Tana Toraja – Funerals, Slaughter and Christmas

Men performing a ceremony at the funeral reception

We arrived at our hotel, Pia’s Poppies, in Rantepao, the biggest town/city in the Tana Toraja Regency, in the early evening after more than 12 hours on the road.  We were shown to our room which was simple, large and clean with a big comfortable bed and a quirky bathroom.   And it was cool. So much cooler.  Bliss.

Welcome cooling afternoon rain

Pia’s Poppies Hotel is the most popular with western tourists in the area and really good value for money.  It is family run and manages to maintain a certain authenticity while providing some home comforts such as a few western style dishes on the menu and WiFi (weather permitting).  Set in beautiful lush gardens with an outside eating area and views from the shared balconies across rice fields to the north-west of the city, it was a lovely place to spend Christmas week.  And did I mention it was cool? Well, most of the time.

Traditional tongkonan

The family running the hotel were absolutely charming; the owner was a man in his 70s who could always be seen wandering about fixing something or other or seeing to some maintenance that needed to be done.  He always had a quiet kind word and a gentle smile if you could speak more than two words of Bahasa Indonesia.  The other family members were kind, helpful, and extremely patient.

Boulders with vaults chiselled in to fit the family

Pia’s Poppies was also a good place to meet fellow travelers, exchange information and simply chat over a beer.  We met an American couple who live in Jakarta teaching English, a Swedish/Columbian couple who travel 4 months out of every year to escape the Swedish winter, an American who had been travelling for a couple of years, and many other people from all over the place.  We were grateful for the advice we received from those who already knew their way around and after a day or two we in turn could give others the benefit of our wisdom when they first arrived (if they wanted it, or not – It’s how it works!).

A procession of family members bearing gifts

Rantepao is up in the mountains about 1000m above sea level and the climate was cooler and wetter accordingly.  Days seemed to follow a pattern of lovely cool mornings, heating up to about 30⁰C by around noon before turning fresher in the mid-afternoon and, after a sometimes deafening thunderstorm, it would start raining in tropical proportions by about 3.15pm, often well into the evening.  It was a welcome change to the intense, blistering heat on the coast but the torrential downpours limited activity from late afternoon onwards as it is never much fun traipsing around along muddy tracks with water up to your ankles.

Young girls in traditional dress

We hired a guide, Jonny, who was introduced to us by our Tentena guide.  Seriously, if you are going to visit a place like Toraja then budget for a guide (between $60 and $100 a day for a guide and a driver).  They are invaluable in terms of their local and cultural knowledge, their ability to introduce you at a funeral, and are able provide you with guidance as to what is and is not acceptable behavior.  We met one particularly unpleasant individual travelling alone who refused to pay for a guide “on principle”.  She wasn’t much younger than us (either that or she’d had a particularly hard life), and saving every penny seemed more important than having a rich experience or contributing something, however small, to a fairly poor community.  She viewed everyone in the tourist industry with hostile distrust and questioned every rupiah she had to part with while at the same time expecting 4 star treatment.  She constantly badgered the hotel staff for information incessantly (and was dealt with a patient serenity I do not possess) to the point of embarrassing.  She was the sort of person who would let you buy her a beer spend then the whole the time complaining about the price.  We didn’t like her one little bit.

The day of the pigs

We did however like our guide, Jonny.  Throughout our two days with him he spent time explaining many of the traditions, he took us to all the sites we wanted to visit and helped us understand more about the area, the people, the history and what it was like to live there today.  Without a guide we would have missed so much and our experience was much richer having Jonny around.

A bit of background

The funeral courtyard

The Torajan people are famous for their death rituals and funeral ceremonies, and also for their distinctive style of traditional houses or tongkonan and these can be spotted throughout the area in various sizes, design and repair/disrepair but they all share the same unique and disproportionately enormous peaked roof.

Up until about the turn of the 20th century the Torajan people happily lived autonomously in mountain villages (family groups) practicing animism and had little contact with the outside world.  While the Dutch had colonised most of Indonesia up until that time hadn’t really bothered with inland Sulawesi and the Torajan people had basically been left to their own devices.

Intricate woodwork and painting detail on a tongkonan

Around this time the Dutch were becoming increasingly concerned about the rising influence of Islam (sound familiar?) and so missionaries ventured inland with a view to converting the Torajan people.  Early attempts at conversion proved largely unsuccessful but today, over a century later and after initial strong opposition, displacement, violent conflict, and marginalisation the people eventually surrendered.  Nowadays although Tana Toraja is a primarily Christian area of Sulawesi the Torajan people steadfastly cling to their and continue to practice their funeral rituals.

The view from Batutumba

Early resentment was caused when the Dutch abolished slavery in 1909.  This angered the Torajan people because slaves were an intrinsic part of the class structure in Torajan society and the slave trade formed a profitable chunk of their economy.  Jonny also told us that in the past it had been customary for high caste burials to include the sacrifice of a slave to be placed in the deceased’s coffin to accompany him or her on their journey to paradise.  He told us (with a straight face) that Torajans today agreed this human sacrifice was no longer acceptable practice but I cannot find any reference to this so don’t quote me.

A chocolate finch

While they no longer practice their other traditional life rituals the people of Toraja retain their elaborate and traditional death and funeral ceremonies, testament to the importance they place on funeral and burial rites.  This is also evidenced in their traditional language which contained an inordinate number of intricate terms to express grief and mourning.

Vaults chiseled into the cliff face (the post section) with the tau tau guarding

Tourists began visiting the region in the 1970s and by the 1980s Tana Toraja was said to be second only to Bali as an Indonesian tourist destination but in the late 1990s visitor numbers dropped considerably with the outbreak of conflict in other parts of Sulawesi and beyond.

Today there is a surprisingly easy mix of cultures between Christianity and the strong local culture which still contains elements of animism.  These traditions are known as the “law of the ancestors” and the government recognizes them as forming part of the one of the accepted religious affiliations (Hindu).  This recognition provided them with the freedom to formally continue with their traditions otherwise they would be outlawed.

A close look at the slightly macabre tau tau

Much has changed since the Dutch first meddled over 100 years ago but there is a sense of pride among the Torajan people, for their sense of unique identify, their traditions and that strangers venture from near and far to witness first hand their ancient ceremonies.  There is an authenticity about the people and their traditional way of life in a modern setting.  There is also, a little surprisingly, none of that discomfort you would normally experience when you are effectively intruding into people’s private lives; the welcome you receive is genuine and you are left with the impression that your presence, even as a passing tourist, has become an important part of the tradition.

Funerals in Toraja

Around the corner from the posh section is the silver caste section

From the moment a child is born in Toraja, he or she has a debt to his or her family to earn money to provide a funeral of sufficient and appropriate scale and expense to ensure the deceased’s unhindered journey to paradise.  This burden is in place from birth before anyone even drops dead.  It’s just a given.

Tucked away at the back is the paupers section

When there is a death in the family, generally the relatives will need more time to earn and save money (and water buffalo) for a decent send-off and in the meantime until such time as a fitting funeral can be arranged, the deceased will remain with the family for up to three years in a state of “sickness”.  The deceased is wrapped in layers of cloth and placed under the family tongkonan and the spirit is believed to remain in the village until after burial.  Apparently, according to Jonny, they still receive visitors but I imagine that’s a bit of a one-sided conversation.

Farmland around the burial cliffs

The lavishness of the funeral depends upon the standing of the family – the higher the caste the more money is required to be spent on ceremonies to maintain their position in the community, and the more water buffalo bought to be ritually slaughtered.  You can tell the status of the family in the community by the number of buffalo sacrificed; high caste (golden) families will ritually dispatch up to 70 or more buffalo, a silver caste family will generally slaughter an average of 20 buffalo, and low caste families are limited to slaughtering 2 or 3 buffalo and a couple of pigs for good measure.

Another day, another funeral

Your average funeral will last about 3 days with one day devoted to the reception and other ceremonies, another day is set aside for the buffalo slaughter and dishing out buffalo meat among the wider community, and cockfighting is usually saved for the last day (roosters are also very important in Torajan culture).  It is the sharing of the meat aspect of the tradition which demonstrates the importance of the funeral celebrations to the community as a whole; when a funeral is held and the buffalo and pigs sacrificed, the meat is butchered and some is cooked there and then and shared amongst everyone at the funeral itself, and the rest is shared among the community with each family receiving a quota (sometimes several kilos) to take home with them.  Although the funeral is a huge expense for the family, it is the price they pay for their standing in the community and to ensure their loved one has a smooth, unhindered and swift journey to paradise.

Two days with our guide

The courtyard at the second funeral

We spent two full days with Jonny; Christmas Eve and Boxing Day.  On Christmas Eve we had planned to attend a slaughter only to turn up and find it had been postponed to Boxing Day.  I can’t say I was disappointed.  This aspect of the whole ritual is that which is deemed most popular with tourists although it is clear that the prospect of witnessing animal slaughter is approached with a certain amount of trepidation.  Most people admit it is not something they relish witnessing but, given that it is such a large part of the funereal tradition, you feel compelled to attend (even if you’re a wuss like me).  When talking to fellow traveler travelers the meat eaters among us freely acknowledged the hypocrisy of finding such practices distasteful when we tend to shroud ourselves in convenient ignorance as to how our meat reaches our plate; vegans and vegetarians seemed to protest even less arguing a water buffalo’s life in Toraja was one of relative luxury and freedom compared to most cattle raised for beef in the west.  The Torajans love their water buffalo; they feed them, tend them, groom them and treat them with care.  And then they slaughter them.  It’s the Torajan way.

The aftermath of the slaughter

As our slaughter was cancelled on Christmas Eve we attended a reception ceremony instead and this turned out to be an assault on the senses.  We drove further north out of town until we found ourselves in a tiny village overrun with scooters and cars parked up blocking the road to the village.  We had already stopped on the way to buy a tradition gift of a carton of cigarettes.

At Londa for the cliff top burial

We climbed out of our car and started to walk the short distance down to where the funeral ceremony was taking place.  The first thing that hit me was the sound of the pigs squealing and screaming; there were pigs strapped onto bamboo poles and they were strewn about everywhere, on the side of the road and everywhere you walked.  We were to find out later that the pigs were gifts to the family and were marked by spray paint with the sign of the person making the gift.  There were dozens of pigs and they were everywhere and the noise was really quite distressing.

At Londa with various old coffins, bones and other artefacts

As we walked into the main area where the funeral was being held, there were even more screaming pigs and a few buffalo scattered about.  There was also a horse with a decorated saddle, bridal and headdress, and hundreds of people (dozens in traditional funereal dress), music and the intermittent booming voice of the shaman over the loudspeaker.

At the foot of the cliff

The site of the funeral the (rante) is specially built for the occasion and consists of a central courtyard surrounded by traditional tongkonan along all three sides over raised platforms where sections of the family gather to sit and to where they invite members of the community or strangers like us, just visiting.  There is one main tongkonan which houses the coffin of the deceased and where the immediate family gather.

Family members that didn’t make it to burial

When we first arrived, the noise was the overwhelming; the people, the pigs, the shaman yelling through his loudspeaker.  It was crowded chaos and there was an overriding sense of utter mayhem.  We were initially invited to join a close family member’s enclosure and we squeezed onto an already packed platform where room was made for us and we were greeted with smiles, drinks, and snacks. It was a festival atmosphere and you could easily be forgiven for forgetting that you were actually at a funeral.

Traditional Torajan snacks that look (but don’t taste like) cat poo – they’re delicious

After a short while we left that platform and moved to other end of the large courtyard where we could more easily view the reception procession.  We then watched as members of the deceased’s family in traditional dress entered the courtyard in pairs.  At the head of the procession was an elderly man and a younger woman looking suitably somber although the majority of people in the procession were smiling and chatting amongst themselves or waving and shaking hands to friends they passed along the way.  The men carried gifts of cigarettes and the women carried an array of items representing food and drink including kettles and cups.

Lunch with Jonny

There was a group of elaborately dressed young girls aged between 5-15 years and they joined the procession of relatives to the main house where the coffin was kept and they later came over to us giggling asking to be photographed just after we had watched the pig slaughtered and blowtorched – not an experience I particularly enjoyed but I was surprised I didn’t vomit.

I had lunch with Jonny too

A separate group of men in formed a circle in the courtyard around a young bull and chanted while another group of men beating drums formed a procession ahead of the horse which was ridden by a young boy clearly having the time of his life who repeatedly urged the horse to rear up onto his hind legs.

Wildlife at the hotel

We had thought that we would find the whole experience a bit contrived and staged for the benefit of us tourists but there must have been up to 1000 guests and we only saw 4 other westerners.  It felt authentic and, because of the welcoming nature of the Torajan people, we did not feel our attendance was intrusive.

It was a fascinating experience, like nothing we had ever seen before, although I can still hear the pigs screaming now.

A yellow bird (and that’s the limit of my identification skills)

We also visited a baby tree where infants under 6 months old (or before they have teeth) are buried.  The families are not required to provide lavish funerals for babies and they are placed in a hole in a tree which is then sealed up and over the months and years they dissolve and become part of the tree.

A mobile greengrocers

Boxing Day was slaughter day and I was kind of dreading it but as it turned out it was not as bad as I expected it would be (the pigs were worse).  Once again, we were invited to sit on a platform with a family member’s group from where we witnessed 5 water buffalo being ritually slaughtered.  Their throats were cut, there was a lot of blood and the animals seemed to take an inordinate length of time to die, thrashing about, trying to get up again (and sometimes succeeding).

The view from our second floor veranda at Pia’s Poppies

Once it was clear the animals were dead the men began the task of skinning and butchering the meat to be shared out among the wider community.  I wasn’t sure I would be able to watch the sacrifice and while I wouldn’t describe it as compelling (and it’s not something I particularly want to see again) there was nothing gratuitous about the process.  If anything, I found the pigs more distressing as there was something about the noise they made which made you think they had some kind of awareness of their plight, pigs being the intelligent creatures they are.  The water buffalo, on the other hand, seemed oblivious to what is going on around them and only show signs of distress once injured and dying.  It was, everyone agreed, fairly confronting and while others we met boasted of witnessing the slaughter of up to 20 buffalo, five were quite sufficient for us.

A bird of prey riding the thermals above the hotel

After the slaughter and while the butchering was going on at one end of the courtyard an auction took place to dispose of the remaining (live) buffalo and Jonny explained that the money raised would be invested into the community in some way.  This was a fairly recent development apparently and indicated a flexibility on the part of the Torajan people to adapt to changing social needs within their community.

More tongkonan

While we were sitting on the platform with the close relative of the deceased drinking tea and munching sweet tasty snacks (like you do) I was chatting to our driver for the day who was also an experienced guide.  He provided a more realistic viewpoint of these funeral ceremonies and explained that many people nowadays considered that the financial burden placed on children the moment they were born was perhaps becoming too great and overwhelming – funerals are big business in Toraja and the price of a water buffalo (and the fact that they are in so much demand means that they are imported from all over) was testament to that.  Your average water buffalo will cost £2,000 at market.  However the price increases if the water buffalo has white patches and the more white the higher the prestige and cost to the extent that an albino water buffalo will set you back about £40,000.  It was a sobering and practical comment about the real cost to families of keeping these traditions alive.  Unless you’re in the water buffalo trade then you’re laughing all the way to the bank.

A slightly different type of yellow bird

The landscape in Tana Toraja is breathtakingly beautiful; green and lush, with rice paddies, coffee plantations and traditional tongkonan dotted around all over the place.  One day we headed up to Batutumba village for lunch and the view from a guest house and restaurant overlooking the valley.  There are many walks around this area but you need working knees so we gave that a miss and instead enjoyed the amazing panoramic view from the terrace at the Batutumba restaurant.

Rice paddiess

Finally, after attended two funerals we also visited the various final resting places of the dear departed.  Some are simply buried in graveyards or in family vaults built near the family house on the side of the road.  Others area laid to rest in crypts chiseled into large boulders or onto the cliff-side, and some coffins are placed into natural caves found on sheer cliff faces.   There are examples of these unique “graveyards” all over the place but there is one site in particular, Londa, which is famous for having a few skeletons on show, and carved wooden figures (tau tau) representing the deceased displayed on balconies.

A tiny tree lizard who realised he had been rumbled

When we visited we happened upon a burial ceremony taking place. The group of men who undertake this daunting task are employed by the family.  They secure the coffin and then carry it up the side of the mountain before lowering it from the top to place into the crevice.  It was eye wateringly terrifying to watch for a couple of people who are scared of heights.

Another variation on the yellow bird theme

If you visit in August you can witness the walking the dead where bodies are exhumed, washed and dressed up, to then be paraded around the village.  Sounds a bit grisly but much in Torajan society is a bit grisly to us who lead a sheltered life!

Christmas 2015

In between funerals we spent Christmas Day lazing around the hotel and in the evening, as the hotel was closed for dinner, a group of us arranged to eat out at a warung at the other end of town.  We headed out at about 6.00pm and it was still lashing down so walking was not really a practical option.  There were 6 of us so we managed to hail 3 bajaj (Indonesian for auto rickshaw) and somehow, without knowing the name of the place we were headed to, we all managed to meet at the right place.

Christmas 2015 (no flash)

We were ultimately joined by 4 other people so we were a group of 10; 3 Americans, 1 Canadian, 2 Swedes, 2 Irish and us 2 Brits.  It was a celebration of sorts with one of the Americans acknowledging the occasion by donning a Santa hat.

So Christmas week 2015 was spent in the mountains of south Sulawesi surrounded by death and the ancient funeral rituals of the genuinely welcoming Torajan people.  It was a Christmas we would never forget.

Next stop – back to the beach.

One thought on “Tana Toraja – Funerals, Slaughter and Christmas

  1. Tyler Jackson February 8, 2017 / 6:44 pm

    do you remember what the cat-poo looking snack was called? Had it when i was there but havn’t been able to find in since


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