The people of Toraja are an indigenous group in the south-west part of Sulawesi, Indonesia. The funeral ceremony is the most important event in the life of the Toraja. The ancient traditions and rituals during the funeral ceremony are known to be the most bizarre funeral rituals in the world. That exists for many centuries and are still practised today.
So exploring Tana Toraja (Toraja Land) is an experience of a lifetime. It’s shocking, but also beautiful at the same time. From the extreme death rituals to the amazing nature of the Tana Toraja Region.
We travelled to Rantapao, the heart of Tana Toraja, in Sulawesi to learn more about the most unique culture of Indonesia. In this blog, we will give you travel tips and an in-depth story about the funeral rituals of the Toraja culture.
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The people of Tana Toraja
The Toraja are a small group of people (population approximately 650.000) that only live in Sulawesi. Their lives revolve around death. They work extremely hard to earn and save money. Not to live a wealthy life but to organize an extravagant funeral when they die or someone in their family dies. The extravagance of a funeral is what marks the status of a Toraja family. It’s not a wedding. In fact, they post-pone weddings of young couples if they know someone in their family is close to dying.
For the Toraja, the funeral is a celebration of life and a big send-off for them to go to heaven. It reinforces the bond between the living and the dead. So raising enough money for this fare-well party is one of the highest priorities in the life of the Toraja. Due to the many old traditions and rituals, the funerals are very expensive. It can take weeks, months or years before they have saved enough money for the funeral ceremony. And until the actual ceremony, the deceased is not buried but is kept at home.
What happens in Tana Toraja after death
When someone of the people of Toraja dies they call them Tomo Kula: the people who are sick. They inject the body with a formaldehyde-based mixture that over time will mummify the body. The family keeps taking care of the ‘sick’ person by giving food, communicating with them and give gifts as if they are still ‘alive’.
We visited Mama Kiki, the wife of Papa Kiki who passed away over more than 1 year ago. She lied in a coffin in an extra room in the house and before we entered Papa Kiki communicated with her to ask permission if we could enter the room. This is very common for the Toraja people to do.
It was a bizarre but also very peaceful experience. We saw a body that seems to have died a long time ago, but we couldn’t smell anything bad at all. That’s what you would expect, right? Especially with the warm temperatures in Indonesia. We also heard cases where the deceased just sits in his favourite chair in the living room or at the dining room table.
As a thank you, we gave money so the husband could buy something for her. With men, it’s custom to give cigarettes. In Indonesia, smoking cigarettes is what every man does. It’s part of the macho image Indonesians have of a man. If you are a man and not smoking they immediately assume you are gay.
Toraja funeral ceremony
The funeral ceremony can take up multiple days. We visited a funeral that lasted 3 days in total. But we heard stories of funerals from higher ranked people that lasted more than 2 weeks. So when you are travelling to Tana Toraja and are visiting a funeral you never know how long it lasts.
The Toraja people are very hospitable when it comes to outsiders visiting their funeral ceremonies. Over the years it has become even more touristy. And we expect it will get more popular over the years so no idea how authentic it will be in a couple of years. Most tourists only visit the most extreme part of the funeral, when they sacrifice the buffaloes.
The busiest period is in July and August. In this time of year, most funerals will take place in Tana Toraja. And it’s also the busiest time as it comes to tourists.
We filmed a documentary about the death culture in Tana Toraja so we stayed for the entire funeral and filmed other bizarre death rituals of the Toraja. The family actually was honoured that we visited the ceremony every day and not only come for the most bizarre part of the funeral.
Watch our documentary ‘THE LIVING DEAD’ to learn more about the Toraja, the most unique culture in Indonesia.
Toraja funeral reception
The funeral reception is the busiest part of the funeral. The whole village and the entire family is present. As a gift at the reception, pigs are given to the family of the deceased. These pigs are slaughtered on the spot and the meat is distributed directly among the guests. The tastiest pieces are given to the church, nearby family and the people with the most status that are present. And the organs and other less tasty pieces of meat go home with distant acquaintances.
The Toraja people are very strict when it comes to gifts. If you give a pig you will receive a pig when it’s your funeral. Each Toraja family keeps records of this.
As a foreign guest, it’s customary to bring cigarettes, sugar and/or rice to the family of the deceased when you are visiting the Toraja funeral ceremony. We brought sugar and rice to the reception. And as we didn’t know what to expect we were directly welcomed and asked to sit down with all the other guests who generously shared food with us. I think more than a couple of hundred people where present at the reception and everyone ate lunch that the family of the deceased had arranged. The people handed out rice in banana leaves, vegetable dishes, cookies, snacks and meat that we probably didn’t know the origin of. Léon is more the adventurous type of eater so he tried a little bit everything. I made a safer choice and just ate the cookies 😉
As we use Tupperware to keep food fresh, the Toraja people use bamboo to wrap food in.
Most extreme Toraja funeral ritual
The most extreme funeral tradition of the Toraja is sacrificing many buffaloes. The Toraja believe by slaughtering buffaloes that the spirit of the deceased will peacefully go to heaven and continue to herd the buffaloes that joined him or her. Our guide told us that before the Toraja people became Christians in the 20th century they sacrificed people or slaves on a funeral. So it’s already less cruel than it was before.
The Toraja have a caste system that also affects the number of buffaloes being sacrificed at a funeral ceremony. At the funeral of someone of the working class, 1 to 10 buffaloes are sacrificed. Someone from the middle class it can run up to 25 buffaloes and someone of elite or a Toraja royal it can run up to 100 buffaloes. The average buffalo costs around €900 and the cost of an albino buffalo can go up to €100.000. So that’s the biggest reason why the funerals are so expensive and the Toraja people have to save up money their entire life to pay the funeral bills.
We experienced 15 buffaloes being slaughtered right before our very eyes. And we actually expected maybe 1 buffalo to be sacrificed when we arrived that day at the funeral ceremony. So we were in for a big shock. And the slaughtering is very cruel to witness but maybe the reaction of the Toraja people made it more intense. They screamed and laughed while it was all happening.
After the ceremony, the horns decorate the front of the traditional Toraja house. The more horns, the higher the status of the family.
You can visit the buffalo market also known as Bulo market in Rantepao.
At the last day of the funeral ceremony, the family will take the coffin with the deceased to their grave. The heavy coffin will be carried by all the men in the village and the deceased will make a last journey through the village. This happens not in a peaceful way but in a very unexpected brutal way. The Toraja men pump up their adrenaline by shaking and running with the heavy coffin through the village. Laughing, playing and making fun. To end the funeral ceremony on a positive note.
The deceased will be buried above ground in a cave up on a cliff. The Toraja believe that the earth represents the mother and gives life to the land. And by not burying the bodies in the ground, the cleanliness of the earth remains intact. Sometimes these graves are 30 meters high. The higher the grave, the higher the status of the deceased and the closer they are to heaven.
In the Londa Ancient Graveyard or Londa Burial Caves, you can walk into a cave with buried coffins and skeletons. Léon wasn’t into it, but I was. You really have to crawl into the cave with a flashlight where you will see broken coffins with skeletons, bones and skulls lying around that are sometimes more than 50 years old. Okay, this is maybe not the most joyful experience but when you’re visiting Tana Toraja, Londa Burial Caves is definitely worth a visit to understand more about the Toraja culture.
Until 50 years ago, the Toraja buried their babies in tree trunks. You can visit the oldest baby grave in Tana Toraja.
They wrap their babies in cloths and place them in the carved out tree trunks and cover it up with palm fibre. The Toraja believe that as the tree heals again the baby will be absorbed by nature and the wind will take the spirit of the baby away.
Ma’nene Festival in Tana Toraja
Okay, I am not done yet. Yes, it is a lot to take in but I haven’t even told you about the most bizarre ritual of Tana Toraja. In August, a ritual called Ma’Nene takes place in Tana Toraja. It means The Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses where the Toraja dig up all the bodies of the deceased. They wash them and dress them in fresh clothes to take new family pictures. It’s to celebrate life and to strengthen their bond with the deceased.
Toraja Land is a mountainous region in Sulawesi, formerly known as the Celebes. Sulawesi is located just east of Borneo and is one of the larger islands of Indonesia. Unlike other well-known islands, tourism in Sulawesi has hardly been developed. It’s becoming more and more popular due to the attention of the Tana Toraja culture but also because of the versatile and unique nature you can find in Sulawesi; volcanoes, rainforests, lakes, beaches, coral reefs and large biodiversity. It’s heaven for nature lovers and travellers who love to go off-the-beaten-track.
The infrastructure in Sulawesi is okay, so travelling around is quite easy. There are a couple of local airports spread around the island and plenty of buses drive between the larger cities in Sulawesi. Or you can explore the island on a motorcycle if you are a more adventurous traveller.
Getting to and around Tana Toraja
The best way to get to Tana Toraja in Sulawesi is to fly to Makassar, the capital of Sulawesi. Check Skyscanner for the cheapest flights. From Makassar, you can catch a bus to Tana Toraja that will take between 7-10 hours depending on which bus you take; night or day bus. It’s a boring bus ride so we advise you to take the night bus. Via Traveloka.com (https://www.traveloka.com) you can book bus tickets to and from Tana Toraja that run on a daily basis. You even have luxurious buses with AC where you can book your own bed. It’s not even that expensive and so much more comfortable. When you take the night bus you’ll arrive very early in the morning in Tana Toraja so it’s best to book your hotel beforehand. If you don’t have anything planned yet, don’t worry there are plenty of local guides waiting for you when the bus arrives in Tana Toraja that want to help you out. This can be a bit chaotic.
Getting around in Tana Toraja is easy. Just rent a motorbike or grab a taxi. We prefer a motorbike because it gives you so much more freedom to go anywhere you want during any time of the day. There are plenty of motorbike rentals in Rantepao.
In Makassar, it’s easiest to install the GRAB app on your phone. It’s the Asian version of Uber. And within minutes your taxi will arrive to bring you anywhere into town.
Tana Toraja Guide
If you are looking for a Toraja Guide than we can recommend you Frits. He is a Toraja tour leader that speaks English and can arrange everything for you. Transport, visiting Toraja funeral, going to baby graves or other exciting sights in Tana Toraja. And he will give you all the history and information you want to know about his extraordinary culture.
Food and Drink tips in Tana Toraja!
– Eat at Pias Poppies Restaurant
– Drink the best coffee at Kaana Toraya Coffee (click on the link for a map).
– Best cafe with a view Kapitoo
– Best restaurant in Rantepao Cafe Aras
– When you have an evening in Makassar and want to indulge yourself with something Italian? Go to La Piccola Italy. It’s like walking into Italy with all the delicious Italian smells.
Hotels in Tana Toraja
We’ve selected some great accommodations for you to book in Rantepao, the heart of Tana Toraja. If you book through us with our Booking.com widget we get a small commission. These small commissions help us to keep travelling the world and to continue creating videos and writing stories and blogs about extraordinary cultures and beautiful destinations. We’re very grateful for your support!