Toraja culture and how to get a taste of it

Tana Toraja (litteraly Toraja land) is a district of South Sulawesi province. It’s by far the most famous touristic area on the island even though it takes a long ride to go there.

Toraja people share a unique culture that is reflected in their particular religious beliefs, social organization, architecture and obviously the spectacular funeral rites.

Torajan culture

I tried to write down the insights that I extracted from my discussions with my local guide. Don’t take it for granted. If you want to go further, Wikipedia page about Toraja people is quite instructive.

Religion

Religion is one of the most disturbing chapter of Toraja culture. Even with the support of my guide, I was still confused about some points. I did some research at home and eventually stumbled upon ‘Contemporary Funeral Rituals of Sa’dan Toraja’ by Michaela Budiman. You can buy a softcopy of this book for about 4$ on Google Books.

Thanks to this study, things became much clearer in my mind.

Until the arrival of Christian missionaries in 1913, Toraja practiced a form of animism called Aluk Todolo that includes the cult of ancestors, belief in spirits and in specific myths about the creation of the earth.

Let’s take for instance an old poem translated from Toraja langage:

We are here but temporarily

We are the shadow of the world

It is in Puya, the realm of soul,

This is our place for eternity

 

I am trying to make a living

To be able to spawn children and grandchildren

Rich, famous, remembered

My memory kept alive in the heart of every man

Today Christians make up 89% of the population, Muslims 7% and people that still follow the old religion 4%. The indigenous religion is disappearing, at least in its original form.

But even if most of Toraja population was evangelised, they largely preserved their original customs. It’s clearly obvious when it comes to funerals that don’t look at all like a Christian rite (with the notable exception of the mass).

In order to ease out the spreading of Christianity, 20th century priests acquainted themselves to the local culture. They divided it in 2 parts:

  • Adat the ancestral tradition that must be preserved and cultivated
  • Alukta the original religion to be banned.

One century later, there are few differences between Christian and Aluk Todolo rites at first glance. But in fact the function and the symbolism of the rites have been deeply modified to adapt them to Christian doctrine.

Sacrificing buffaloes for funerals is no longer a way to provide the deceased with some help in the afterlife to reach the realm of spirit but rather an old custom.

It’s possible that banning buffalo sacrifice was deemed totally impossible by priests given how deep it’s entrenched in Toraja culture. Instead they strived for alleviating the religious meaning of the sacrifice, hence conciliating customs and the Bible.

By the way, even Muslims (often a Toraja spouse that has married his/her Muslim partner from outside and converted) incorporate traditional elements in their funeral (like animal sacrifices).

Funerals

ThE CEREMONY

The ceremony takes place on a dedicated site build. The coffin lay on the center under a replicate of traditional tongkonan house. The attendees sit around unter the shade of structures either permanent or made for the occasion with bamboo.

The audience and the family will express its grief with chants, music, poems or danses. Buffalo fights are generally held.

Outsiders are generally welcomes (foreigners or not) since their presence is viewed as a sign of the importance of the dead. I attended a ceremony during summer 2016 and everyone waited 2 hours because the mother of the president Jokowi was late !

The ceremony ends with a procession, the coffin is taken out of the site and then brought back to be placed in the upper structure where it will stayed until the burial.

Animal sacrifices are also a major component of ceremony: pigs and buffalo are slaughtered, sometimes tens of it.

The money issue

A ceremony costs a tremendous amount of money : building the structure, giving food and drinks to the audience and, most of all, paying for the animals to sacrifice (a normal buffalo costs between 20 and 40 millions Rp, but the rarest one can be sold for 150 million or even more).

By the time of Aluk Todolo, each social class has its own dedicated rituals. Most sophisticated rituals were the privilege of the highest class. The most complex one was capable to send the deceased not to the realms of spirits with other people but the realm of gods.

Low-class people are often simply buried in the ground. Since they will never get enough money to pay for a grandiose ceremony, they often keep bodies only a few days at home. It’s possible to exhume a parent to give him a better funeral ceremony years later.

It’s nonetheless true that the increasing number of rich families in Toraja fosters an esclation in funeral spendings. Before only a few really high-class families could afford large ceremony. Now, successful people through business or studies are ready to spend millions to impress their neighbors.

But even today, a rich offspring from the low class cannot perform the most expensive rituals without the authorization of local authorities.

 

After the sacrifices, the meat of the animal is shared between the families attending the ceremony. Rich / powerful families are awarded the best parts but it is considered as a debt to be paid down in the future.

Poor families also received less prestigious parts that they pay down by offering helps to organize the ceremony (women serves food to guests during the ceremony, men builds the structure).

BURIAL CUSTOMS

Different methods for burials have always co-existed:

  • Lay the coffin in a cave or a carved stone graved
  • Hung the coffin to a cliff
  • Lay the coffin in a stone mausoleum.

Powerful families have always favored the stone grave because it is possible to dig the grave high from the ground. Since the deceased is buried with expensive jewelries and clothes it was a way to prevent tomb raiding.

Deceased babies were usually buried inside a tree. Animist tradition believes that the baby will keep growing along with the tree in order to eventuelly reach the realm of spirits.

A wood effigy called Tau Tau can be placed in front of the grave as a protection but it requires that at least 24 buffaloes have been sacrificed during the funeral. Why 24 buffaloes ? Because there is 24 kind of different buffaloes in Toraja.

On a regular basis, bodies are exhumed from their graved to be groomed, washed and given new clothes.

LIVING AMONG THE DEAD

Toraja people have quite a unique approach to deal with the death of a relative. Actually death is merely seen as a gradual process towards the afterlife rather than a sudden event.

When someone passes away, he is not considered dead but rather ill until his funeral takes place. The bodies are kept at home for days, often weeks, sometime years in order to prepare everything for the ceremony.

The family brings food everyday to its late member and talk to him.

Bodies are preserved from rotting by injection of formaldehyde that enable the momification of the living tissues. Prior to modern chemistry, people used products derived from balsam tree.

Fun fact, it is mandatory to show an authorization of local authorities to purchase formaldehyde in order to prevent the selling of staled fish or meat.

National Geographic recently published a fantastic article with fascinating pictures.

Architecture

Traditional Tongkonan house with their particular shaped roof are iconic to the region landscape. Smaller ones are used as rice barns but they can also be a real house.

In particular settings, the roof can be covered by moss or other vegetables.

Toraja houseTongkonan are always richly-decorated with wood-carved and painted panels.

It takes about 5 month to erect a house from scratch.

Toraja people heavily rely on bamboo for their construction or their tools. This fact gives, in my eye, a slightly peaceful and nature-centered feeling to the environment.

I think it’s highly interesting to notice the similarity between local traditions in different part of Indonesian archipelago. To me it’s pretty obvious that the roof are similar to the one from traditional Minangkabau house (Rumah Gadang) near Padang or Batak houses near Medan.

Carved-wooden house with buffalo skulls pilled-up in front also echoes to local traditions in Flores.

Social organization

Toraja people remained isolated for centuries in their highland villages.  The society was traditionally organized under a class system that can be simplified to 3 groups:

  • The nobility (10%)
  • The middle class (20%)
  • The people and the slaves (70%)

Slavery was abolished by the Dutch at the beginning of the 20th century.

Class was inherited by the mother and still has a major importance in today’s society. Inter-class marriages are strongly looked down by families for instance.

WHERE TO GO IN TORAJA ?

First of all, you need a map. Tourism information center in Rantepao gives out really good one for free (Jl Pongtiku, near the hospital). I made a scan of it available for download here.

DAY TRIP AROUND RANTEPAO

You can go on a day trip from Rantepao to visit sites. For the transport you have 3 options :

  • Rent a motorbike (70-80,000Rp a day)
  • Rent a car + driver
  • Take public minivan (bemo, around 5,000Rp a ride) and walk.

As you can see on a map there are many sites around Rantepao. What’s make the interest of the site is usually :

  • A ceremonial ground
  • A grave site (cave, rock, cliff or tree)
  • A compound of traditional Tongkonan, either houses or granaries.

As of 2016, 3 sites charge a fee for entrance (20,000) : Londa, Lemo and Kembira.

Funeral are public events, a guide is absolutely not mandatory to access them. Any restaurant or homestay can let you know the place and the time of any ceremony happening. A guide is nonetheless helpful to explain you the cultural aspects.

TREKKING IN TORAJA

Toraja is a mountainous region which offer some beautiful hikes. A good guide will take you through the ricefields and the forest. He will also prevent you from walking in the vicinity of an aggressive male buffalo left in a wet field by its owner.

I hired Amos for 2 days and I was highly satisfied of him. You can contact him by email amos_palungan@yahoo.com. Prices usually start at 400,000 a day as of 2016.

We followed this itinerary (with didnt used much the road so I cannot give more details) :

Day 1 : Palawa > Tinimbayo > Lempo > Batutumonga.

Day 2 : Batutumonga to Barana.

A night in Batutumongo should cost you around 150,000Rp including dinner and breakfast.

Another good option is to rent a motorbike and to follow the road from villages to villages. You don’t need any guide for that.

A little bit of logistics

RANTEPAO OR MAKALE ?

Toraja regency (Kabupaten Toraja) was split in 2008 between Tana Toraja and Toraja Utura (North Toraja). Makale is the capital of Tana Toraja and Rantepao the capital of Toraja Utura.

Most visitors stay in the North because the traditional culture is said to be more vibrant there. I didn’t visit South so I cannot really assess this point.

WHAT’s THE BEST TIME TO VISIT TORAJA ?

It’s better to avoid the rainy season between December and April because it usually rains several hours every day. Dry season lasts from June to October. May and November are rather interim months.

2/3 of Torajans live outside Toraja. In order to gather the maximum number of people, most of ceremonies are held from July to September when the diaspora comes back to their home villages.

How to go to toraja ?

Toraja can be accessed by most of the major cities in Central or South Sulawesi. The most convenient is Makassar.

From Makassar it’s a solid 7-8h ride even though the distance is less than 350km. As of August 2016, the road was in pretty good condition everywhere though.

You have 3 options to get there:

  • By bus from Makassar or another city.
  • By private car
  • By plane with Susi Air (minimum 800.000Rp per pax one way, 3 flights a week, cannot be book online).

I went there in August 2016 with a private driver that I arranged through a guide prior my arrival. Price was 1,500,000 IDR one way per car. I think price were a bit inflated because of the peak season but it’s close from standard price.

It’s possible that you find way cheaper (I paid 600,000 IDR for the return trip) if you meet a driver that have to go to Makassar anyway and is willing to hike passengers to make a bit of extra money.

Where to sleep in RANTEPAO ?

There are plenty of accommodation options Rantepao.

I stayed in Riana Homestay. Rooms are charged 200,000 IDR for 2 people, including breakfast. It’s run by a couple and their 6 children.

The father can arrange some guide service or transport. You can contact them on Whatsapp +62 813 4369 6270.

 

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