The Ancient Wonders of Sulawesi

The Ancient Wonders of Sulawesi

toraja1Tana Toraja
Located in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago, Sulawesi sprawls out across the sea, resembling the shape of an orchid, between Kalimantan and Maluku. The journey into Tana Toraja takes about eight hours and starts by heading North out of Makassar (Ujung Padang).

An Indonesian road safari is always made easier by the fact that a driver and a guide come at a nominal fee when you rent a car or a van. The roads in central Sulawesi are in poor condition, often rough and bumpy but this all evens out when you travel in the comfort of a Kijang vehicle (all-terrain, high seat, large ground clearance, rugged suspension) with the added bonus of your own personal driver.

Toraja has fascinated people for centuries with their elaborate sacrificial funeral ceremonies and sacred burial cave sites guarded by effigies. The colorful hand painted houses called Tongkonans are beautifully decorated in tribal motifs and buffalo horns from past sacrifices. The origins of Torajan culture dates back in celestial time as the Torajan people believe they descended from the stars and arrived in starships. It is thought that the shapes of their houses resemble these very starships.

One of Toraja’s highlights is attending a ceremonial, traditional funeral, which is held only when the family has saved enough money to host the elaborate event. It is necessary to build a complete village to house literally hundreds of guests over the five-day period. The temporary village is then dismantled afterwards. The other major cost involves buying animals for sacrifice.

One healthy buffalo can cost anywhere between 15 to 245 million rupiah (US$1,700 to $28,000) and a pig can cost up to 5 million rupiah (US$580). It is not uncommon to have over fifty pigs and several buffaloes sacrificed. For this reason, the dead body may end up staying mummified (in the house) for up to five years or more to await the accumulation of finances.

One of the traditional villages we visited actually had a five-year-old preserved mummified body laying in the lounge. The dead person was an elderly female, whose husband had died previously and the family were still unable to pay for a second funeral.

toraja2Some of the preserved bodies are stored in ornately decorated sarcophaguses. If you are from royal descent, then a royal widow must stay in the same room as the dead spouse until the burial time. It is not uncommon for a widow to stay up to five years or more. The widow must stay with the disintegrating corpse and sympathically “rot” herself, living on a special diet for the entire period, excluding rice products. She must become symbolically dead. She is not permitted to leave her husband’s side. Lesser widows and slaves tend to her needs. To make sure the soul is not neglected, a bowl of food is replenished daily and palm wine poured, plus an offering of betel nut or chewing tobacco is made at regular intervals. The Torajans believe it is only through this rich ritual that they will always be a ‘free soul’ and become richer in their next life.

It was hot (around 35 degrees) at 10.00am when we arrived at the funeral. Sada, our Indonesian guide escorted us along the one-kilometer trail to reach the temporary bamboo village, which had been erected, for the sole purpose of this burial. We were travelling with 2 children and our family was made to feel very welcome. If foreigners come to a traditional Torajan funeral it is seen as a sign of good luck and in the hierarchical order of status, a foreigner is seen as a dignitary, and thus you are treated as an honored guest. Traveling with two children gave us even more status. The local people were very welcoming and friendly and we were invited to sit in the “family room”.

The Torajan society is a highly structured one, with four classes of people, from nobility down to peasant class. Depending on your ranking in the village, you must offer a certain amount of pigs or buffalo, which is then slaughtered, and the meat distributed evenly amongst the guests.

The animal sacrificing had already begun when we arrived. It took place in a specially designed area where pigs and other animals where hauled in to the “circle of death” and killed with great speed and efficiency. Blood flowed through the middle of the common area and huge chunks of meat were weighed and divided systemically throughout the day according to rank and status.

A few bamboo pipes went past me, full with animal blood, but I didn’t dare ask what they were for, or where they were going. My two children seemed to be absorbing all this quite calmly, with a sense of fascination and curiosity. As it has been said many times before, traveling is an education and this day’s lesson could never compare to text book learning in a classroom, anywhere.

We felt very privileged to attend this funeral and in the afternoon returned to the luxury of the Toraja Heritage Hotel. A magnificent 160-room 4 star property, including villas designed in the shape of Tongkonan houses.

Next on the agenda was a visit to a few death cliffs. This is another fascinating aspect of the culture. The Torajans bury their dead in chiseled coffin slots in cliffs, hillsides or in rocks. Some have effigies placed in the open doorways to guard the spirit of the dead body. Some are just left open, exposing the bones for all to see.

On day five we decided to stay in a traditional village. Sada made a couple of phone calls and organised an overnight homestay in a ‘real’ Tongkonan longhouse in a small village perched high in the mountains.

It was late afternoon and the light was softening when we reached the high road that would lead us to this village. The roadside was dotted with local mountain folk. It was also a school day and a procession of children shared the road with farmers and villagers. It is not unusual for children to walk 8 -12 kms to and from school each day.

It seems even though these rural people live in basic houses, with very poor conditions they are always happy and relaxed, seemingly without a care in the world. In terms of materialistic acquisition, which many of us in the West aspire to, the Torajans seem happy to live in a simple way, not wanting for much. Their most important asset is a large healthy buffalo.

When we arrived at the Tongkonan house for the night, we had a choice of which attic we wanted to sleep in. The owners of the homestay cooked a beautiful dinner, and we dined overlooking the beautiful mountains of Toraja with a perfect view of the valley below and just to add to the enhancement, a full moon appeared and bathed the whole scene in it’s misty silvery light. It was more than enough to make up for the slight discomfort of sleeping on simple mattresses on the floor and taking a traditional stand-up cold mandi (bath).

The next adventure was early morning rafting. This involved a one-hour walk through a series of rice fields and a small village to the “put-in” on the riverbank. Paddling downstream it is easy to lose yourself in nature. Only the occasional swooping of eagles soaring above interrupted the calm stillness of the deep gorge. As the river narrowed we passed a series of large waterfalls cascading from the steep mountainous terrain. Several male iguanas posed stoically on the large boulders, bathing themselves in the full sun. The rapids appeared in small bursts, but mostly it was a trip down a lazy river and just the remedy for finishing a spectacular seven-day trip into Torajaland.

For anyone who wants to experience a fascinating culture, set in a beautiful mountain environment then Tana Toraja and its riches lay waiting for you.

Photos by David Metcalf

Fact File :

Tana Toraja – 328 kms North of Makassar, Sulawesi, Indonesia
Driving time 8-10 hrs
Accommodation: Toraja Heritage Hotel – 160 room 4 star hotel
Car and Tours: Tour Guide, Car Rental and Land Arrangements
Contact Pak Sada email:
Funerals: Prime Funeral Season – after harvest in July to October, however funerals occur year-round.

Share This: