Tana Toraja: A Culture Whose Views on Death Will Blow Your Mind

A roof swept up like the shape of a boat. It’s the first thing you notice when you wander into a village in Tana Toraja (pronounced Tah-nah Tow-rah-jah), a small region in the highlands of the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. The exterior walls are piled high with horns of various buffalo, signifying the wealth of the family. It’s really unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. But there’s something even more unexpected about these traditional houses, called Tongkonan. They are reserved almost exclusively for death.

Tongkonan

Traditional Tongkonan in the village of Kete Kesu

Tongkonan

Buffalo horns adorn the exterior of a Tongkonan in the village of Kete Kesu

Yes here in Toraja (as the locals call it, though the name Tana Toraja literally translates to “Torajaland”), you find a culture where life revolves around death. Though deeply Christian, they still maintain their animist beliefs on death, sending their dead off in extravagant ceremonies that last days.

House of the Dead

The Tongkonan are family houses that the family does not usually live in. Instead, they serve a ceremonial role and are used to store the embalmed corpse while the family has a chance to save up enough money for the funeral, costing thousands, or even tens of thousands of U.S. dollars. That process can take months, or even years!

Tongkonan

A newer Tongkonan adjacent to a very modern house. The modern house is the primary residence of the family

Traditionally, during this period before the burial, the family considers their deceased to actually still be alive, but ill! And, as an Indonesian documentary filmmaker I shared a bus ride with explained to me, the corpse is dressed daily and served regular meals. Another Indonesian friend, who actually met someone’s deceased (or “ill”) uncle, had to thank the corpse for being a gracious host before leaving!

Extravagant Funerals

Those extravagant funerals are what the Torajan people are really famed for, enormous events where the entire extended family and town show up to pay their respects and present offerings for sacrifice. I was lucky enough to catch one of these funerals while I was there, a rather gruesome, yet fascinating event, which you can read more about here.

Rumor has it that some outlying villages still maintain an ancient practice where a Shaman puts a spell on the body at the end of the funeral and the deceased “walk themselves” to their graves! It’s a very rare practice these days, but supposedly it still occurs. Try Googling “Toraja Death” and you’ll see that you get a bunch of results about zombies! Fair warning though, some fairly gruesome images will pop up in the search results…

Burial Rituals

Torajans maintain a strong belief in the afterlife, so their dead are buried in caves equipped with tools they would need in the beyond (hence sacrifices…oh and cigarettes, those seem to be popular in the graves). These caves are watched over by rows of Tao Tao, essentially carved life-size wooden effigies of the deceased.

Tao Tao

A row of Tao Tao keep watch over the entrance to the burial cave in Londa

One of these caves can be explored in the village of Londa, where a local kid guides you through the cramped, grave-filled cave by oil lamp. Many graves are so old that the coffin has rotted away, leaving a pile of bones covered with cigarettes that family leave when they come to visit. “This is 1,000 years old,” my friend translated as we passed a skull that had sunk into the floor of the cave. Right next to it was a brand new coffin, emblazon with a large cross. It was an eerie experience walking through a cave full of dead people and my friend and I both neglected to crawl through to an inner chamber of the cave!

Burial Cave

A collection of skulls outside the burial cave in Londa

Burial Cave

Our guide (on the right) illuminates a collection of skulls in the burial cave at Londa using his oil lamp. To the left you can see that offerings of cigarettes have been left for the afterlife.

Burial Cave

A new casket in the burial cave at Londa. Money has been left as an offering for the afterlife.

Not all tombs are this way though. The village of Lemo, renowned for it’s Tao Tao workmanship, entomb their dead in the side of a cliff, just like a mausoleum. And during my walks through the region, where a local Torajan family who spoke very limited English invited me into their home, I spotted numerous free-standing, mausoleum-like tombs that held just one casket. Maybe burial rituals were evolving with the times?

Tao Tao

The burial cliff in Lemo as rows of Tao Tao keep watch

Mausoleum

A modern Mausoleum in Tana Toraja with a Tongkonan rising up in the background

Still, though, the four days I spent in and around Rantepao, tourism central of the Toraja region, felt like a trip right into the middle of a National Geographic documentary! For their unique culture made the Torajan people one of the true highlights of my impromptu Indonesian adventure!

Rantepao

A Mosque in Rantepao

Rice Field

Women plant rice in a muddy field near Rantepao

Death in Toraja at TED

After I initially published this post, a friend referred me to a TED Talk about the Torajan view of death and how it differs from that of the west. You can check it out below!

Don’t forget to check out my tale about what the funeral was like! It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before!

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21 Responses to Tana Toraja: A Culture Whose Views on Death Will Blow Your Mind

  1. Agness October 27, 2013 at 10:54 pm #

    That’s a very interesting and spiritual place. I love off the beaten path places, especially the local villages!

  2. Mary @ Green Global Travel October 28, 2013 at 2:39 pm #

    Fascinating article! I would love to have the opportunity to experience this in person and so appreciated your images and descriptions in regard to the elaborate and at times lengthy death and funeral processes. This type of ritual can differ greatly across the world and can be amazing aspect of a culture to explore and to work to understand in great depth.

    • Aaron October 28, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

      It was FASCINATING to experience in person, especially the funeral (which was very bloody), which you can read more about later this week! And I agree. I feel like, by and large, most of the world handles death in rather similar ways (usually dictated by your religion). There are a few notable exceptions to burial rituals though, like the Torajan people or the concept of a “sky burial” in Tibet (where the ground is frozen and wood is scarce…the body is chopped into little pieces and birds eat it…). While quite strange compared to what we’re used to, it really does provide an interesting look into a culture!

  3. Pamela October 29, 2013 at 5:26 am #

    It must be an eye-opening to visit such place with one of a kind culture. Pretty fascinating. I am looking forward to your next post already. :)

    • Aaron October 29, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

      Absolutely! I mean it when I say that it literally felt like I was stepping right into one of those National Geographic documentaries I used to watch growing up! I know that in this modern world there are still places that maintain their unique cultures (like Bhutan) but it’s getting to be increasingly rare.

  4. Lisa @chickybus October 29, 2013 at 9:44 pm #

    I’ve heard of this and really want to go next time I’m in Indonesia. Looks fascinating!

    • Aaron October 31, 2013 at 2:08 am #

      The only reason I went is because I had a friend who was in Bali right before I got to Indonesia who had heard about this and he was like, “Dude, you HAVE to go to a funeral!” I’m glad I did! It was by far the most interesting part of Indonesia that I saw! And to be able to experience a funeral was really special (albeit very bloody)!

  5. Stephanie - The Travel Chica November 4, 2013 at 8:15 pm #

    Learning about and seeing these different cultural perspectives is what I love about travel.

  6. paul | walkflypinoy November 6, 2013 at 11:34 am #

    This is just fascinating. Mindblowing really. A region here in the Philippines has cliff burials and mummies, too. But this is one whole thing entirely. I would love to see it. Next year definitely.

    • Aaron November 7, 2013 at 12:11 am #

      I know, right? For me, traveling is all about experiencing what’s different from your life. This really was quite the mind blowing experience as it’s so difficult to conceive of! Really, really fascinating place!

      If you do go next year, bear in mind that peak funeral season is during July and August. Coincidentally, it’s also peak tourist season so booking a room ahead of time would be a good idea (I spent 4 nights in Rantepao and stayed in 4 different hotels at a plethora of room rates).

  7. Charu November 11, 2013 at 11:21 am #

    very cool and creepy at the same time!

    • Aaron November 14, 2013 at 7:36 pm #

      You know, it sounds creepy, but being there, it really isn’t. I think seeing it in person you gain a respect for a culture that differs so wildly from your own which removes that creepiness factor. But yes, very cool indeed!

  8. Lizzie November 11, 2013 at 11:33 am #

    Fascinating, thank you! It’s so interesting to see how ceremonies and beliefs like this differ all over the world.

    • Aaron November 13, 2013 at 11:33 pm #

      Isn’t it? And you’re quite welcome!

    • Aaron May 14, 2014 at 12:12 am #

      Interesting, thanks for sharing!

  9. simon September 9, 2014 at 10:46 pm #

    This is a really great piece, very readable and well presented. I liked it a lot. I was there last year and loved it. The boat houses aren’t just for embalmed corpses though, they are people’s homes, storage buildings, many things. They are a popular design in that area because of their beliefs and corpses can be stored in regular buildings too. What was your favorite thing about the area?

    • Aaron September 17, 2014 at 5:17 pm #

      Thanks for the clarification. I love how very unique the culture is. And the landscape was superb as well!

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