Toraja Land: Death Becomes Us All


“Death is a release from the impressions of the senses, and from desires that make us their puppets, and from the vagaries of the mind, and from the hard service of the flesh.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

In March, as part of the Best of Indonesia expedition cruise with Zegrahm Expeditions I spent two days exploring Toraja Land in the highlands of South Sulawesi (you can see its exact location by clicking here), a land brimming with fascinating culture and almost completely off-the beaten track – I do so love to veer of the path now and again!


I decided to open my latest post with Marcus Aurelius rather macabre quote, because I have never been anywhere where the concept of death was an epicentre of social and cultural activities, and where death was in higher regard to life, which we, Westerners, seem to value above all. And to me this quote to me seems to embody a lot of what the Torajan culture stands for.


So, who are the Toraja?

The Toraja are an indigenous ethnic group, which in the present day numbers over one million people, residing in the mountainous Sulawesi, a large island notable for its extraordinarily contorted shape and a dizzying array of cultures, some of Indonesia’s most distinctive and anthropologically significant.


The Torajans see death as the continuation of life, and they are widely known primarily for aspects of culture relating to death: elaborate and expensive funeral rituals; huge peaked roof traditional houses known as tongkonan reminiscent of other-worldly boats; monumental burial sites carved into a rocky cliffs…


Up until early 20th century, the Toraja people in almost complete isolation, practically untouched by the outside world. Their lives were ruled by the practice of animism, the worldview that animals and plants possess a spiritual essence. This indigenous belief system is called aluk, or “the way” (sometimes translated as “the law”). According to the local myth, the ancestors of Toraja came down from heaven using stairs, which were lated used as a mean to communicate with their Creator, Puang Matua. Unfortunately, in the early 1900s the Dutch, fearing the spread of Islam in Indonesia – it is now the world’s largest Muslim country in the world – decided to convert the Torajan people to Christianty, and were very successful in doing so.


A funeral is not an occasion for sorrow…

Toraja funerals are social events of utmost importance and are attended by hundreds of people, sometimes lasting several days. Here, a funeral, rather than a wedding, like it is in the Western society, marks the social status of the family. It is not an occasion for sorrow; instead it is a cause for celebration of the transition between the different worlds, where all friends and family participate.


We were exceptionally lucky to stumble across one such funeral of a prominent old lady, where being visitors from very faraway lands we were treated as guests of honour. It was a very special experience, because it gave us rare glimpse into the authentic, unfamiliar and raw culture .


The ceremonial site, which we reached by climbing yet another mountain on foot, was something out of a fantasy novel or perhaps a more exotic version of Game of Thrones: shelters for audiences were built in a circle with the bloodbath brimming with dismembered water buffalo carcasses in the centre. This particular ceremony was being held weeks after the death of the said old lady – such delay is often needed so that the deceased’s family can organise all the logistics and funding for such an elaborate event. Throughout the waiting period, the body of the departed in wrapped in several layers of cloth and kept beneath one of the traditional houses. One woman that we spoke to in one of the villages we visited later told us that she lived with the corpse of her deceased husband for weeks…


Sacrifice of water buffaloes…

The slaughter of water buffaloes is an important component and the climax of a death feast, and the more powerful the deceased, the greater number of water buffaloes are sacrificed. Torajans believe that the dead will need the buffalo to make the journey to the other side, and that they will be quicker to arrive there if they have as many buffalo as possible.


Albino water buffaloes are the most precious ones – on average worth $17,000 – and preferable for funeral sacrifice.

At the feast that we partook, seven water buffaloes had been slaughtered. I still vividly remember trying to find my way through the bloody mess to reach the part of the shelter allocated to women, carefully finding my footing through the least gory-looking drier sections, inadvertently retching due to the overwhelming smell and trying to hide my adverse reaction as not to offend the other spectators.


A sacred cockfight is another integral part of a funeral ceremony. As with the sacrifice of the buffalo, the cock fight is considered sacred because it involves the spilling of blood on the earth. Unfortunately, nowadays the sacred aspect of the cockfight has somewhat degenerated into an excuse for gambling, and fewer people view it as part of the religious ceremony.


How to bury the dead…

Torajan people bury their dead in various ways: the coffin may be hung on a cliff (like in the photo above), or laid in a cave or in a carved stone grave. Each coffin contains any possessions that the departed will need in the after life. The wealthy Torajans are often buried in a stone grave carved out of a rocky cliff – such a grave is no the expensive side and may take a few months to complete. In some areas, a stone cave can be large enough to accomodate the whole family.


We explored a few caves with coffins piled inside. Somehow disconcerting…


A wood or bamboo carved effigy, called a Tau tau, is usually placed in the cave that overlooks the land. The word tau is a Torajan word meaning man. I picked up a couple from the selection above, after the lady selling them insisted that she carved them with her own hands. Now they sit in my house, looking over my living room right next to voodoo dolls from New Orleans – a little creepy, I suppose.


We also visited a big tree where several babies have been buried inside, and as the tree is growing, the babies within were closer to heaven, I suppose.The Toraja have a unique approach to marking the death of a baby. If a child dies before teething, the family cuts a hole into the side of a tree and places the little corpse inside. Afterwards, the tree regrows around the baby’s body and absorbs it.


The big tree with baby graves inside…


And what magnificent houses, of course!

We visited a number of traditional villages, which consisted of monumental traditional ancestral houses tongkonan, their striking roofs shaped like a boat and saddlebacked – every village I saw was an arresting sight! Legend has it that the Toraja first came to Sulawesi from the north by boats, but caught in a fierce unforgiving storm, their boats were so badly damaged that they used them as roofs for their new dwellings. 


The interior of the house is surprisingly small compared to the overwhelming room above it. Obviously curious, I climbed inside a couple of houses: they were dark and cramped, yet somewhat cosy. However, the Toraja spend most of their daily lives outside, using their houses solely for shelter, storage and an occasional meeting.


As you might expect, construction of each tongkonan is a lengthy and laborious process.  In the olden days only the nobles were allowed to live in such imposing dwellings, whereas common people resided in much simpler dwellings.

A few more other interesting bits about Toraja Land…


We also visited the famous site of Bori’ Parinding, unique to Tana Toraja, an amalgamation of ceremonial grounds and burials, where more than a hundred menhir (large upright stone) stand, each representing a feast of merit performed in the past by a certain high status person. Scattered around the ceremonial ground are huge stone boulders with stone chambers carved out of them, where human remains are placed.


Wood carvings are Toraja’s foremost cultural manifestation, which they undertake in order to express foremost social and religious concepts. Each and every carving receives a special name, and common motifs are scenes from local life, as well as animals and plants that symbolize some virtue.


We also visited Sadan village famous for its ikat weaving. Ikat is the tie-dyeing method used to give these textiles their stand-out vibrancy of colour and design.


I was absolutely fascinated by this little old lady, and stood still watching her weaving for what seemed like for ever.


I think my Mara Hoffman jumpsuit was perfect to take pictures in!


toraja_land1-65Some gorgeous beadwork, which local people love to adorn their bodies with…


And my new lovely purse!

toraja_land1-55toraja_land1-56toraja_land1-59toraja_land1-60toraja_land1-61 We also stopped at a food market, where I somehow ended up purchasing a few kilos of fruit, including rambutan, snake fruit and mangosteens.

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Afterwards, we stopped at a durian-selling station, where I tried this controversial spiky fruit for the first time – cannot say that I like it, regardless of how much I tried… I do not think I have tried anything so disagreeing to my olfactory palette, even now thinking about the taste and the texture is making me queasy.

And the photo diary continues ( I have so many more pictures to share with you!)…_DSC6328

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Where did I stay?

We stayed overnight in Toraja Heritage Hotel, one of the best getaway places to stay in Toraja. Having been built at the start of the boom of tourist in Toraja land, it was a little tattered around the edges, yet absolutely gorgeous, with fancier hotel rooms built in the style of tongkonan!


Aren’t the hotel grounds simply beautiful?toraja_land1-10

4 responses to “Toraja Land: Death Becomes Us All”

  1. Olga says:

    I’ve read, too, that in Ireland funeral is a cause to basically throw a party. People drink, even dance, remember jokes about the person that has passed away and see him (or her) off to another world with the smiles on their faces.
    When you think about it, nothing is as invigorating and life-loving like this custom!

  2. Stephen says:

    This is probably one of the least gruesome Toraja posts I’ve seen (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing). Sounds like you had quite an experience there, though!

    • Olga says:

      I did have an unforgettable experience! The funeral was rather gruesome, but I went in quite open-minded… I would love to go back and spend more time exploring Toraja!

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