Tana Toraja – where death is not the end

Londa

Tana Toraja means “The Land of Toraja People”. It’s a region in the highlands of Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s 17 000 islands. Why are the Toraja interesting? They have very elaborate burial rites.

It’s a very remote place, therefore not many tourists come here. But if you take the time to visit, you will not regret it. I know, I don’t.

People

The people are extremely friendly. I immediately noticed the difference between the Toraja Land and Macassar, where everyone looked at me like I was a prostitute, because my dress was showing knees. People here smile and invite you for a coffee. Torajan Coffee is well known in Indonesia and is considered to be as good as the famous Luwak Coffee from Bali.

Even though you can’t communicate with the people, they will take care of you. I loved spending time with them, drinking coffee, eating cookies and playing with kids. Who, by the way, called me Barbie. I loved it ๐Ÿ˜‰ I felt like a tourist attraction there, everyone wanted to take a picture with me and invite me to their home.

Tana Toraja

The region

The region itself is really beautiful and rural. As I mentioned, it’s a remote place, the nearest big city is Macassar and it’s a 10h drive. There is nothing but small villages, rice fields, coffee trees, and buffaloes. The views from the hills are breathtaking, therefore I recommend renting a scooter and spending a day in the mountains. It’s relaxing.

tana toraja

The funerals

The Toraja are famous for their interesting burial traditions. First of all, a person is not considered dead until he or she is buried. But it’s more complicated than that. A proper funeral is very expensive and very often, a family can’t afford it right away. The festivities need to last the longest possible. From 3-4 days for modest families up to 11 in more wealthy regions.

Buffaloes need to be killed for this occasion, as the whole family gathers and you need to feed them. Moreover, the more buffaloes you kill and the more lush the funeral will be, the better afterlife the deceased will have. Special “villages” are built for the funerals where the families can cook, eat, and sleep. If the family can’t afford a buffalo, they can also kill a pig.

buffalo in Tana Toraja
A Buffalo at a funeral in Tana Toraja

The buffaloes are killed by the men of the village who divide the meat and give everyone an equal part. The horns are a very valuable trophy and they are given as a gift to the chief of the village. Because of that, the village chief’s house is easy to spot, as it is decorated with those horns. The more horns the chief has, the more wealthy and powerful he is.

Due to a very high cost of those funerals, sometimes families need to wait for up to 3 years to bury their dead. Until then, the person is not considered dead, but ill. The family will bring them food, water, and, if the family member smoked, which is very likely, cigarettes. The bodies are treated with special, natural oils and “live” with the families in the house. Children play around it, people come to visit. After all, he’s just “sick”.

Say “Hi” to grandpa

Interestingly enough, once the Toraja bury their dead, it’s still not a goodbye. No, no, they will see each other again and faster than we would think. Every few years, the dead are being dug out to change their clothes. It’s a perfect occasion for the family to meet the grandpa that has been deceased for years, take a selfie and give him a cigarette.

The burial caves

Each family has a burial cave, carved on the side of a mountain. Each of those “crypts” has a wooden door that can be open at any time in order to bury another family member. They are often decorated with wooden dolls, Tau Tau, that are representing the deceased. The Tau Taus are also very expensive, so not all the families can afford to buy one. Here also we can see food, drinks, and cigarettes brought by the family to the deceased.

tana toraja
Burial cave with Tau Tau statues and boat-like graves

Those caves stay in the family for generations. Sometimes, well, you need to clean up. But don’t worry, there is also a special place for the bones. In a real-life cave on a mountainside, the bones are being deposed in a boat-like grave. Here also people come to talk to their deceased and bring cigarettes, sweets, and drinks. Tana Toraja has a few of those that you can visit.

tana toraja
Tau Tau statues

Baby graves

As everywhere in the world, the loss of a child is tragic for Toraja People. But they believe that especially small kids (those that didn’t develop any teeth yet) can get a second chance! There is a tree with white resin. This tree serves as a second mother to the child. Holes are drilled in the tree, the body of a child is placed in it and the entrance is covered. The “mother” can now nurse the child to go back to heaven who will come back down in a second life. The one I saw was located in a beautiful spice garden.

baby graves, tana toraja
BIn Tana Toraja babies are buried in a tree

Young death

If a young person dies, the funeral is enriched with a party for the friends of the deceased. They construct decorative, colorful altars to say goodbye to their friend and gather altogether to honor his or her life. It’s an interesting thing about the Toraja, the funeral is not a sad event. It’s a celebration of life and the time to be happy that a family member is going to heaven.

tana toraja

Heaven

When a person dies and still “lives” at home, the body is directed to the West, it’s the side of life, as the world was created in the West. During the funeral, the body is directed to the South, because that’s where heaven is. Heaven is a beautiful and peaceful place. A place for another life. As the deceased person goes there without any material goods, the funeral must be rich. The only things they can take with them are the buffaloes and pigs killed during the ceremony. That’s why the funeral is so important in the Torajas tradition.

But this can change from village to village. Many Torajans are now Christian, others are Muslim. All the beliefs and traditions are being mixed up together to create a unique tradition in every village.


You might also like:

Tana Toraja – a practical guide. Where to go, where to stay, how to get there.

Laos โ€“ old traditions, talismans and scarecrows

Mexico – how are Mexicans celebrating their culture – Pueblos Magicos Program

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2 Comments

  1. Very elaborate burial rites indeed! Interesting post, very informative yet easy to read. Great job ๐Ÿ™‚

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