The southern realms of Sulawesi have been home to the Makassarese and Buginese ethnic groups for centuries. And still today, their beguiling cultures live in harmony with nature and surprisingly manage to maintain the ancestral way of life. This is particularly true in Tana Toraja – the region known for spooky jungles, creepy cemeteries and odd burial rituals.
Tana Toraja is a country of wilderness, great natural beauty, spellbinding culture and ancient tradition.
TANA TORAJA – A PREMIER ECOTOURISM DESTINATION
Located in the southern part of the island, Tana Toraja is typical of lush tropical rainforest, bright verdant rice terraces, majestic limestone outcrops and misty blue mountains. Those who love trekking and nature can enjoy plenty of scenic trails that lead deep into the jungle.
For its distinct tribal culture and well-preserved architecture, the region is regarded as the most distinctive and anthropologically significant in entire Indonesia.
What scientists come here to study mostly, and curious travellers come to discover is ‘tomate’ – the local burial ritual, also called ‘Festival of Death’. Tomate is the most complex funeral tradition ever know on our planet.
The combination of unique features has made Tana Toraja No 1 when it comes to eco-tourism in Indonesia.
TORAJAN CULTURE & ANIMISM
Indeed, what makes Tana Toraja such an attractive and mysterious spot is the megalithic culture and animist religion.
The indigenous people believe in ‘Way of the Ancestors’ and call themselves ‘the People of the Uplands’. Famed for controversial customs, gruesome funeral rituals, odd burial sites carved into rocky cliffs and massive peaked-roof houses, the local culture has survived for centuries, and many of the native practices remain, including animal sacrifices, ostentatious funeral rites and huge communal feasts.
Although Sulawesi was heavily missionarised during the Dutch colonial era, and today there are officially 60% Protestant Christians living on the island, the traditional animism and tribal cultures still predominate.
TONGKONAN (TRADITIONAL HOUSES)
Tongkonan is a name for an ancestral house in Tana Toraja. These quirky homes are typical of a distinguishing boat-shaped and oversized saddleback roof, and they are built on piles. The houses are traditionally built by the whole community, and it can take months to complete such a house, including building, erecting the construction, painting and carving.
There is great importance in the final decoration and ornamentation of the houses because each pattern and adornment signifies a different social status and represents a particular quality, e.g. prosperity, fertility, wealth.
The Tongkokan houses in Kete Kesu are the oldest in the region, estimated to have been built more than 500 years ago.
Kete Kesu tongkonan are traditionally arranged in a row, side by side, with their roofs on a north-south alignment with the front gable facing north.
There are 3 different types of tongkonan classified according to their function in society. Some of them are more than 500 years old and well-preserved since the houses are constantly maintained and renewed by the villagers.
TOMATE (THE FESTIVAL OF DEATH)
The major point of interest for all foreign visitors is the famed ‘Tomate’ burial ritual – the most complex funeral tradition ever known on our planet.
For the local people, life much turns around death. However, death in a positive sense; for all Torajans, a funeral is meant to be an opulent, cheerful and a very expensive celebration of life (or death) and a special occasion for the entire community to gather and honour the life of the deceased.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING ‘TOMATE’
After a person’s death, the body is wrapped in several layers of cloth and kept by the family at home (often for several years) until enough money is saved to fund the extravagant funeral ceremony.
During the waiting period, the soul of the deceased is thought to linger around the village and prepare for the grand festive time, which may last up to a week, ritual dance and buffalo fights are held, and buffaloes and pigs are slaughtered to ferry the soul of the deceased to the afterlife. Then the deceased is finally buried.
3 DISTINCT METHODS OF TORAJAN BURIAL
1.STONE-CARVED CLIFF GRAVES
The body is placed in a stone grave – a cave dug inside of a rocky cliff. The rich families make one rock tomb for each member while others try to fit as many corpses as they can in just one grave. A wood-carved tau-tau effigy is placed for each body underneath the stone grave on a little “balcony”, looking out over the land.
2.HANGING CARVED GRAVES
The body is left exposed to the elements in a bamboo frame hanging from the side of a cliff or a wooden carved casket. The wooden tombs usually contain the body of the deceased and any possessions that they might need in the afterlife.
Based on social class, the rich are traditionally hung higher (closer to heaven), while the tombs of the poor often rested directly on the ground or in a cave. This hanging grave usually lasts for years, until the ropes rot and the coffin eventually falls to the ground result of which are bones and skulls scattered over the ground.
3. BABY TREE GRAVES
The body of a baby or a little child (with no teeth yet) is placed in a grave inside a hollow tree. Alternatively, the body of the infant may be hung from ropes on a cliff face or from a tree.
The reason why they use trees to bury babies is simple: the tree is the ultimate symbol of life. By burying their young children inside a tree, the tree would act as the child’s new mother. As long as the tree lived, the child would continue to have a new life inside. Besides, as the tree grows the babies inside will be moving closer towards the heaven.
WHAT TO DO & SEE IN TANA TORAJA
Globalization and increasing tourism brought some development, however, that has had little impact on the way of living in Tana Toraja; the country is still considered an ‘off the beaten path’ destination, rather suitable for an independent traveller.
The visitors can learn more about the local cultures via trekking and visiting the surrounding villages. Jungle trekking is a perfect way to experience the distinct beauty and exhilaration, and a sense of fright when walking through the creepy jungles and ravines surrounded by skeletons. Yes – you will definitely go back in time!
MA NENE FESTIVAL
Each August the extraordinary ritual Ma Nene (the ceremony of cleaning corpses) is held in Tana Toraja when the bodies of the deceased are exhumed to be washed, groomed and dressed in new clothes. The mummies are then walked around the village while their coffins are fixed and get ready for their residents to return after the grand ‘makeover’.
ESSENTIAL EXPERIENCES IN TANA TORAJA
VISITING INDEPENDENTLY VS. BOOKING A PRIVATE TOUR
It is possible to visit most of the famous sites and funerals on your own (they are public events open to anyone), but it might be hard to get any help or information from the locals. They will always try to earn money and tell you that the sites are only permitted to enter with a local guide.
NOTE Remember you do not need a guide to visit the villages and burial sites. Rent a scooter and drive around the major sites (entrance fees apply) or use bemos (mikrolets) to move around.
However, if you prefer a comfortable tour with no hassle, you should hire a local guide in Rantepao. If visiting the funeral ceremony, you will be asked to bring some gift for the family, as well (a day trip might cost you 30-50 USD, try to negotiate the price).
Rantepao is the epicentre of Tana Toraja with excellent tourist infrastructure.
CLIMBING BULU RANTEMARIO VOLCANO
Gunung Latimojong (3,478 m), known as Mount Rantemario, is often dubbed as the ‘Roof of Sulawesi’ and obviously, so, it is the islands highest peak.
The summit of Rantemario can be climbed from the village of Kerangan, and it is not a very difficult hike; the route has 8 designated “Pos” staging points, and the peak can be reached within 4 hours (starting at 1400 m). The starting point is the town of Baraka, near Tana Toraja.
WHEN TO TRAVEL
The best time to visit Tana Toraja is the dry season (June-October).
NOTE August is the month of the Ma Nene festival. The funeral ceremonies are held several times a year. However, the exact date is announced just around 1 month beforehand. Hence, you will need to check it out. Nevertheless, the funerals typically take place after the main harvest season (August-September).
HOW TO GET THERE
Fly to Makassar. Catch a shuttle bus from Makassar’s Daya bus terminal to Rantepao (8-10 hrs).
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