“Do you know the story of why the Torajan people have houses with roofs shaped like boats? It’s said that our ancestors arrived from the north in a fierce storm and their boats were badly damaged, so much so that they couldn’t take to sea again. So instead they used the boats as shelter.”
Tana Toraja, in the southern province of Sulawesi, is hands-down one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been too. The unique culture and tradition around death and burial have brought the area some notoriety (see recent stories from National Geographic and the BBC). While it’s true that a funeral ceremony is the reason that many travellers (still relatively few in number) visit the area, there is a host of other things to see to try and understand the traditions here. It’s one region where you really benefit from a good local tour guide to bring it to life and explain how younger Torajans view their way of life.
The iconic symbol of the region is the Torajan homes, or tongkonan, richly decorated wooden two-storey buildings, often adorned with bull horns outside. The more elaborately-carved a tongkonan is, the higher the status of the family who live there. The carvings relate to fertility and prosperity. The boat shaped roofs, originally thatched, are now mostly made from red corrugated iron, making the clusters of homes in each village easy to spot from afar. In each village you’ll also find a number of alang, communal rice barns for harvesting the surrounding fields.
In some villages you’ll find the tongkonan clustered around a central space, as here in Lempo, where you can sometimes climb up and take a look inside a home, with permission of course. The ground floor is open with space for animals, while the upper floor has one room, but there is no kitchen or bathroom. As a result most Torajans have built a small modern brick house behind their tongkonan for daily life.
Life and death in Toraja
The Torajans have an interesting mix of animist and Christian beliefs when it comes to the death of a loved one. When a person passes away, the Torajans believe that their spirit stays on Earth until they can be buried. But because Torajan funeral ceremonies are huge, expensive affairs, the body is kept until the funeral can be arranged, which may be up to a year later. Not in a morgue, but in the house, embalmed by injecting insulin, and dressed in their normal clothes. This is something that’s completely alien to many people (and probably some many people will find it a little creepy). But as the 20-something Torajan guy who shared his story with me explained, it’s all about what your used to.
He told us how when his grandma died when he was a teenager, she was kept in the house for almost a year, in an upstairs room. One day he came home from school and swears he saw his grandma move, sending him running down the stairs screaming into the street. Because she hadn’t been buried her spirit was still there in the house.
Buffalo are traditionally sacrificed at funerals as a sign of respect for the person who died. The higher their status, the more bulls die and their horns are then placed on the outside of the family tongkonan.
Although the Torajans are known for their elaborate funeral ceremonies, these are usually only reserved for the top two classes in what is still a hierarchical society.
Cliff burials in Lemo
One of the most fascinating places to visit in Toraja is Lemo. It’s well known for its cliff burials and tau tau, all set amongst dazzling green rice paddies and mountains. My tip would be to head there first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds and really appreciate it.
The craggy limestone cliff face is filled with small square doors to chambers cut inside the rock, each just big enough for one burial. The closer the grave to the top of the cliff face, the closer the spirit of the departed is to heaven.
(I hesitated about posting the photo below because I wasn’t sure if it was disrespectful to take a photo with these tau tau, for sale in a small craft shop in the village…but the lady behind the counter didn’t seem to mind and we did buy something from her shop!)
Tau tau are carved to closely resemble the person who died and can be very lifelike!
Other places not to miss In Tana Toraja …the standing stones of Kalimbuang Bori
In some places in Toraja, menhirs or standing stones are also used as monuments to the dead. One of the best places to see this is at Kalimbuang Bori, near Rantepao, which is also home to some older cliff burials.
One of the most famous and most-visited Torajan villages, due partly to it’s closeness to Rantepao. It’s a very pretty location but does get very busy.
More water buffalo than I’ve ever seen (bear in mind I haven’t done much travelling in S.E. Asia)
This post is really just a handful of the places we visited in Toraja but I hope it gives a taste of a place I really feel you can’t miss in Sulawesi!
Sometimes the wonder of travel can get lost in the long bus rides and everyday hassles. It takes a day like this to truly stop you in your tracks and make you appreciate how lucky you are to have the chance to see different cultures in places far away from your daily life.
How to plan a trip to Tana Toraja
The first step is getting there. There is a tiny airport in Rantepao with only a couple of flights a week – we were told this was going to be expanded, but can find no mention of any plans online.
Otherwise you are looking at an 8 hour drive from Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi. We hired a driver for a reasonable price, a bus may well take longer! The good news is the views for much of the journey are stunning and there are plenty of roadside places to stop for a coffee or some nasi goreng and enjoy the view. Look out for the huge wooden gate over the two-lane road as you enter the Toraja region.
It’s a winding route, not a fast highway, so be prepared for delays and take lots of water/snacks!
We stayed just outside Rantepao, the main city of the southern part of Toraja, which is a good place to base yourself for trips into the surrounding villages.
When is the best time to visit?
We were there in early October which is the end of the dry season. Being on the equator the humidity is fairly high as you’d expect.