar is a sprawling metropolis with heavy traffic and few stand-out sights. As it was boiling hot my best option was to head for a beachside hotel to while away the afternoon before my night bus to Rantepao, the capital of the Tana Toraja region. Sulawesi is notorious for its terrible roads and transport system. I was therefore expecting a horrendous 9 hour journey but it turned out the bus had spacious seats that reclined almost to a flatbed, proper pillows and blankets and best of all no freezing air con or incessant musak.

It was a bumpy ride and it rained heavily but I managed to get enough sleep, arriving in Rantepao at 6am in good spirits. Luckily a fellow traveller had given me details of a reliable guide who was there to pick me up, take me to the homestay he had organised for me and plan my 4-day trip with him.

I say I was lucky because most of the travellers I talked to had found themselves harassed by local guides the minute they stepped off the bus. Being tired and unsure of the lie of the land they had gladly accepted lifts to homestays and then before they knew it had signed up for trips at overly inflated prices. My guide told me this was becoming an increasingly severe problem and urged me to write about it on the go-to source of information which is Trip Advisor, suggesting visitors take their time in finding a guide, talking to their homestay host or hotel etc. Job done.

The Torajans live in the highlands of South West Sulawesi and traditionally practiced animism, worshiping Puang Matua – the god of their tribe. Fast forward to the early 1900s when the Dutch missionaries got their hands on them and tried to convert them to Christianity. They largely achieved their goal, weening them off all their ritual practices barring their extravagant funeral ceremonies, which continue to this day and are a major attraction for nosy people like me.

You really need to experience the funeral first hand to get your head round just how other worldly it is. Picture lush countryside with rice fields and mountains as far as the eye can see, then picture motor bikes groaning under the weight of 4-5 people on them and cattle trucks full of black-clad relatives and friends driving along pot-holed roads in the pouring rain to the village of the deceased. Add a truck from each neighbouring village transporting a pig tied to bamboo poles to be offered for sacrifice and you have a less then typical traffic jam.

Once my guide and I arrived in the village we sought out the village chief so that I could give him my obligatory gift of a carton of cigarettes by way of ‘entrance fee’. The family of the deceased was sitting in a special tent receiving guests. Each time people from a new village arrived they were announced by women pounding rice and men drumming. The villagers then processed to the family’s tent with their offerings, accompanied by 2 old women chanting and 2 old men playing pipes. Pleasantries over, the men then performed a circular dance whilst the women served delicious coffee and Torajan cakes to the assembled crowd which included me and about 20 other tourists. The village pig was then taken off to be slaughtered and chopped up -some of it being barbecued and some being tied in little plastic bags to be distributed to guests to take home and cook.

And so the process was repeated for many villages by which time the smell of char grilled pig was all pervading!

As soon as the sun moved into the descendent the coffin was carried by 8 men from the room it had been laid in and paraded around before being shaken up and down to let the trapped spirit fly away. The coffin was then hoisted up onto a central structure to much laughter and whooping. Once in position it was time for the grand finale.

This bit is dramatic so stop reading now if you’re squeamish about blood or a vegetarian!

One of the buffalos which has been purchased by the deceased’s family for ritual slaughter was picked out. He was tied to a stake and then, as I watch through fingers over my eyes, the executioner slit the beast’s throat with one swift clean cut. Naturally the blood spurted out in a torrent but what I noticed through half closed eyes was that he didn’t have a single drop on his white shirt. The buffalo’s death wasn’t very swift and it shocked me that all the children were oblivious to the animal’s pain and suffering and it jumped around in circles before crashing to the ground. I admit I took a photo – just the one.

Next, with the dead buffalo lying in front of the coffin, the village chief gave his eulogy. He had a voice that rose and fell melodically as he told stories which elicited laughter and tears and he kept waving the deceased straw hat.

Finally there was a buffalo fight but by this stage I was feeling nauseated by the stench of so much killing and the muddy rivers of blood so we left, driving in silence through the beautiful countryside as I reflected on the extraordinary and I must say, shocking ritual I had witnessed.

This was a particularly lavish funeral but over the next few days, as I biked through the countryside passing through traditional villages, I saw more funeral processions (didn’t stay for the ceremonial stuff) which were simpler.

What all Torajan funerals include is the offering of a pig per village and at least two or three buffalo. The number of buffalo depends on how wealthy the family of the deceased is. The maximum number that will be slaughtered is 24, which happens over a 3 day period.

Because funerals are so expensive it can take several years for a family to amass the money. It is expected that every family member, wherever they are in the world will a) contribute and b)attend. During the time it takes to get the money together the body is embalmed but not put in a coffin, and kept in the house. The person is not considered dead, just sick. He/she must therefore be addressed by anyone visiting the house i.e. Hello, Goodbye. Sometimes another family member will die before the first has been buried and so they can share the funeral. I met a tourist who had come from a husband and wife funeral, he having been dead 5 years and she 2 years. Hard to imagine really.

The deceased is finally buried in a grave carved out of the rock face. Before the stonemason beings, a dog is sacrificed firstly to ask permission to dig the grave and secondly to make the stone less hard to chisel. Noblemen are buried up high, the middle class in the centre and the lower class at the bottom. Beside the graves are balconies with life-like effigies of the deceased. If the family of the deceased is a extremely wealthy they may also purchase a stone megalith which will be transported to a memorial site outside the village.

Though no longer a form of burial, there are many hanging graves in Tana Toraja. These are wooden coffins suspended from the rock face, in the same noble, middle, low ranking order. Many still hang precariously but many have crashed to the ground scattering bones everywhere and I reckon many of the bones are not the original ones.

Amongst all this paganism there was a burial ritual, not longer practiced, which I found particularly touching – that of a baby who had died before growing teeth. Considered pure, the baby was taken to a special burial tree in the forest. Here the body was placed upright in the trunk so that as the tree grew the sap would nurture the baby so that he/she would grow with it. The only cruelty was that the mother was never allowed to visit the tree because once the baby had been returned to nature it was deemed to no longer belong to her.


Having thoroughly immersed myself in the whole Torajan death ritual scene, I needed some light relief which came in the form of walking through beautiful rice fields. Despite the fact that it rained almost non-stop every day (dry season seeming to have succumbed to El Nino) I regret not spending a couple of days doing some proper hiking in the area because the mountains with their sweeping views across the valley were beautiful and my guide was so knowledgeable and nice.

I’d like to say I’ll do it another time but I’m pretty sure I’ll ever pass that way again.



2 thoughts on “Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

  1. Sue Harvie-Austin

    You’re writing of these incredible experiences transport me to each location.
    What a tremendous time you’re having Jinny.
    Probably heard you’re old boss has moved up a notch or two!
    Also Ginny, sadly my beloved Mum passed away last weekend. She is st peace now God bless her. xx


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