Undoubtedly one of Sulawesi’s most iconic tourist attractions, the Tana Toraja highlands of south-central Sulawesi are spectacularly beautiful and home to one of Indonesia’s most vibrant and interesting traditional cultures. Isolated for thousands of years in the mountainous interior, the Toraja had little contact with the outside world until the early 20th century when Dutch missionaries sought to convert the animist upland tribes to Christianity. Prior to the arrival of these outsiders, the Toraja lived in autonomous villages comprising of an extended family group and although villages shared somewhat similar beliefs and rituals, they did not identify themselves as a collective ethnic group.
It was the Dutch administration that formally adopted and applied the term Toraja, meaning “people of the uplands” from the lowland Bugis Buginese language. Tana means “land,” hence Tana Toraja means “Land of the Uplanders.” By the 1970’s the massive peaked-roof tongkonan traditional houses and elaborate funeral rites of the Toraja had captured the imagination of the outside world, and at the same time the Indonesian government was actively promoting Bali as a tourist destination, the fascinating Tana Toraja was being billed as the next “go to” destination in Indonesia. Some will argue that in the years since, tourism has overly commercialised the Toraja culture and certainly the abundant tourist operators, souvenir stalls, easy access and reasonable tourist infrastructure give credence to this argument, but the spin off has been an increase in ethnic identity and cultural pride among the Toraja themselves. And beyond the tourist trappings, the Toraja culture is still as fascinating and colourful as it has always been.
Travelling around the Tana Toraja highlands, the tongkonan traditional ancestoral houses rising over the wet rice fields are striking. Standing on wooden stilts and topped with an elegantly bowed bamboo roof sweeping upwards towards the sky at both ends, they are a marvel of traditional architecture. The orgins and symbolism behind the bowed roof is a mystery. The Toraja claim the first tongkonan was built in heaven and when the first Toraja ancestor descended from heaven, he replicated the tongkonan to create a link between the living and the dead.
The tongkonan is an integral element of the Toraja culture which is based around an indigenous belief system called aluk or “the way,” a combination of law, animist religion and traditions, instilled by those first ancestors. Although the intricacies of aluk vary from one village to another, the underlying principle, that the cosmos is divided into an upper world (heaven), the world of mankind (earth) and an underworld where the animals live, is shared by all Toraja. Traditionally, almost every aspect of Toraja daily life revolves around aluk, including farming practises, social hierarchy, rituals and ceremonies.
The separation of death and life is a key element of aluk, ceremonies for which are aligned with the seasons. Life ceremonies are held during the planting season beginning in October, whilst the elaborate funeral ceremonies for which the Toraja have become famous are held after harvest, generally between July to September.
The ceremonial and timing requirements around death generally means Torajan are rarely buried soon after death. Often their bodies are kept in the ancestral house for months and sometimes years to give the family time to save the money and make preparations for a proper funeral, the elaborateness of which usually depends on the deceased’s social standing. Without a proper funeral, the Torajan’s believe the deceased person’s soul will be unable to make the journey to Puya (heaven) and will instead linger around the village.
A funeral for a village nobleman can take years to prepare for, requiring the family to construct special funeral structures and accommodation for thousands of guests. For guests, funerals can be expensive too as they are expected to bring gifts of buffalo and pigs to the deceased’s family, all of which are carefully recorded so that they can be reciprocated at some point in the future.
The ceremony itself can last for many days and involves readings, chanting, wailing, music, feasting, cockfighting and the climactic sacrifice of large numbers of buffalo and pigs. At the end of the ceremony, the deceased’s body is transferred to a specially prepared burial site in a rocky cliff face or cave. Possessions that they will need in the afterlife are placed with the body and a wooden effigy, called a tau tau is placed outside the burial nook, looking out over the land.
The burial sites themselves can vary. Sometimes a body will be placed in a natural cave or ledge that serves as a family burial site. Other times, the lack of a suitable natural site means that a burial nook must be carved into the rock face, a laborious task that can take many months. The coffins of a child or infant are usually hung from ropes on a cliff or tree until the rope eventually breaks and the coffin falls to the ground.
Whilst Toraja funerals are quite a spectacle, the merits of tourists attending is a topic for hot debate. If you’re in the region between July-September, it’s quite likely there will be a funeral going on somewhere and for sure, any guide will know where and when. However, before attending ask yourself how you would feel about strangers gawking at what is a deeply meaningfull event for those involved. Some Toraja are quite accepting, even welcoming, of curious tourists (as many villages have become quite dependent on the tourist economy), others not so much. Secondly, many people will find the mass sacrifice of buffalo and pigs highly distressing and best avoided.
Outside the funeral issue, most tourists will find a visit to at least one or two burial sites quite fascinating. To the average Westerner, it might seem quite morbid peering into burial nooks and walking among the bleached bones of the dead but to the Toraja it’s quite normal. Many Toraja regularly visit their dead relatives and some communities still practise a ritual called Ma’Nene, when each August the bodies of the deceased are exhumed, washed, groomed, dressed in new clothes and walked around the village to “visit”.
With so much emphasis on death rites, it’s easy to forget that the Tana Toraja highlands has many other extremely worthwhile attractions. The entire region is simply gorgeous – picture valleys of terraced rice fields nestled between jungle clad mountains, gurgling rivers, waterfalls, quaint rural villages with their eye-catching tongkonan traditional houses and friendly locals. You could easily spend a week or more exploring but many of the highlights are clustered quite closely together so even 1-2 days in Tana Toraja will give you a good glimpse into this fascinating part of the world.
The administrative centre for Tana Toraja and the biggest town is Makale, but the gateway to the cultural heart of Toraja land is the town of Rantepao. Most of the main Tana Toraja attractions are within 15-20km of Rantepao, many within walking distance for those who can’t resist trekking through evergreen rice-filled valleys and pretty jungle settings. The town is well equipped with a good range of accommodation ranging from budget to high-end, restaurants and tour agents who can help you arrange tours, transport, guides and anything else you might need. For those with a penchant for getting a little further off the beaten track, ask about a homestay option in one of the outlying villages.
If you’re on a budget, bemo’s to/from Rantepao either link or pass close by many of the main tourist sites. But if you can stretch to it, we recommend hiring a car (share to split the costs) or ojek for a day or two as you’ll cover so much more in the same time. Rantepao can be reached by road or air from Makassar; for details refer to Getting Around on the Sulawesi Overview page.
Expect to pay between 5.000 – 20.000Rp admission fee (sometimes couched as a donation) at most burail sites and villages. Strictly speaking, you don’t need a guide to to explore the more popular attractions around Rantepao but there’s not doubt having a knowledgable guide will enhance your overall experience. Most of the local guides are well known around the villages, will act as your interpreter, advise you on proper cultural conduct and will often get you to places independent travellers won’t see (such as a sneak peak inside a tongkonan). Also, some villages require you to have a guide when visiting their burial sites. If you turn up without one, generally one of the villagers (who may or may not speak English) will escort you but you’ll be expected to make a donation after the tour, usually somewhere around 25.000Rp. By the time you’ve visited 3 or 4 sites, it adds up and makes the cost of a guide engaged on a day rate much better value. If you’re planning on trekking, other than simply following local roads, you’ll definitely need a guide to help you find your way through the rice fields as you traipse between villages and burial sites.
Now with the logistics out of the way, let’s get into the attractions. We’ve picked out a few highlights to whet your appetite but we can’t cover everything as there is just so many options. We recommend making the tourist information centre in Rantepao your first stop as they have the most comprehensive and up-to-date information on everything Tana Toraja.
One of the most visited sites in Tana Toraja, the Londa burial site consists of a massive granite cliff face featuring burial chambers guarded by a balcony of tau tau and a natural burial cave. Inside the cave, a collection of wooden coffins in varying states of decay and scattered bones of the long dead. According to local legend, those buried at Londa are descendent of Tangdilinoq, one-time chief of the Toraja.
Beyond the main burial cave, you can squeeze through a narrow tunnel into a second chamber featuring stalactites and stalagmites and rumoured to stretch back into the hillside for over a kilometre. You’ll need a torch, a skinny physique to take this on.
Londa is located in Sandan Uai village, about 7km south of Rantepao. Bemo’s servicing the Rantepao–Makale route will drop you off at the turn-off approximately 2km from the village. Otherwise, you can grab and ojek, taxi or private car with a driver from Rantepao. An admission fee of 10.000Rp per person applies and unless you’re travelling with tour group or already have a guide, you must be accompanied by a local guide. Prices seem to be quite fluid so don’t be afraid to haggle. For photographers, Londa is best visited in the morning when the sun hits cliff face.
Lemo – Another of Tana Toraja’s well known burial sites, the large rock face at Lemo is dotted with burial nooks and rows of tau tau. Lemo is located 4km south of Londa and likewise, can be reached using Rantepao–Makale bemo which will drop you at the turnoff about 1km from the burial site.
Suaya – Also known as the Tampangailo burial site, the massive cliff face at Suaya is the historic burial site of the royal family of Sangalla. The rock face is grooved with countless burial nooks and impressive tau tau galleries. If you only have time to visit one or two burial sites, be sure to include Suaya. The village is located southeast of Lemo, approximately 24km from Rantepao or 8km east of Maleke.
To reach the Suaya burial site, take the Rantepao–Makale bemo all the way to Makale, then catch a bemo to Sangalla. Ask the driver to drop you off at the Suaya burial site around 800m past the village turn-off. Alternatively, continue all the way to Sangalla and grab an ojek guide for the day as there are quite a few sites other sites in close proximity to Sangalla worth visiting.
The old village of Kete Kesu is one of the most culturally interesting settlements in Tana Toraja. The village comprises of several old tongkonan traditional houses and rice granaries overlooking picture perfect rice fields and water buffalo pastures. Behind the village, there’s a cliff face burial site with a difference. Rather than placing coffins in burial niches within the rock face as other Toraja do, the Kete Kesu villages place their dead in wooden coffins suspended high on the cliff face. Over time, the wooden coffins rot and fall to the ground, scattering the bones in the process. Whilst some have been piled up or clumped together in old coffins against the base of the cliff, visiting the Kete Kesu burial site means walking among human bones, something some people may find it a little confronting. It is nonetheless, rather morbidly fascinating.
Kete’ Kesu is located under 5km southeast of Rantepao. The easiest way to reach the village is by ojek or taxi from Rantepao.
Pala’tokke & La’bo – From Kete’ Kesu village, head south along the sealed road fora few hundred metres to Pala’tokke, yet another superb traditional village with hanging cliff side graves.
Kambira– Located just a stone’s throw northwest of Suaya towards Sangalla, in a bamboo grove outside the Kambiri village is the baby burial tree. According to village traditional, when a baby dies before they have any teeth, they are brought to the tree and encased in a hollow carved into the trunk. The Toraja believe that in time, the spirit of the child and tree grow together, eventually reaching the sky and the afterlife in heaven. It’s a rather beautiful belief even if the sight of the Kambira baby grave tree is rather sad.
Sarambu Sikore Waterfall – This pretty waterfall is located in patch of jungle near Salu Sarrei village about 4kms due west of Rantepao (12km, 30min by road). The pool at the base of the 10m cascade is small and shallow but you can certainly get wet and cool off. Admission to the falls is 10.000Rp per person. It’s only a few hundred metres from the car park to the base of the falls but the trail is rocky and uneven in places so be sure to wear sturdy footwear.
Batutumanga – Located about an hours drive northwest of Rantepao on the slopes of Mt Sesean, the region around Batutumanga is dotted with small Toraja villages and pretty rice terraces overlooked by forested mountain slopes. The quiet ambience andsuperb scenery make it one of Tana Toraja’s most popular hiking destinations. A network of trails connecting villages and burial sites pass through rice fields, buffalo fields,bamboo groves, plantations, hanging bridges and rocky mountain paths, offering a level of variety that’s rare on short treks. If you haven’t already had your fill of burial sites, one of the most interesting in this area is located just 30min walk from Batutumange. Lokamata (meaning “eye holes”) is a large granite boulder containing burial nooks and tau tau.
Treks around Batutumanga can be completed in half or a full day, travelling out and back from Rantepao (about 1 hour each way). For those who prefer to explore further afield and reach some of the lesser visited villages, consider staying in one of several homestays in the village and trekking out and back from Batutumanga.
White Water Rafting – There are several operators in Tana Toraja offering white water rafting excursions along the Maulu, Maiting or Sa’dan Rivers. Conditions vary according to the time of year (level of rainfall) but generally rapids are graded as class II-III, suitable for novice and intermediate level paddlers. Package options range from half to 3 day rafting trips with overnight accommodation in a local village. The longer rafting options incorporate some class V rapids so are best suited to more experienced paddlers.
Buffalo market (Pasar Bolu) – The main Tana Toraja buffalo market is held every 6th day in Pasar Bolu, about 2km north of Rantepao. It’s large, busy, noisy and colourful with hundreds locals from surrounding villages and towns decending on the market place to trade buffalo, pigs and other livestock or to simply socialise. Grab a bemo or taxi from Rantepao and try to get there by no later than mid-morning. Admission to the market is 10.000Rp per person. Your hotel or guesthouse will be able to advise when the next market is scheduled. If you miss the main event, they market operates on a smaller basis on other days and it still makes an interesting stop on your itinerary.
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