Tana Toraja Regency and the cult of death in Sulawesi
We really went up for knowing Sulawesi and the Torojan ethnic group at Tana Toraja Regency. While preparing the itinerary to Sulawesi, we sensed that it would be the highlight of the trip, what we had read about its culture and funeral rites sounded fascinating and unique so had great expectations for what we could find. With this in mind we wanted to attend a celebration and watch in situ how coexist in the day to day living and dead.
We stayed in Sulawesi 8 days where and were able to hit the main things we planned to do all over the island, as well as spend time relaxing and snorkeling in Bira.
We arranged the days like this:
- 3 days in Tana-Toroja
- 1 day Danau Tempe
- 2 days in Bira
- 1 day in Makassar and transfer to the airport to take a flight to Flores
How to get to Makassar
To get to Makassar (capital of Sulawesi) from Lombok, you can find cheap flights with Lion’s airline. It takes about 1 hour.
We bought the flights tickets in Kuta-Lombok at a travel agency just before we came.
We already knew that it would be easy to contact an agency that would organize the tour, especially with a driver because the roads are terrible. What we didn’t think was that it was so easy. As we disembarked and while we were collecting our luggage, without leaving the airport, a travel agent from the many offices there, approached to inform us of the tours they offered. We ended up negotiating and hiring a 7-day all-inclusive custom package: visits (entrance fee), guide, driver, car, petrol and accommodation. It was a hit as it saved us a lot of time and everything was perfect.
To get to know the Tana-Toroja regency you have to go to Rantepao.
How to get to Rantepao
The journey between Makassar and Rantepao has a good connection by bus. We traveled at night on a sleeping-bus; we took the bus at 22:00 pm and arrived at Rantepao at 7 am. On our arrival our tour guide was already waiting for us ready to show us around.
There are several bus companies that ride the tour from Makassar to Rantepao. I recommend Litha which was the one we used and everything went very well. Another recommendation: On the bus the air conditioner is unbearably cold and you freeze to death so don’t forget to bring along warm clothes.
TANA TORAJA CULTURE AND FUNERAL RITES
The island of Sulawesi also known as Celebes is one of the largest in Indonesia. Most inhabitants are Muslims, except for the Torojan ethnic group who are Christians, albeit in their own way. The Tana-Toraja society possess one of the most striking and original cultures in the world. On the one hand, how they perceive death and on the other by the architecture of their houses, with the roof shaped like an inverted boat.
Death is a person’s most important moment as it is the transit into the “After Life”.
In the beliefs of the Torajan society, the slaughtered buffaloes act as a vehicle for the soul to reach the Paradise, so it is important to sacrifice as many buffaloes and pigs as possible. Until they have enough money, they don’t celebrate the funeral for the “after life”.
The Torojan society treat a deceased person as if he is alive; for them is just asleep or sick. The body is embalmed and live with the mummified corpse in the house as if it were alive. Bring them food, water, and talk to them until they save enough money for the funeral. It could take months or years.
In order to facilitate his transition to the afterlife, the more animal go with him the easier the soul reach the Afterlife. With this purpose they slaughter and gut buffaloes, pigs and other animals with great joy. The higher position the family has, the more buffaloes must be sacrificed.
As an illustration of their expenses, buffalo prices range from 2,500 euros to 30,000 euros, albinos who are the most coveted. The funeral is more like a party indeed, people dance, sing and celebrate.
Watching a Buffalo or pig dissing and gutting in record time is quite a show unsuitable for all audiences.
As soon as the Funeral is held, the corpse is buried.
Traditionally, the deceased is buried in a hollowed out a grave on the edge of a cliff that sometimes reaches 30 meters above the ground. The higher up the body is buried in the rock, the higher social status shows. To protect the death body, they create a Tau-Tau that dress in their clothes and place overlooking the grave.
The Tau-Tau are figures carved of wood or stone in the deceased’s image. After the funeral, they place them in a viewpoint above the cave to protect the dead.
You can see them in the southern area of Rantepao: Londa, Lemo and Kambira.
Here there are 2 burial sites: the hanging tombs in the center on the cliff rock with their Tau-Tau and also inside the cave, the coffins are open and the bones and skulls aligned or on the ground.
In this case the coffins are in small caves on the rock and overlooking from the balcony by the “Tau Tau”.
Babies burials take place inside the trees. The babies who die before their first tooth comes out has a different burial. According to the torojan is a way to return to nature back something in its purest state.
“TONGKONANS” (Traditional Houses)
The architecture of the houses is unusual, the roof assembled the shape of an inverted boat. They’re called “Tongkonans.” They represent the ships on which the first settlers arrived in Sulawesi. The house is always oriented from north to south, so the front door is a border between the human and the divine. The amount of buffalo horns exposed in it shows the wealth and prestige of its owners.
You can see these traditional houses in the northern part of Rantepao: Palawa, Kete kesu, Bori, Deri and Batutumonga.
Palawa village is perhaps the most touristic and therefore they charge a more expensive entrance fee, still worth it. Anyway, Tongkonan Palawa is one of the most interesting Tongkonan with many bull horns hung in vertical array on the front gable of the ancestral house.
However, along Tana Toroja roads you will also find other similar villages where you can stop to take some photos for free.
This town is the most well-known landmark of the Tana Toraja region, is around 5 km away from Rantepao and, with more than 300 years old and has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
In this village the Tongkonans are arranged around a square, in a landscape surrounded by stunning rice paddies and green hills. Near the hills you can see open tombs, a tomb with skulls placed in row and Tau Taus.
Waking along its paths we can see dozens of tombs carved into the rock. Close to the houses, stand ancient megalithic stones as tombstones, of different heights up to 5 meters high.
The houses are surrounded by stunning rice paddies through which you can make a trekking while enjoying a unique panoramic view.
Besides the scenic view of houses and tombs you can trek through the rice paddies while observing peasants working the land. There is also a viewpoint on the road where amazing traditional houses and rice fields extended into a stunning sight.
Accomodation in traditional Torajan house
We overnighted 1 night with a Torajan family in a traditional village where they offered us a dinner prepared in the traditional Torajan style: chicken with rice and vegetables cooked in bamboo with Young Stern banana and for drinking the local palm wine “Ballo”. The meal was exquisite, but the wine tasted as vinegar.
Inside the house it was chilling and rather moist. Even with the blankets we borrowed to sleep, we froze. The funniest thing. The bathroom was a few meters away, in the center of the village, shared with the next-door neighboring houses. Surprisingly was quite a unique experience.
RANTEPAO CENTER : Traditional Buffalo Market
The market forms a part of the Torojan culture fully integrated with the traditions of the Torajan society, it’s interesting to visit it to see how it reflects society.
According to the Torajan population believes, the more money the family that organizes the funeral ceremony the more buffaloes and pigs have to slaughter.
At the time of the funerals period, they can sell up to 500 buffaloes in a market day in spite of opening only once every 6 days. However, it’s the largest sales center for buffaloes and pigs in Rantepao and surrounding communities.
In addition to buffaloes, all kind of vegetables, coffee, food, crafts and souvenirs are sold in this market.
It comprises 2 large sections packed with both local people and tourists.
Bolu Market, where they sell the buffaloes for sacrifice at burial ceremonies.
Makale market, it has one part for the piglets that sell to be fed and fattened and another for pigs to be slaughtered; The latter ones, were lied on the ground with their legs tied to bamboo sticks. I was sorry to see them like this.
Where to eat in Rantepao
- Restaurant Cafe Aras
- Kaana Toraya Coffe
Where to stay in Rantepao
– Toraja Lodge Hotel, we overnighted here 1 night, and was perfect. Spotless, comfortable and delicious breakfast.
Recommended time to visit Tana Toraja: 3 days, add 2 more if you want to trek through its villages and rice paddies.
It is difficult to find the ceremonies, Torajan keep them with some secrecy for you to hire a guide. Once you get it on, they are friendly and invite you to coffee and cookies.
SULAWESI – DANAU TEMPE or LAKE TEMPE
On this tour we will get to know the spectacular Lake Tempe. Its landscape is extraordinary. Palm trees that grow in the water and a floating village with their houses, market, schools and several mosques on both sides of the canal. It’s located south of Sulawesi, from Rentepao it takes about 6 hours to reach Senkang City by car. The roads are awful, but the scenery we meet along them is amazing.
Once in Senkang the guide provides us with a sped boat to sail along Sungai Walanae. The tour takes almost 2 hours. On the way we came to see the fishermen’s houses, palm trees and mosque on the banks of the canal. At first glance it looks like a surreal scenario with palm trees coming up from the water.
A floating village
At Salotangah floating village, stopped by one fisherman’s floating houses and spared some time with a group of fishermen, snaking some coffee and muffins, while explained to us their daily life runs on. The houses barely furnished, composed of 2 bedrooms: one made of kitchen and the second serves as a dining room, living room and bedroom. In the lake they wash, scrub, clean clothes, everything they need. On the way back, crossed to Batu Batu village where enjoyed a spectacular sunset, with the mosques illuminated and a sense of peace and tranquility.
I found this experience unique so I fully recommend it.
We stayed at the Pondok Eka hotel, 1 kilometer from the centre.
The next day we leave Sengkang at 8:30 and after 6 hours’ drive we reached Bira. Here, we could relax and spend time snorkeling once more time, which we loved.
SULAWESI – BIRA
Bira, located south of Sulawesi, a tourist destination spot for the inhabitants of Makassar for its closeness. On weekends the beach is packed as they show up to have a rest and swim; and from Monday to Friday is a quiet place.
Since we made on a Thursday, there were few people and our 7 people’s group drew their attention.. A local fisherman approached, offering us to hire his boat to Liukang Loe Island for snorkeling. It came out of the blue and happily accepted it. Next day we enjoyed a snorkeling morning full of fun and hard to forget. White sand, colorful fishes and crystal clear waters made our day!.
SULAWESI – MAKASSAR
On the very last day in Makassar on our way to the airport, we did two stops to visit these interesting spots:
Tana Beru craft shipyard
Famous for its traditional wooden ships making. It was fascinating to observe how skilled craftsmen worked the wood on producing the boat. We walked along the ship under construction, as they explained to us the blueprints. Takes about 3 to 6 months or longer to finish such kind of boat. We really enjoy with their interesting explanations.
Dated from 1545 is made of stones and clay in the form of a turtle. The shape of the turtle is symbolic, geared to live on soil and at sea. You can stroll through the Fort’s ancient halls and pay a visit to its museum to find out more about the history of South Sulawesi.
Sulawesi Guide Wrap Up
I hope this guide to get to know Sulawesi and Tana Toroja Regency was useful and encourages you to include Sulawesi in your next trip to Indonesia.
And with this we put an end to our stay in Sulawesi. The next stop: Flores and Komodo National Park.
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* Flores and Komodo National Park. A tour around this amazing island
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