“Safe and Lucky that I was born in the land of Tana Toraja, island of Sulawesi” – These are the words that signify the spirit of the people and the land of Tana Toraja. Nestled among the lush green mountains of South Sulawesi in Indonesia, the culture and natural beauty of Tana Toraja is something that almost every Indonesian is proud of. The island of Sulawesi itself is not that popular among tourists, mostly because there are hardly any places where you would find the cliched and pretentious booze-fueled parties. This is probably one of the reasons why the simplistic charm of its stunning landscapes have been untouched and the cultures remain upheld. When me and my friend Polly decided to take a weekend off from our volunteering duties in Palopo city and head off to Tana Toraja, we were obviously quite excited. After being asked the same question “Did you go to Tana Toraja” countless times by our Indonesian friends, we were looking forward to heading there, experience the place for ourselves and be among the Torajan people.
About Toraja People and Culture
The Toraja are an ethnic group of people indigenous to the region of South Sulawesi in Indonesia. These are the people whose virtues of tenacity and deep familial bonding you will hear about when you are in Sulawesi. As an indigenous group, their culture, traditions and especially their views on life and death is an intriguing affair for curious outsiders like me. The Toraja people work with immense dedication all their life to accumulate generous amounts of wealth although not for their personal comfort but to facilitate for an elaborate funeral ceremony for their deceased ancestors and family members. The views and approach of Torajans towards death is where things make a shift towards an alternate reality. A major part of the cultural beliefs of Torajans is centered around death. “Death is not the end for us”, says Silas, one of my friends from Tana Toraja. For the Toraja people, death is just another stage a human has to go through during his/her journey.
Unlike common practices in most cultures, the connection of the family members with the deceased body does not end immediately with death. The deceased body has to be given a proper transitional revelry and till that time the body is considered an integral (and living) part of the family. The family members take care of the deceased, like they would do when somebody falls sick, providing meals four times a day and even “talking” to the corpse. The body of the deceased stays in the house with the rest of the family or under one of the traditional Tongkonan houses until enough money can be arranged to organize an elaborate funeral ceremony. Here, a funeral ceremony becomes a festive funeral celebration instead. A funeral is the biggest occasion in the life of a Torajan. Yes, it is a more important one than birth or a wedding. The event itself is organized with such pomp that the extravagant weddings across the world would pale in comparison when it comes to the scale and money involved in some of these funerals. The unconventional modes of celebrations involves group of family and friends carrying the corpse of the deceased and dancing together. Pigs and more prominently buffaloes that are presented to the deceased family as gifts, are slaughtered as a part of the celebrations. As an outsider, if you can look past these gory festivities you might be able to apprehend the significance of this event to the Torajans. This is not just a funeral but a happy occasion when all the relatives within the family come together for days of fun and celebration. Death here is mourned but the connection with the spirit and the body of the deceased is celebrated in various ways.
Veering Across the Highlands in Tana Toraja
With very little information on the internet about this place, it does get a bit challenging to make a proper plan about the attractions and activities here. Our many Indonesian friends from Palopo city provided us all the inputs we needed. The constant phrase we heard was “It is very beautiful there” but little did we know that it would be actually a case of “You need to see it to believe it”. As we were riding our scooters through the villages, countryside and across the mountains, we were in awe of the stunning sceneries and felt really thankful that the natural beauty of Sulawesi has remained pure to a large extent. Although we could manage to explore just four places in the two days, each of these places were beautiful in their own ways.
“A place in the clouds” – that is what locals refer to Lolai as. Located in the northern highlands of Tana Toraja, this village is located along and on top of the mountains. To say that the views from up there are stunning, would be a gross understatement. On a normal morning, stand at one of the many viewpoints and you would be treated to a vast sea of white clouds beneath you. Probably one of the most visited places in Tana Toraja, Lolai is without a doubt the most beautiful place I have been to during those two days. A two hour bike/scooter ride from Rantepao town will take you to Lolai although the path could be treacherous up there in the mountains especially during heavy rain. The ride though is worth every thrill and scare you might get on the way. Camp overnight there and sit under one of the many Tongkonan houses while you enjoy the early morning views of the mountains covered in thick white clouds.
The village of Ke’te Kesu is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Over 400 years old, this village houses some of the earliest Tongkonans that were built in Tana Toraja. Ke’te Kesu is considered to be the center of Torajan culture especially the funeral celebrations. With just a mere 20 families residing here, this village has two rows of eight distinctly beautiful Tongkonan houses facing each other with the vast expanse of rice fields in their backyard. A few meters away towards the interior of the village stands the ancient burial site – Bukit Buntu hill which is more than 700 years old. Scattered human skulls and bones are lined up along the rocky stairs that lead to the cave burial site at the top of the hill. It is only when you step inside the cave that you get that eerie vibe around you as the temperature drops sharply in pitch black darkness. However, the beauty of this charming little village and the fact that it is a significant part of the heritage of Toraja people, overshadows any uncomfortable eeriness of those graves.
Yet another small village mostly known for its rock-cut graves along the steep walls of the cliffs, Lemo is simplistic in its own way. Surrounded by lush green rice fields this village is one of the most popular among visitors to Tana Toraja. An interesting feature of the cliff graves is the presence of Tau Tau which are medium sized wooden statues that line along the the cliff walls. These statues are believed to be symbolic of the ancestors who have been guarding the graves for centuries. The graves are made out of carvings that protrude inwards into the mountain cliffs and house the remains of the deceased. Lemo is located to the south of Rantepao town approximately 30 minutes of drive with easy roads.
World’s tallest Jesus statue on land is perched at the very top of Buntu Burake hill. This is a place that has opened quite recently but has gained a lot of popularity among locals and tourists alike. While the statue itself is a wonderful piece of art and architecture, it is the marvelous 360 degree views of almost the entire Tana Toraja that makes this place worth a visit. Early mornings and evenings would be well spent with the amazing sunrise and sunsets to be witnessed. Located about 30 minutes drive from Makale town, the roads are still being laid out so do expect a few bursts of rough ride.
These are the traditional houses that are pretty much symbolic to Torajan culture and heritage. The architecture is quite unique with the roofs being in the shape of the stern of a ship. The construction of a Tongkonan house takes a lot of time and effort which is quite evident from the intricate details of the carvings and various designs on the walls. In traditional Torajan culture, the Tongkonan houses signify dedication to the influential members of a family or even the society. Some of the most unconventional pieces of architecture, these houses can sometimes be seen as graves and synagogues all over Tana Toraja.
Not often do we get to come across a culture that is so vividly distinctive and different from the usual. Even through the existence of diversity in civilizations and cultures all over the world, the heritage of Toraja stands out on its own due to its vastly unique aspects. The views on life and death here had so much impact that as somebody who is not a part of this community, I felt really intrigued. Rarely do we get to see people from a certain community so proud of their heritage and land that they dedicate their entire life to uphold those values. Tana Toraja is beautiful, interesting and provides a different dimension to the already diverse country of Indonesia.