Travel | Explore | Experience

Offbeat Indonesia : A unique journey to the Land of the Toraja

One of the most beautiful and rewarding travelling experiences of my life was a visit to a funeral ceremony, in a village about 20 odd kms from Rantepao town, the main town of the Tana Toraja Regency. Tana Toraja Regency is located in the southern part of the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. The ethnic group of people who live in these mountainous regions of South Sulawesi are called Toraja. Almost 65% of the Toraja people are Protestant Christians and the rest are Catholics, Muslims and Hindus but almost all of them follow some of the Animist traditions of their ancestors known as aluk “the way”.

Terraced fields near Rantepao
Toraja village kids
Buffalo jawbones adorn an old Toraja house
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My whole Sulawesi experience was an adventure starting with the ship ride of 50 hours from the city of Surabaya in Java Island to Makassar in Sulawesi Island. Though I could have taken an hour-long flight, I was in the mood for a long sea journey experience. It was worth the experience but I would not be doing it often, for sure. Well, sea-sickness is a real thing, I found out and one tends to get bored at sea after a point of time. After my longest sea journey, I arrived around sunset one evening at Makassar. After greetings and farewell, to the college students, I had made friends with on the journey and telling them, that time permitting, I would try to visit them at their village near the beautiful beaches of Pantai Bira I took a public minibus to my hotel. Later that night I went in search for ” Coto Makassar “. Coto Makassar is a spicy beef soup which originated in South Sulawesi and the “not so common” and “difficult to find nowadays” variety is the one made with horse meat. I went about asking around town thought the language barrier wasn’t helping either. Finally, one young guy sitting with his friends chatting and sipping cold coffee got up and dropped me on his bike at a small eatery, few kilometers away. Well, it turned out they only had the beef variety. Being tired and late at night I decided to move my quest for another day and settled for the beef Coto Makassar and Ketupat. Ketupat is a rice cake cooked inside of palm leaves and is typically had with Coto Makassar. Ketupat is quite popular in the Maritime South East Asian countries of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Philipines, though the names vary depending on the country as well as the region and are typically had with the different soups and broths which are cooked in these countries.
My quest for the elusive horse Coto Makassar continued the next day and success was achieved before noon at a very small eatery with a photo of a horse next to its signboard. Though the broth was similar to the one I had last night, I found the horse meat softer and tastier than beef. Since my mission in Makassar had been achieved I decided to walk around town and the seaside promenade till it was time for me to catch my night bus to Toraja. I managed to get some “Bebek Goreng” fried duck before boarding the bus

Crossing the Burmese plains on the way to Thazi


I arrived in Rantepao, is a small hill town, early one morning and waited for my host Kim, in whose house I was to couchsurf for the duration of my stay in Rantepao. Kim picked me up from the town center where the bus had dropped me and after having some breakfast we went over to his place. The day was uneventful and I pretty much roamed about town and the markets the whole day. I also checked with a travel agency to find out if there were any funerals happening in nearby villages and if he has any group he was taking to visit the funeral. Fortunately, there was and I enrolled eager to witness the unique Toraja funeral ceremony. I was feeling lucky that there was a funeral going on during my stay in Toraja and would me witnessing something which was the reason for my Toraja visit.
Next morning I arrived at the office of our guide and organizer and was joined by two girls from Holland and two girls from Italy to make up our group. We drove out of Rantepao into the countryside dotted with small villages and before going to the funeral our guide to us to some viewpoints from where we could see the terraced paddy fields and village houses down in the valley. Close to noon, we arrived at the village where the funeral ceremony was going on.

Thazi station - the starting point of the hill line to Shwenyaung


Death in itself and the knowledge of knowing someone has passed on, never to return, bring out dull and sad feelings and creates a rather somber atmosphere around. Well, this small fact which is known to everyone in the world somehow seems to have never been informed to the Torajas or they just decided to do things a bit differently. Whatever the reason, the Torajas firmly believe, the funeral day is the biggest day of anyone’s life and it’s there as well as the communities duty to give a grand send-off to deceased before he or she enters the afterlife. The funeral day seems to be the most important day in the life of a Toraja, something more like a wedding day is in most other parts of the world. In Toraja culture after the death the body is preserved inside coffins, while the coffin stays in the same house ( or room ) as the deceased’s family arrange for enough money by themselves and from friends and relatives to give off an elaborate and grand ceremony, after which the body will be buried or left in caves. According to old traditions which are still followed by many the bodies are not buried by left in specific cave’s which have come to be known are “cave tomb” or “cave cemetery”. The most famous of cave cemeteries is in the village of Londa. Funeral ceremonies are incredibly important to the Torajans and during their lives, they work extremely hard to accumulate wealth. But unlike other societies, the Torajans do not save their money to give themselves a good life, rather they save for a good send off in death. In fact, it is the extravagance of the funeral, not the wedding, which marks a family’s status. The higher the social or financial status of the deceased’s family, the more elaborate the ceremony is going to be which sometimes goes on for weeks.

Mohinga ( Rice noodles with fish soup ) - The most popular breakfast in Burma

We arrived to a lot of buzz around the ceremony area where 10 to 15 traditional Tongkanon houses ( traditional Torajan ancestral house similar to the traditional ancestral houses found in the highlands of Indonesia and Malaysia, with a boat-shaped saddleback roof ) were erected specifically to house and feed the guests for the ceremony. Most of the family members and close relatives were dressed in black while other villagers were dressed normally but everyone one was coming with gifts, usually a pig or if one could afford, a buffalo. As its customary to bring gifts we also had got some eatables and cigarettes as gifts. As we walked past pigs lying on the ground, tied to bamboo poles unaware that the deceased’s fate was soon going to be theirs, we were invited into one of the “tonkonon” by some women working hard to attend to the constant flow of guests. Tea and snacks were offered and gifts were exchanged. Not knowing what or how to speak to our hosts and trying to comprehend if it was a good or bad thing to have such a lively mood at a funeral, I sat there, while awkwardness started creeping in. Soon came the good news that the buffalo fight had started.
I was told by the guide, that buffalo fights were part of the ceremony, especially in bigger funerals as it’s a matter of status but not everyone can afford it. These buffalos are bred and raised for fights only and are not slaughtered or used for farm work and are well fed and taken care of. We walked towards the small ground where No.9 and No.31, easily distinguishable with the numbers spray painted on the backs, were locking horns, reluctantly. Across the arena, fenced off by chest-high wooden poles, a crowd had already gathered. Kids, adults, old people, men, women and dogs, they were all there rooting for their chosen candidate. It was a fairly easy fight with No.09 running away from his opponent within a few minutes. Running away from the fight means surrendering and the buffalo that surrenders first loses and the match is over. Next came buffalo’s with No.5 and No.45 painted on them. Both were bigger and muscular than the previous ones and looked like they meant business. The fight went on for 10 to 15 minutes with neither giving up. Meanwhile, bets were placed with currency notes that had too many zeros in it, mostly Rp50000 and Rp100000 notes which are about $2 and $5 respectively. No.45 finally won. The men who bet on No.45 were happy. Money was exchanged and the bookie took his commission. It was a rather fast and straightforward procedure. As news spread of the buffalo fights the crowd grew with people climbing trees for a better view.

Burmese villager waiting for her train at Thazi station

Everybody seemed to the enjoying except the losing buffalos, their owners and the Dutch girls ( not because they were always supporting the losing buffalo ). They were insisting on returning and I was not too happy about it as we had just been there for about 1.5 hours and the ceremonies would go on until evening and there was much more to see. I guess they did not like the animal sacrifices and the buffalos being made to fight and from their western perspective and sensibilities found it rather disagreeable. I am not a big fan of going to a far off place and judging their beliefs and traditions based on my own, but I did make an attempt at trying to understand the girl’s discomfort as the whole event and atmosphere might have seemed a bit out of place and maybe a bit surreal to them. But what I don’t understand is why didn’t they do some research on what they were coming for? What were they expecting? Well, those questions will remain unanswered. The Italian girls were much more chilled out and seemed to be more travelled and we asked for some more time from our guide. We went around the main area, where a group of men wearing black sarong and t-shirt had formed a circle and were singing songs. We were soon called again by our guide at the insistence of the dutch girls and we had to leave. On the way back we stopped at a traditional village where some local kids tried selling us artifacts are overpriced rates. We bought a few items as a token for visiting the village. There was also lady sitting and weaving traditional sarong. Back to Rantepao in the evening, I went out with Kim to try some ” Ballok” a drink made from the fruits of the palm tree.
The next day I hired a scooter and went around the outskirts of Rantepao, through vehicle free narrow roads alongside green countryside and fields. Later, I visited the most popular cave cemetery of Toraja in the village of Londa. Here, there are a series of caves where coffins are placed by the family of deceased after all the funeral rites are over. Walking through the narrow path inside the cave a sense of eeriness was creeping in as i saw coffins on either side, some few weeks old and some more than a 100 years old. Thought it was not the most pleasant of experiences, but it was a new experience none the less. Some of the coffins had been eaten away by insects and only the skeletons and skulls remained alongside offerings of food, alcohol, cigarettes, and half melted candles that the families of the dead had left when they came to visit them at the caves. Trying hard not to make eye contact with the skulls I got out of the cave before I was pulled into a coffin by a drunk skeleton. Well, I guess it’s not difficult to get wired thoughts when one is in a dark cave with a few dozen of skeletons for company.
My last day at Rantepao I visited the Pasar ( Bazar ) Bolu, a few kms outside the city and the largest livestock market in Toraja. Here, you can buy and sell buffalos and pigs or just window shop. Also, in the market, you get many local produce and coffee . Torajan Arabica coffee is supposed to be one of the best quality coffee produced in Indonesia.

Villagers selling food items at the stations on the way

While I was on bus back to Makassar, my thoughts lingered back to the 4 days I spend in Toraja. I felt privileged to have experienced such a unique culture first hand. Toraja is really worth visiting, not only for the unique culture and the friendly people, but also for exploring the beautiful landscape around Rantepao. Still, I would say, it’s not everyone’s cup of coffee but if you are an experience seeker, culture enthusiast or have interest in anthropology its definitely is for you.

Villagers selling food items at the stations on the way

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