In Toraja, Life Is Colorful and Compelling… Even After Death

Michael Aquino

In Toraja, high in the mountains of Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island, the worlds of the living and the dead stand side by side — with hardly anything dividing the two. As a result, the Torajan realm of the dead is just as colorful (if not as lively) as that of the living.

Cave floors littered with human bones and offerings of cigarettes; towering tongkonan (Toraja houses) set high on pillars; effigies called “tau-tau” staring with sightless eyes out of openings in a cliff; and regular sacrifices of buffaloes to appease the spirits of the newly departed — these all spring from the belief that the departed ancestors of Toraja have not really “departed” at all.

Spend a few days in Toraja to take in the fresh mountain air and the hospitality of the locals — and you’ll find how happily they live, even in the ever-present gaze of their sainted ancestors. The unique culture of Toraja is well-worth the ten-hour curvy mountain drive it takes to get there!  

Long ago, Toraja was effectively insulated from mainstream Indonesia by the mountains of South Sulawesi. Getting to Toraja took several days of hard marching up mountainous terrain to reach a town some 200 miles north of the capital Makassar.

Today, a concrete highway makes short work of that distance, requiring only about eight to ten hours’ ride by bus. (The Torajans have a reputation as excellent mechanics; they own and operate most of the buses connecting Makassar to their homeland.)

Makassar, in turn, is only a short nonstop flight from Jakarta and Bali, helping make Toraja into a key point in any substantial Indonesia travel itinerary.

Travelers disembark at Rantepao, North Toraja’s capital and its cultural center. Rantepao’s low-slung urbanity, chock-a-block with low 1960s-era buildings and the occasional tongkonan-style structures, quickly gives way to rice fields and towering limestone peaks.

The cooler weather is your only immediate clue to Toraja’s elevation. You’ll need to visit lookout points like Lolai to get a visceral idea of your place in the highlands: in the mornings, the lookout point at Lolai feels like an island peeking out of a sea of clouds.  

As the lowland Bugis and Makassar people underwent conversion to Islam, the Toraja managed to hang on to their traditional beliefs — Aluk Todolo, or “the way of the ancestors” — that still serve as the basis for Toraja’s culture today.

Even after the mass conversion of most Torajans to Christianity, adherence to old Aluk Todolo habits die hard.

The traditional villages in Toraja — such as Pallawa — preserve the locals’ original lifestyle, embodied in the area’s iconic curved-roof tongkonan houses. Each community houses a single family or clan, who live in the row of houses facing north; smaller rice granaries (alang) line the other side of the lane.  

Many traditional tongkonan feature a column of water buffalo horns, arranged according to size. These horns are markers of status: the remnants of previous sacrifices in honor of some dearly departed ancestor.

The people of Toraja — like every society in the world — busy themselves with collecting status symbols, accumulating and spending wealth, and breeding descendants.

Torajans use rites of passage to cement their status, wealth and family standing in society; nowhere is this more apparent than in Toraja’s famous funerary rites.

The strict Aluk Todolo system dictates how Toraja people live, depending on their position on certain social and spiritual ladders.

  • Social: a four-tiered class system with royalty at the very top, and servants at the very bottom.
  • Spiritual: three different levels, from our mortal life to puya, the afterlife, to heaven for noble spirits and gods (deata).

When death comes for a Torajan, the family lays the corpse in the master bedroom and treats it like a patient. “Mother is sick,” a Torajan might say of their parent, her corpse lying in state in the next room, being served food once a day by her obedient children. (Torajans use a traditional embalming fluid using the juices of betel-leaf and bananas to ward off decay.)

As the body slowly mummifies in the tongkonan, the family pulls out all the stops to arrange the biggest party money can buy: a funeral usually held over a month after the time of death.

Torajans believe that souls cannot enter puya (the afterlife) unless they perform a proper makaru’dusan ritual — involving the sacrifice of as many pigs and water buffaloes as they can afford.

Water buffaloes do no work in Toraja, despite the area’s endless rice terraces. So why is there a large, lowing herd trading at high prices at Rantepao’s Pasar Bolu market?

Every rite of passage calls for the sacrifice of several buffaloes or pigs — but the rules are particularly stringent for funerals. Aluk Todolo sets out a minimum number for slaughter, depending on your status. Middle-class families must offer at least eight buffalo and 50 pigs; noble families must slaughter upward of a hundred buffalo.

Families spend about 500 million Indonesian rupiah (USD $37,000) per water buffalo, with the price reaching astronomical heights for certain colors or patterns.

Tedong saleko, or white buffaloes with black spots, can fetch up to 800 million rupiah (USD $60,000) while the most expensive buffalo of all — albino buffalo called tedong bonga — can cost over one billion rupiah (US$75,000)!

No part of the buffalo goes to waste — in a conspicuous show of generosity, the family donates the meat to community members who attend the funeral.  

A cemetery cave — Tampang Allo, on the southern outskirts of Rantepao — contains the remains of the former ruling family of Sangalla district, Puang Menturino, who lived in the 16th century. The boat-shaped coffin (erong) immediately tells us that the decedents here are part of the nobility, for this type of coffin was the preserve of rulers and their kin.

Time has not been kind to the remains of Puang Menturino — the intricately carved erong, mounted on beams set high above the cave floor, have deteriorated through the centuries, and some have dropped their contents below.

Locals have cleaned the scene up somewhat, arranging the ancient skulls and assorted bones on ledges around the cave. Offerings of cigarettes (left by pious locals) still litter the rock around the skulls.  

Burial caves are in short supply these days, but limestone cliff faces are a dime a dozen around Toraja. Local custom disdains burial in the ground; Torajans prefer to be entombed in rock, which these days means a hole carved out of a Toraja cliff.

In the town of Lemo, a sheer cliff stands honeycombed with hand-carved crypts called liang patane, their doors measuring about five feet square and opening into a small space that fits four or five coffin-less remains. Liang patane are meant to accommodate entire families, and are guarded by tau-tau, or effigies, that depict the persons entombed behind them.

Unlike caves, liang patane are permitted to most Torajans regardless of class, but the cost of such burials all but reserves them for the well-heeled. Each hole costs about 20 to 60 million Indonesian rupiah to carve (about USD $1,500-4,500), not counting the cost of the funeral ritual. 

A few steps down from the Lemo cliff, you’ll find a shop for a tau-tau maker, whose handiwork stares out from the shop floor.

Tau-tau are intended to be likenesses of the dearly departed, and their makers take care to reproduce unique facial traits in the finished product. Craftsmen use different materials depending on the social class of the deceased: nobility get tau-tau carved from jackfruit wood, while the lower classes must content themselves with effigies made out of bamboo.

The tau-tau wear real clothes, which are replaced every few decades by surviving family members. The Lemo tau-tau wear relatively new threads, as they ditched the old ones before the President of Indonesia came to visit in 2013. (The tau-tau themselves are estimated to be over 400 years old.)

Tau-tau makers are traditionally paid in water buffalo, and these effigies don’t come cheap: about 24 water buffaloes is the average price, with higher-end tau-tau going for 40 or more water buffaloes.  

For all these picturesque pre-Christian traditions, most Torajans profess Christianity; locals practice Aluk Todolo alongside the sacraments, and see little conflict between the two.
60 percent of all Torajans belong to a Protestant Church, 18 percent profess the Catholic faith, and the remainder is split between Muslims and hardcore Aluk Todolo practitioners.

You’ll find a Christian church (gereja in the local lingo) on almost every road bend, and both capitals of Toraja — Makale and Rantepao — feature a massive Christian structure erected on a nearby hill, visible from anywhere in the city.

A giant cross stands on Bukit Singki overlooking Rantepao, the most visible sign of the local faith. And on Buntu Burake hill over Makale, a giant Jesus statue stands even taller than Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer (40 meters in height, versus the Redeemer’s 38 meters).

Visitors to Buntu Burake get an eyeful of the gorgeous Toraja landscape, as a concrete Jesus — arms outstretched, blessing the city below — watches over their shoulder.

The sculptor, an artisan from Yogyakarta named Hardo Wardoyo Suwarto, is Muslim himself – a situation that reverses that of another Indonesia landmark, the Istiqlal Mosque in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, a massive Islamic structure that was designed by a Christian!

Thanks to its isolation in the 19th century, Toraja’s coffee plantations were spared from the coffee-leaf rust epidemic that swept Indonesia in the 1870s; as a result, Torajan coffee was so prized, a “Coffee War” broke out in the 1890s to seize control of the local coffee industry.

Today, combat is the last thing on visiting coffee lovers’ agenda. You can buy a cup of hot joe in every coffee shop, restaurant and warung (street stall) in Toraja. For beans and ground, budget shoppers can head over to Malanggo’ Market to buy inexpensive Robusta by the liter (about 10,000 Indonesian rupiah per liter, or USD $0.75).

Shoppers with a bigger budget and more discriminating tastes can head over to Coffee Kaa Roastery, a specialty dispensary with Arabica beans and ground labeled according to type and origin. Beans at Kaa cost about 20,000 Indonesian rupiah per kilogram, or about US$1.50.