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Next: Central SulawesiPrevious: Makassar

Funeral Rites in Tana Toraja

From Makassar we move on to Rantepao, in the mountains of Tana Toraja. This is the area of the Toraja people, known for their funeral rituals and typical houses. Although they are converted to Christianity, their traditional animist beliefs are still part of everyday life.

Pushing the coffin in the rock grave

To Rantepao

The first part of bus drive to Rantepao is in flat terrain, along the coast heading north. The views are nice, with simple yet typical malay houses in the rice fields with mountains in the backdrop. After the harbor city of Pare Pare, we move up into the mountains. This means heavy winding roads, roaring engines going up, and squeaking breakes going down. Sabine takes a pill against car sickness, which makes her very sleepy. After a while the first Tongkonan houses appear, and at the end of the afternoon we arrive in Rantepao.


More Adventure travel tales in Indonesia:
the Minangkabau
Ubud, Bali
Komodo Dragon Cruise
Flores Island
Lake Toba
Bukit Lawang
Southeast Asian Tales:
Angkor Wat temples
Sapa Valley Vietnam
Kuching
Luang Prabang in Laos

Tana Toraja Landscape

Rantepao is a town grown out of proportions because of tourism. We decide to stay just outside the town, and are dropped off at Sella's homestay. We are hardly checked in when a lot of information is poured over us, from someone who appears to be a guide. He tells us we are lucky, there is a funeral tomorrow in a village nearby, and we can take a look there. Although we assume there is a funeral somewhere every day, we decide to book the trip with him.

Tongkonan houses

We agreed to meet our guide in the city, where we first stop at a supermarket to buy cigarettes and other gifts for the family we will visit. Then we take a bemo, which brings us as far as the paved road goes. After that, it's still a long walk to the village. Underway we admire the typical Tongkonan houses. They have a huge roof shaped like either buffalo horns or a boat, the experts aren't sure which they represent. We also see a few megaliths, large upright stones into which a face is cut. And all in a landscape of rice fields and mountains.

When we nearly arrive we pass a few men carrying pieces of meat in between them. According to our guide, they come from the funeral. Every guest gets some of the meat from the sacrificed and slaughtered buffaloes.

Funeral rites

Buffalo heads watch the slaughter of their bodiesA funeral in Tana Toraja takes several days, depending on the importance of the deceased. The first day(s) is for the killing of the buffaloes. The more important the deceased, the more buffaloes are killed. The next day(s), the guests arrive. They often bring along pigs, who are also slaughtered. The last day, finally, is the actual funeral. At the funeral we are visiting, the killing of the buffaloes is on the same day as the arrival of the guests. This is not because of the importance of the deceased (8 buffaloes are killed, so he was important), but because of the guests from Irian Jaya, who have to return after a few days.

We are welcomed by the family in one of the specially made bamboo huts. Outside, on the compound, we can see a dead buffalo, skinned but otherwise intact. While we are offered tea and biscuits, we hear a lot of chopping noises outside, and we wonder what is going on. But a little later, we can see for ourselves. On a bed of leaves the dead buffaloes are slaughtered and divided into huge piles of meat. The chest and other parts are chopped with an axe, which was the sound we heard. Five men are working on it all day, and the rest is watching.

Then we are taken to take a look in the open air kitchen. Here the women are busy preparing food and drinks for the guests. We also get some rice, pork and hot peppers to eat. Meanwhile children are running around, some of them with a buffalo hoof they obtained from the slaughtering men. As a new group of guests arrive, the women line up to deliver food and drinks to them.

Pigs

Pig slaughtered in Tana TorajaThe new guests are received in a central bamboo hut. The pigs they brought are lying next to it. After a while, when they finished their drinks and meal, the people are moved to one of the other bamboo huts on the terrain. The pigs are then transported to a small field behind the huts. And we can take a look there to see how they are slaughtered as well, nice�.

The pigs are killed by a stab in the heart with a dagger, while a man holds them with his foot. After a scream, the pig shudders for a moment until it passes out. Immediately, the animal is cut open to remove the stomach and guts. Then the hair is burned off above a fire. Finally, the pig is cut into pieces and divided.

After this ritual we head back to the bamboo hut of the family. We pass the compounds, where the buffalo heads are staring at us, the bodies get thinner and the piles of meat higher. Not a pleasant sight, so we go quickly back inside, where we are offered a drink and some food. The palm wine tastes bad, however, and we don't empty our glass. Later we learn from our guide that he needed to apologize for that.

On our walk back to the bemo, our guide leads us into the ricefields. Nice, but he doesn't know the route, and we end up in the mud. We use some bamboo sticks to prevent being sucked into it. But the views are great and it's nice to pass the harvesting people and the children playing in the water.

Kete Kesu

Kids playing foot volleyball in Kete KesuWhen we reach the paved road it doesn't take long before a bemo picks us up, in order to drop us off at the traditional village of Kete Kesu. Here are the Tongkonan houses nicely lined up in a row, and we are allowed to take a look inside one of the houses. Nobody lives in this one anymore, but we get an idea of the small interior. Opposite to the houses is a similar row of rice storage houses. They are built in the same style, but are smaller and have an extra platform between the ground and the storage. This is where the population meets to drink tea, play cards, and socialize.

Behind the village a path leads to the rock fa�ade, where the graves are located. Climbing up, we see a large variety of graves. Complete houses, hanging graves, nicely decorated coffins, and decayed ones, full of bones and skulls. Halfway is a locked cave with Tau Tau. These are effigies diseased. Old dolls are rigid and simple, newer are created more to resemble the diseased. The cave is locked to prevent robbery.

Back at our homestay we decide to go into Rantepao for a meal. We are offered a ride by someone from the homestay. A special service, or does he get commission from the restaurant? Either way, we're fine with it. In the restaurant we meet Kris and Paulien again, who made a detour before they came to Rantepao. We chat and they decide to join us the next day to the actual funeral.

Back to the Funeral Rites

Funeral procession in a nice landscapeThe next morning, the bemo brings us all the way to the village. We are just in time to see the coffin being carried to the church, under loud cheering. The people are catholic, so a church ceremony is part of the rituals. We are offered tea and biscuits in the meantime. The bamboo huts are still there, but the guests and all the meat is gone. The 8 horns of the buffaloes are still lined up, and a proud men shows us which 3 he killed. After tea, we take a look at the church.

The church is small and packed. We stay outside and hear the singing through the open door. A girl is walking around the church with a incensory, and there are several people taking pictures. Taking pictures of the coffin is a sign that the deceased is still part of the community, so we are also encouraged to take pictures. After the mass there is a complete session in which different groups are photographed with the coffin.

Procession

And then the coffin is carried in a procession to the burial site. Again, there is loud cheering and the many carriers stop regularly to jump up and down with the coffin. The coffin is also pushed to all sides, under loud laughter and cheering. It is all meant to scare away the bad ghosts and spirits. Eventually the coffin is pushed and pulled into the verge and uphill through the bush to a rocky cliff. Suddenly, on an open space, the coffin is put on the ground and several women are diving on top of it crying load. Apparently, this is the last goodbye and it seems as if actresses are hired to change the joy into grief. One of the women even faints from the emotion.

Funeral Procession in Tana TorajaWe follow the men to the rocky cliff. A long bamboo ladder is put against the rock fa�ade and one of the graves cut into the rocks is made open. There is not much space down below, so we move as far to the side as we can, so we are in nobodies way. Kris is asked to climb the ladder and look into the grave. He reports that it's full of coffins already, and that there is not much room to add one.

Grave pushing

After a while the coffin arrives. With 3 men it is pulled up the ladder and pushed into the grave. Put that is not easy, one man climbs into the grave first to make room, while the others push. It takes half an hour before both man and coffin are in the grave. It is amazing to see how the man crawls through the coffins to get out of the grave, but when he is out, the grave can finally be closed.

When we descend, people are eating in the open space. Here, a pig was killed this morning and traditionally prepared in bamboo. It needs to be eaten on the spot, and cannot be brought back to the village. We are offered some, but kindly decline and say goodbye to return to Rantepao.

Tau Tau skybox

Our last day in Tana Toraja we take the bemo and a long walk to the village of Londa. Here are rock graves as well, guarded by a skybox of Tau Tau. We are allowed to take a look into the caves, where many coffins are piled up in every corner. There are also many skulls and skeletons. One of the skulls still has hair, which is a scary sight. But there is no stench, which we would expect.

Skybox full with Tau Tau dolls

In Tana Toraja there is a difference in the classes. As mentioned before, the size of the funeral depends on the importance of the deceased. But there is also a division into a lower, middle and noble classes. People from the lower class are put in the caves. The middle class people get separate places, often as a hanging grave. And the noble class people get a grave high in the rocks, which we can see from a viewpoint. And those noble class people are the only ones for which Tau Tau are made.

Londa is a village where a lot of Tau Tau dolls are made. There are some souvenir stalls here, where they are offered for sale. We look around, but are not keen to buy one. Instead, we buy a cup of tea which we drink together with the family.

Back in Rantepao we have lunch at a fancy restaurant along the river. We have a mighty view on a few buffaloes swimming and being washed in the river, and an eagle circling above. The food is a bit more expensive, but still cheap. And there are little or no other tourists here either.

Riots

In the evening we eat in town with Kris and Paulien. Around 10 PM suddenly the jeep of our homestay arrives to pick us up. It appears that there are some riots on the road to the homestay. When we pass, we see two groups of youngsters with rocks in their hands. It doesn't look like a serious fight, but still.

Tana Toraja left a huge impression on us. Despite advancing modernisation people hang on to their traditions here, especially the funeral rites. We were lucky especially to see the roch funeral, although we think all guides tell their clients they were lucky to attend a funeral. Yet, we hear from some others that they needed to wait half a week for a ceremony. Anyway, the funeral rites at Tana Toraja were an amazing experience.

Follow our World Journey!! Next Stop: Central Sulawesi


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