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Tana Toraja

The tradition of death

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Tana Toraja is located in the southern part of Sulawesi island, Indonesia. It is one of the few places in Southeast Asia with well preserved old eerie traditions that mainly revolve around death.

  • Tana Toraja in local language means Toraja Land. It is a mountainous region which is linked to the rest of the island with narrow winding roads.

    Even though tourism has slowly been developing in the region, Toraja is still much more isolated that many other places in Southeast Asia.

In Torajan traditional belief called Aluk To Dolo ("Way of the Ancestors") the most important event in the life of a family is funeral.

According to this belief, funeral ceremony helps the deceased with his journey into the afterlife. However, another important social reason is to affirm the status of the deceased and his family.

This is the reason why funeral ceremonies in Tana Toraja are so elaborate, last several days and may take anything from weeks to several years to prepare.

There are two important attributes in Torajan belief that can be found in folk, traditions and everyday life:

Tedong (buffalo) and Tongkonan (ancestral house).

  • Tongkonan plays a special role in the life of every Torajan. It is a place to get together and discuss family matters and a place where heirloom are kept. A family member may live in this house too, however in this case he might be asked to maintain and repair the house. It is also a place where a deceased might be kept waiting fort the funeral ceremony.
  • Buffalo is a symbol of wealth and power. In Torajan belief buffaloes help deceased travel to the land of souls faster. Buffalo sacrifice is an important part of any funeral ceremony. Images of buffaloes can be found in traditional patterns.

When a Torajan dies he is not considered dead until the funeral. He is called a "sick" person (to makula) and kept in the house where other members of the family live. The "sick" receives the same attention as anyone who is really sick: relatives come to talk to him and even bring him food.

Funeral preparations involve serious fundraising and planning. Some family members may live on other islands and altogether they may not have enough money to organize the type of funeral required according to the social status of the deceased. Therefore the body can be kept in the house for months and sometimes even years.

  • Torajans used to embalm the dead with salt and a mix of spices to preserve them better until the funeral. However, nowadays formaldehyde injections are more common.

In the beginning of the funeral the coffin is placed in a construction that resembles a tongkonan house to stress once again that life never ends, it continues but in another world.

  • Traditionally mourning has been done by volunteers. However, nowadays there are special agencies that provide everything from mourning services to ceremonial ground decorations.

Coffin is carried around the village with cheering and songs. It symbolizes the last journey of the deceased. Once the coffin is placed onto an elevated construction in the middle of the ceremonial ground, the main part of the ceremony is started and the "sick" person is officially considered dead.

Every funeral has a well-defined structure. Every element and action is symbolic. A rice mortar that is traditionally used after harvest becomes a musical instrument at a funeral and shows how important rice has been to the economy of the region.

Reception plays an important part of a funeral. It is the day when guests arrive to represent families and sometimes even villages and to bring presents which range from small money contributions to whole pigs or even buffaloes.

  • Every group is met by the family of the deceased and is offered betel nut, cigarettes and tea. Guests and family are usually in good mood since they believe in the afterlife and know that their relative who has left them will always be around.

Pigs are a major commodity in Tana Toraja and, consequently, they become an obvious gift choice when it comes to funerals. They are not too expensive for a small group of people and the guests can always be repaid back later at their own funeral.

  • Pigs are sacrificed at the funeral ceremony and the meat is distributed among the family, village and other villages that helped building temporary housing and organize catering for the ceremony.

  • Usually pigs are bought at the special market that travels from village to village in Toraja land. Every pig is packaged for delivery and can be carried by four fit men.

Buffaloes not only serve the same social and economical purpose as pigs but also, according to the belief, carry the deceased to the land of souls faster.

The number of buffaloes to be sacrificed is dictated by the status of the deceased. In a highest status funeral at least twelve buffalos have to be sacrificed.

  • Buffalo raising is a big business in Tana Toraja. An average buffalo would costs at least 1,000 US$.

  • Albino buffaloes are unique and their price tag can reach tens of thousands US dollars.

Fights involving specially trained buffaloes can be part of an expensive funeral if the family can afford it.

  • Torajans enjoy buffalo fights and even people not related to the funeral would travel a long way to attend one.

  • Gambling is forbidden by Indonesian law, however buffalo fights is an exception because it can always be justified by local traditions.

Torajans believe that a grave is a house of the deceased where he will be living when he moves to the afterlife and where relatives can come for a visit any time.

Natural and artificial caves have been used as burial sites for generations. Nowadays concrete mausoleums are often a more preferred option.

  • Some burials are hundreds years old. Graves deteriorate, coffins rot out and even locals cannot track back who every particular remains belong to. They just know that they all belong to their village.

  • Indonesian government has been trying to develop Tana Toraja as a tourist destination. Even though they have got mixed results with international tourists, the area is definitely a highlight for domestic tourists. Some graves and houses were turned into "cultural sites" and receive thousands of visitors every year.

Not all ceremonies end with a coffin placed into a grave or a mausoleum. There is something else that sometimes needs to be done. Wooden dolls called "Tau Tau" are made for the deceased with the highest social status.

  • Tau Tau masters work with a photograph trying to make the doll resemble the person it is made for.

  • Over time the dolls wear out and give a spooky feeling to burial sites.

In the late 19th century Dutch missionaries came to South Sulawesi and worked to convert Torajans to Christianity. They eventually succeeded to convert them, but failed to subdue the culture based on ancestral beliefs.

Since that time Christianity and The Way of Ancestors are being observed by Torajans as one morphed religion.

  • Most funerals at some point have a priest coming to conduct a service.

Photography, cinematography, web development: Roman Kalyakin

Map: Google.

© Roman Kalyakin,

Special thanks to: Daud Rapa, Katya Kamlovskaya.