Tana Toraja: land of death rituals and stunning rice terraces (12-15.02.2012)

The first thought that came to our minds when we first spotted Sulawesi from the air on our way there was: “oh, my God, we are going to get wet here!“ In fact, the island looked like a huge flooded plain. Everywhere we looked, we saw green fields all covered by water. It was the early evening and the sky was gray and seemed to threaten with more rain. We knew that we were coming in the middle of the rainy season, but we didn’t know what to expect since all the other countries from South East Asia what we had just visited were in dry season.

Landscape with rice terraces around Batutumonga

Some people would never come to a tropical country during the rainy season. However, the rainy season is a favorite for some, since there are fewer tourists, prices are usually lower and the weather might still be pretty good. When making our decision whether to come to Indonesia during the rainy season or going to another country in South East Asia still in dry season, we considered all these pros and cons and finally we decided to try our luck. We really wanted to visit Indonesia and after all, when else were we going to have a full month to visit one of the most diverse and amazing countries in the World?

Facade of a “tongkonan”, typical Toraja house

There are mainly two reasons why tourists come to Sulawesi: either to dive in one of their world-class diving areas such as Manado, or to visit the land of the Toraja people. We had never tried diving before, but we definitely wanted to know more about the Toraja people and their traditions.

“Tau-taus” (effigies of the deceased) in the cliff wall of a burial site

Locals taking care of their water buffalo at the buffalo market

The Toraja are a Christian minority who live in Tana Toraja, a highland area in Southern Sulawesi. The Toraja people are mostly known by their death rituals, which can last up to a week and include water buffalo fights, ritual dances and public slaughtering of pigs and water buffalos which give enough meat to feed all family members of the death person and everybody from the village. The more powerful the decease person was, the more animals are slaughter. The slaughtering is done with a machete in a death fest that is the climax of the funeral ceremonies.

The loved and expensive albino buffalo in the buffalo market

The funerals are the most expensive ceremony for a Toraja family and some families have to keep the body unburied during years, while they save enough money to afford the week long funeral.

The burial sites are also very impressive. Traditionally, the Toraja people bury their family members inside caves or in cliff walls. The most accommodated families also have “tau-taus” in their tombs. The “tau-taus” are nearly human-size effigies depicting the death person, which are placed in balconies located in the cliff walls of the burial sites. The sculptures usually show the death persons at an old age and their main feature is the realism of the faces, usually showing plenty of wrinkles and rich expressiveness. The richer the family, the more elaborated is the “tau-tau”.

Burial site and “tau-taus” (sculptures of the death people) near Rantepao

The architecture of the Tana Toraja is also very special and the typical house or “tongkonan” is a symbol of Sulawesi all over Indonesia. The “tongkonan” is a traditional Toraja house made of wood whose main feature is the prominent upward-sloping roof mimicking the prow of a boat. The “tongkonan” are usually two floors houses whose facades are decorated with colorful Toraja patterns in red and black colors. Two cocks are usually depicted in the façade too. The buffalo is the Toraja symbol per excellence and a part of the buffalo – a buffalo horn, a fake buffalo head, etc – usually hangs from the front part of the “tongkonan”.

Preparing for the buffalo fights in a funeral near Rantepao

Toraja language is only spoken – there is no written language. The wooden carvings have big relevance since they represent cultural and religious concepts. The carvings usually have geometrical designs, but the Torajan’s also use drawings of animals and plants to symbolize virtues like fertility and health.

Typical Toraja designs in a facade of a “tongkonan”

We landed in Makassar, the capital of Sulawesi (in the South part of the island) around 5 p.m. Luckily we got our tourist visas at the airport pretty fast, so around one hour later we came out of the airport with our luggage and our stamped passports which allowed us to stay one month in Indonesia!

Since we knew that we wanted to go Tana Toraja and we only had 10 days to visit Sulawesi, we decided to get to Makassar bus station directly from the airport. Spending the night in Makassar, where there was really nothing to do for us was a waste of time considering our limited time, so we took a taxi to the bus station to try our luck. We didn’t know the bus timetables, but we figured that it must be a night bus from Makassar to Rantepao! And that was actually the case! We got two seats in one of the most comfortable buses of all South East Asia and when we arrived to Rantepao the following morning at 6 a.m. we didn’t want to step out of the bus! However, we were lucky to get a room straight away in one of the backpackers guest houses in town: Wisma Maria I. The rooms were arranged around a beautiful garden and we got a decent clean double room in the first floor with a veranda facing the garden!

The views from our room: not bad!!!

During the next two days we visited some burial sites around Rantepao such as Lemo and Ke’te kesu’ and we went to the funeral ceremonies which were being held in a village near Rantepao.

Souvenirs of “tau-taus” (effigies of the deceased)

The event that most impressed us was the water buffalo fights. We could see how much the Toraja people cared about their water buffalos by the way they took care of them, they fed them, they padded them, etc. Still, they didn’t hesitate to put their water buffalos in front of another buffalo to make them fight. The water buffalos are very quiet animals, but as soon as you put one in front of the other, they instinctively start a fight. The fights took place in the middle of a rice field and the whole village came to see the spectacle and to cheer their water buffalos. We found it cruel and we were very sad when we saw the wounds on the skin of the water buffalos when they left the battle field with their proud owners…Once again, a tradition which doesn’t take into consideration the animal rights…

One of the most sacred (and expensive) animals for the Toraja people: the albino buffalo

Buffalo fights are part of the one week long Torajan funeral rituals

The third day we decided to take the motorbike and do a day trip to the Northern part of Tana Toraja. We have heard that the area around the village called Batutumonga was very pretty and that there were a couple of home stays where it was possible to spend the night. At first we wanted to hire a guide and we talked to several of them, but they wanted to charge us way too much (250,000 IDR, which was a lot for our budget), so we decided to go on our own.

Decorations in the facade of a “tongkonan”

We couldn’t have imagined how beautiful it was! We discovered stunning scenery of rice terraces and scattered “tongkonans” which was truly breathtaking! We were so happy for finally have decided to go!

Iván and Sonso exploring the countryside in the North of Rantepao

We slept at a home stay in Batutomonga, which is not even a village, but a few scattered houses along the road surrounded by paddy fields and rice terraces. For 80,000 IDR per person we got our own “tongkonan”, dinner and breakfast (advantage of the low season). The “mamma” was so nice that also let us try the famous Toraja coffee (strong, powdery black coffee grown in the Toraja region) and we spend the evening watching a movie in the roofed terrace of the “mamma” while it was pouring rain outside.

The homestay where we stayed in Batutumonga, with our own “tongkonan”!

The morning after was one of the most beautiful ones of our four weeks in Indonesia. The sun was shining and the rice paddies were stunning in tones green and brown. The sky was bright blue and huge clouds like cotton crossed the sky. The local children went to school on their pink uniforms and the villagers went to the fields to grow the rice as their ancestors have done for centuries. Without a fixed destination, we wandered around with the motorbike, mesmerized by the jaw-dropping landscape…

Sunrise in Batutumonga. Amazing layer of clouds over the valley!

Children at school near Batutumonga

Iván with our rented motorbike in the area around Batutumonga

Sonso posing in front of rice terraces near Batutumonga

I don’t think that we will ever see more beautiful rice terraces than the ones we saw that morning around Batutumonga.

Beautiful rice terraces around Batutumonga


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