Monday, June 14, 2010

Tana Toraja

Sulawesi is an amazing island and I’d like to point out that three of the coolest and most unusual places to visit all start with the letter T. My personal trio of “must see” places on Sulawesi include the Bajo stilt village of Torosiaje, the diving paradise of the Togean Islands and now Tana Toraja, a cluster of small, traditional villages in South Sulawesi known for their elaborate funerals. Nestled high in the cool mountains, surrounded by gorgeous rice paddies, and inhabited by people who believe in Christianity and polytheistic animism, Tana Toraja distinguishes itself from most other areas in Indonesia. It’s an absolutely fascinating place to visit.

Beautiful scenery in Tana Toraja

I flew down to Makassar to meet up with two other ELFs – Courtney and Ashleigh – and together we set off on what was supposed to be an 8 hour bus ride to Tana Toraja. But the bus we were originally in was broken so we all climbed out again and hung around the bus terminal for an extra hour waiting for a replacement bus. Once we got ourselves reasonably settled in on the new bus, we learned that the road to Tana Toraja was under construction (of course!). All in all, our trip took 11 hours instead of 8.

Early the next morning we got up early to have a lovely banana pancake breakfast on the veranda of our traditional tongkonan-style cottage. Over mugs of steaming hot Torajan coffee, we chatted and joked around with the hotel guy who had picked us up from the bus station the night before and got us settled in our rooms. We mentioned we were looking to hire a car and guide for the day to take us around the villages and he promptly offered his services.

Fery proved to be a good choice because, being Torajan himself, he knew the area well but he had also lived in many other places in Indonesia and had a good sense of humor. He was great! We piled into a van driven by his friend Thomas and promptly hit the road singing and joking to keep ourselves entertained. Fery mentioned there was a funeral in progress so we stopped at a small toko along the way to buy a carton of cigarettes to give the family as a gift for allowing us to attend the funeral, as is the custom. We milled around the store buying donuts, water and a few other things, but somehow managed to forget what we originally went in for – the cigarettes!

The first touristy stop of the day for our merry troop was the village of Lemo. The Torajans traditionally bury their dead in specially hollowed out cliff caves. The coffins are kept deep inside the caves while the entrances are marked with lifelike wooden effigies known as tau tau.

Cliff graves and effigies at Lemo

A woodcarver at work

Our next stop was the cave in Londa. Here we hired a guide with a gas lamp to take us deep inside a cave to see the coffins. It felt like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.

Exploring the cave in Londa

Then we headed to La’bo where we expected to attend a funeral, but it turned out to be a day of rest for the family. (Funerals typically last for five days, so I guess a day of rest is very welcomed!) But we still got to look around. Apparently, massive cock fights are staged on the day of rest and we watched a succession of men with their …uh…cocks walk by us on their way to a fight as we sat sipping coffee and tea while waiting out a sudden downpour. We also got to take in the scenery, which included this tall structure where the coffin is held for the duration of the funeral until the body is brought to the caves. Interestingly, these structures are built by hand and then burned as firewood after the funeral. We also learned that the color red is used for males and black for females. So, this was a funeral for a male.

Funeral scene in La'bo

The Toraja people are constantly in a state of getting ready for funerals. Not only are they busy building these elaborate structures, but families also have to wait to bury their dead until they have enough money to buy the required number of buffaloes to sacrifice. And have you ever looked into purchasing a buffalo? They are expensive! In some cases, one buffalo costs the same as a small car, several thousand dollars. And this is a country where university lecturers only earn about $200 a month. As a result, bodies are kept in the family home for YEARS until the family is ready to stage a funeral.

The last stop of the day was at Ke’te Kesu where we visited some traditional tongkonan houses with their famous curving roofs and pillars of buffalo horns. The horns attached to the houses are status symbols – the more horns you have, the higher the status of the family, which is no wonder considering the cost. We were also able to climb up the inside of one and see the simple area used for sleeping and cooking. Actually, someone was asleep in the back room of the house we visited but Fery told us not to worry about it!

Traditional houses in Ke'te Kesu

Court, Ash and I only visited a handful of the more touristy villages but there are many others. In some of the more remote villages it’s even possible to stay overnight in one of the traditional tongkonan houses. My ETAs also highly recommended a white water rafting trip in the area. While one day is enough to get a feel for the place, it definitely leaves you itching for more. We never even actually saw a funeral, which is what Tana Toraja is most famous for. That said, it was an extremely satisfying trip and I will miss my two travel buddies immensely. Thanks for the laughs, ladies!

Dinner at Mart's Cafe with Court, Ash and Fery


  1. My travel buddy...I'll miss you too! Especially when I run into monsters.

  2. A wonderful post. Are you also the photographer?

    I've read of Torajan funerary customs, but only in Lonely Planet and in an Indonesia survey. Now I'm tempted to scout around on JSTOR tomorrow at the office for some articles in anthropology or religious studies journals.

    Did you tell the friend Thomas that he fit in with the alliterating highlights of Sulawesi?

  3. Thanks, William! Yes, I was the photographer for all the pictures except the last one ;-). Tana Toraja would definitely be worth a visit if you make it to Indonesia next year!