A Day in the Death of a Torajan

I think it would be fair to say that if a bunch of tourists rocked up to your grandma’s funeral and started taking photos of the entire proceedings most of us would get very pissed off. However, when traveling overseas we are incredibly snap happy when we come across local funeral ceremonies. I have witnessed scrums of people in Kathmandu and Varanasi jockeying for the best spot to take a photo of a body searing over a fierce funeral pyre. I once happened upon a Tibetan sky burial at Mount Kailash and had to stop a Swiss guy from taking photos. While the participants were quite happy for us to watch the ceremony since it is part of the meditation on death at the famed pilgrimage site, I felt uneasy at the thought of a slightly sleazy old man having photographs of a dismembered teenage girl!

Bemused locals usually tolerate our strange fascination with funeral rituals but once in a while violence breaks out when travelers over step the line.

No such problems in Tana Toraja in South Sulawesi. Although the region is incredibly beautiful, featuring gorgeous mountain scenery and quaint villages, it is fair to say that the local tourist industry is built on a foundation of ‘blood thirsty’ funeral rituals, buffalo sacrifices and grave visits. If Indonesia had a Goth cult then Toraja would be its Mecca!

Tourists are not only welcome but they are treated as honored guests of the family. They are also encouraged to whip out their cameras and snap away at any aspect of the ceremony.

Tana Toraja: the basics

Limestone. Tana Toraja
The Tana Toraja countryside.

After we wrapped up our beach bumming in the beautiful Togean Islands, we had a grueling 3-day boat, SUV, and sleeper bus trip to get to Rantepao, the main hub of Toraja. As if getting there couldn’t have been more arduous, we also had to run an assault course of fire and brimstone. Well, forest fire and Indonesian roadworks. On day one, we had to halt giant road diggers at work so we could do a taxi swap with tourists stuck on the other side of the works. On day three, our overnight bus drove straight through a forest fire that was raging on both side of the highway. We could feel the heat of the flames blazing through the bus windscreen.

We stayed at the legendary backpacker haunt Pia’s Poppies Hotel for six nights. The hotel staff seem a little jaded, as indeed you might after years of putting up with tourists asking if there was a funeral today, but it was a relaxed spot with great rooms and a fantastic restaurant. The restaurant served the usual Indonesian staples, typical Western backpacker dishes, and a few Torajan specialties, which they cooked up with a few hours’ notice.

Funerals and grave sites are open to all, but typically you need to take a local guide with you to make introductions at the ceremonies. Some travelers rocked up to the funeral on their own and were accorded the same welcome as Laura and I, but we felt more comfortable going with a local.

The guide will arrange a suitable offering (cigarettes are typical gifts!) and arrange transport to the village. A fellow traveler at the hotel recommended a guide, Arru, to us and he really did a fantastic job of explaining Torajan culture. The guide cost 400,000 rupiah, the transport and driver cost 400,000 rupiah, and the offering (cigarettes) cost 150,000. We visited Lemo and Londa (graves), Kete Kesu (traditional village and graves), a funeral in South Toraja, and we walked for an hour or so through paddy fields and villages. The whole trip took about 8 hours.

Buffalo sacrifices! Mummies in the house! And, when is dead not dead?

I am no expert on Torajan culture so I apologize in advance if I have misinterpreted some of the guide’s explanations or what I witnessed in person.

The history of Toraja and its people is steeped in mystery and myth. It is believed that they were seafaring folk who originated from an area north of Sulawesi, possibly the Philippines or China. They eventually moved south before settling in the remote and impenetrable region of mountains and forests of South Sulawesi around 3000 BC. Traditional houses known as Tongkonan are oriented north to remind the Torajans of their origins. The roofs of Tongkonan are somewhat boat-shaped in a nod toward their seafaring past.

Horns and tongkonan house. Tana Toraja
A tongkonan house.

The majority of Torajans are devoutly Christian but a small number are Muslims. The Torajans are clearly aligned with mainstream world religions, but their funeral and death rites are definitely not. In fact, Torajans seem to seamlessly absorb mainstream religions and modern culture, while steadfastly maintaining their animist traditions. Arru told us that in the past Muslim and Christian groups have forcibly tried to change Torajan ways but to no avail. Mainstream Islam was violently kept at bay in the past and, apparently, the first Christians perished when they tried to stop animal sacrifices and burial practices. Later Christians did a better job of accommodating Torajan ways and that is why they have successfully converted 90% of the local population.

Torajans believe that the deceased are merely ‘sick’ until their family sends them on the way to the afterlife by means of elaborate funeral ceremonies and buffalo sacrifices. The buffalos are sacrificed so that the souls of the buffalos can transport the souls of the dead to the afterworld (heaven?). Until the ceremony is enacted, the dead remain with the family. The bodies are embalmed and remain in the house, and they are talked to and incorporated into regular life, until they are buried in the family grave. The guide even made reference to the bodies being taken for a walk around the village. This time gives the family an opportunity to properly come to terms with the loss of their loved one. You may think that granny only stays around for a few days. But no, the preparations for the funeral can take many years, maybe even thirty years or more although that would be in extreme and unusual circumstances. Typically, the family waits until the next funeral season (July-October), which gives them an opportunity to save money for buffalos and the funeral.

Buffalo. Tana Toraja
A long-horned buffalo of the type that’s sacrificed at funerals.

The higher the status of the deceased, the more buffalos need to be sacrificed. Buffalos are major status symbols in Toraja, and some of the most revered beasts (albino with blue eyes) can cost up to $8000. A high-ranking family member may need to have 36 buffaloes sacrificed at the funeral. So, it is a very expensive business. This expense seemed a little odd to me since at home the emphasis is on indulgence in life rather than in death. But, whereas we might show off our wealth with fancy homes, private colleges for the kids, and a Ferrari in the garage, Torajans flash the cash on expensive funerals for the family. This is simply the Torajan way of expressing that ‘it is my money and I will spend it how I like’.

There is also a complex exchange mechanism of pigs for sacrifice, which are given as gifts by family, guests, and acquaintances. In effect, if your family traditionally provides pigs to another family’s funeral, then that offering must be reciprocated. The funerals are opportunities to reinforce family and social bonds in a highly visible manner. If a family cannot meet the pig offering exchange for one particular funeral, then that debt must be picked up by a future generation. As you can imagine, this can get complicated and expensive particularly if your family is popular, powerful, or the outgoing sort! In fact, it is thought that many families end up in a lot of debt to meet the needs of funerals. The sacrifices also draw the attention of local government officials and tax collectors. For whatever reason, maybe to cut down on sacrifices or tax avoidance by payment by pig, sacrificed animals are taxed. At the gate of every funeral is a tax collector, who notes all the animals brought to the funeral and by whom.

We went to the funeral of a 90-year-old great-grandpa, who from the number of buffalos to be sacrificed (7) must have been a middle ranking person in the social strata. The funeral ceremonies take place in a temporary purpose built arena in the family village. As honored guests, we got front row seats for the sacrifices! We were introduced to the head of the family, handed over our cigarette gifts, and partook in a little tea and cake. We were there at the first day of proceedings, which was the main day for receiving guests and for the sacrifice one buffalo and a few pigs.

Funeral procession. Tana Toraja
A procession of funeral guests.

After milling around for a few minutes soaking up the atmosphere, Arru implored us to jump up with cameras ready and pushed us to within a few feet of a buffalo. You really do not want to go to a Torajan funeral if you are squeamish, hate the sight of blood, or don’t agree with the killing of animals. And, definitely don’t invite Morrissey! The butchers are professionals and the animals die pretty quickly. However, it is a visceral scene. As I walked closer to the bull, its muscles spasmed and its head flung upward and twisted round into a grotesque position. I vividly recall the sound of blood glugging out of the slashed throat on to the ground below. The animals are not needlessly killed since the meat is prepared and shared among the guests.

Loud satanic squeals announced the arrival of the pigs! The pigs are less revered than buffalos and so their end is a bit uglier. Whereas the magnificent buffalo are center stage and receive the admiring looks of the entire party, the pigs arrive trussed up between bamboo poles and are slaughtered off-stage left. The pigs are quickly cooked up and prepared for the guests. This is no normal BBQ over hot coals. These pigs are cooked up Torajan-style using industrial-sized blowtorches.

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Pigs are cooked with the blowtorch method.

The buffalo was expertly butchered and the choice cuts thrown before the honored guests. Torajans are certainly not squeamish unlike yours truly. I definitely winced when I saw the butchers ram banana leaves up the pig’s butt to stop it leaking when cooked. It was pretty unpleasant watching the butchers removing kilos of poop from the buffalo’s guts too! Later the same morning, we watched a few more pigs get sacrificed, blowtorched, and dismembered for food. The less choice cuts of meat and the blood were scooped up into a bamboo tube to make blood sausage.

We stayed a little while longer to watch the arrival of honored guests, the exchange of gifts, and a ceremony whereby the coffin of the deceased is turned round and the deceased officially declared dead. But, to be honest, once you have seen the sacrifices, most of the rest of the day seemed to be centered on eating and talking. One thing was clear though, there seemed to be no outward displays of mourning and most people seemed upbeat. I put this down to three things: one, death is a big deal in Toraja so it is not a shock when someone passes; two, the funeral is clearly about moving the deceased on to the next stage of their existence; and three, more cynically, I figured that the family could now save money for something other than the funeral!

Cliff Graves, Baby Graves, and Tau Tau

Much of the rest of the day was spent driving from grave to grave. Torajan burial traditions have evolved over the centuries and we saw examples of several different traditions. We saw hanging graves, baby graves, graves in caves, graves cut into cliff faces, and more modern mausoleums.

Graves in caves are as you would expect- coffins piled up in caves, which are found throughout the mountainous Torajan landscape. At many of the graves, we saw offerings for the dead, some of which seemed highly inappropriate, or very appropriate, depending on your level of cynicism about Indonesia’s addictive habits! Cigarettes were found everywhere at the graves, sometimes wedged into the mouths of skulls that were lying around the caves. Indonesia has a huge problem with nicotine addiction, with 63% of men and 5% of women regular smokers. Apparently, men smoke up to 3 packs a day here and spend a disproportionate percentage of their earnings on the evil weed. It is highly likely, therefore, that a large percentage of Indonesians will die from tobacco-related diseases. Odd then that cigarettes are universally seen as an appropriate offering to the dead (or, the living in any circumstances for that matter!). Anyways, it made for an amusing photo or two for this cynical old bastard!

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Marlboro offerings.

Hanging graves are found on cliff faces. Large wooden stakes are driven into the rock and coffins piled up on top of them. Some of these graves are very old and the coffins have rotted away. Often, the bones fall out of the rotting coffins and pile up on the ground below. Indonesians quite happily picked up a skull or two and posed for ridiculous selfies with them.

Cliff graves are large man-made made graves carved out of steep cliff faces. The graves are usually family-owned and generations of bodies reside within. Typically, the higher the family’s status, the higher on the cliff face they are buried. We saw a photo of the internment of a high-ranking official at the top of the stack in Londa graves. It took quite some effort to get the old fella up there. A huge ramped bamboo structure was built against the cliff and the coffin was hauled up with the aid of yards of rope and plenty of bodies. Apparently, the secluded Londa gravesite is a popular place for teenage love trysts. Torajans are certainly a macabre bunch of folk!

Cliff graves. Tana Toraja
Cliff graves at Londa.

The baby graves were absolutely fascinating! The tradition is no longer followed but it is certainly worth visiting the sites and hearing about the burials. Babies who died before cutting their first teeth were interred in living trees. The bark was cut away, some of the tree flesh cut out, and then the baby was sealed upright in the hole. The tree became the new mother of the baby and as the baby slowly became absorbed into the tree, effectively gives the baby ‘new life’. In a further twist, the baby had to be buried in the side of the tree that faced away from the mother’s village and the mother wasn’t allowed to visit the grave. This was so the child could not see the mother and wish to stay with her, which would halt the process of moving on to a new life with the ‘mother-tree’.

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Baby graves dug into a tree.

Although a number of modern graves had gravestones similar to what we have at home, the traditional grave marker in Toraja is the ‘tau tau’. Tau taus are carved wooden effigies of the dead that are placed on a small balcony outside the grave. The effigies can be eerily lifelike. I am not sure folks back home would be so keen on seeing a life-sized, and astonishingly life-like, wooden granny sitting on her grave. Mind you, a number of collectors over the years have been keen on having tau tau of Torajan grannies at home, which has lead to an increasing number of them being stolen. Fewer tau tau are kept at graves these days since families prefer to keep them at home rather than risk them being stolen.

Lifelike effigy. Tana Toraja
Realistic tau tau

Less macabre activities

Toraja is surrounded by beautiful limestone hills, fabulous traditional villages, and rice paddies cascading down the steep hills. A couple of years ago we watched a Globetrekker DVD, that featured Justine hiking through Toraja. We really wanted to follow in her footsteps but, not for the first time on this trip, we were thwarted by the the heat and haze. Sulawesi has been suffering one of the worst droughts in living memory, drying out the paddies and turning the villages into dust bowls. In addition, the annual crop and forest burning season had started in Sumatra and Borneo turning the skies into a smoky hazy nightmare. There is no point hiking if the views are obscured!

Dry rice terraces. Batutumonga, Tana Toraja.
Dry brown rice terraces. They look better in black and white.

We wandered up into the hills for half a day to see what might have been. We took a share taxi up to the village of Lempo, wandered a few kilometers to Batutumonga, and finally descended via Pana to the village of Tikala. On the way we saw rice paddies galore, a few cliff graves, a baby grave, and plenty of traditional tongkonan houses. It looked amazing up there but the sun was too intense for a longer trip. So, we had a few days to kill. There was plenty of funeral activity but once you have seen one buffalo sacrifice you don’t really need to see more!

We were happy enough to wile away the days chowing down on fine tropical fruit, guzzling down delicious sirsak and tamarella juice, and popping out to the market once in awhile. Every six days the market gets really exciting since the farmers come to town to show off their big bulls. The buffalo market is a real social event when many of the farmers come into town to make a few bucks and drink down a pint or two of arak. The buffalo market was immense. There were hundreds of these majestic beasts on parade. The prized animals, those that command the really big bucks such as blue-eyed albinos and longhorns, were on display at the entrance. I suspect their owners treat them like a Ferrari owner treats his Maranello. The beasts were pampered, fed, watered and mopped down, and I swear, even petted and kissed by their adoring owners. We didn’t have enough change to buy so we satisfied ourselves with mangos and coconut from the fruit market!

Bolu Market. Rantepao
Buffalo market. Bolu, Rantepao

Toraja marked the end of our travels in Sulawesi for now. For sure, this magical island has given us our top two or three experiences of the whole trip so far. It provided the perfect balance of being off the beaten path without being grueling; exceptional cultural experiences that couldn’t be further from our life back home; and the opening of our eyes to new underwater adventures. I had always seen Sulawesi as being a destination for the travelers on long trips, but most tourists we met here were on 3-week long vacations following exactly the same Sulawesi itinerary as us. So, book your tickets for next year and get your asses to this odd-shaped island before the masses arrive. It has been one of the top five most exhilarating travel experiences of my life. It will take something very special to top this…but, we will keep on trying!

Photos from Tana Toraja

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