Indonesia – A Fascinating Culture of Tana Toraja

A group of 80 people, male and female, stood holding hands and forming a large circle on a field. They sang mourning songs in a slow tempo as thousands of spectators looked on. Slowly, they leaned to the right, then to the left, then right again, while occasionally stood on tiptoe. This is the Ma’badong ritual, song to accompany a funeral rite.

Torajan culture regards funeral rite as a very important event with deep meaning. In the past, Torajans believed that the funeral rite -called Rambu Solo- should be conducted to please the gods so that the dead will be forgiven and accepted into heaven. Nowadays, the funeral rite is conducted to honor the dead and the bereft family.

Rambu Solo is a huge Endeavour lasting a full week. No wonder it attracted thousands of people, both to attend and to help ensuring that the funeral rite goes smoothly. Hundreds, sometime thousands, of buffaloes and hogs were sacrificed for Rambu Solo. It all depends on how large the funeral rite is going to be. Larger ceremonies will require greater number of sacrificed livestock’s, even though buffalo does not come cheap, costing ten million rupiah ( US$ 1,100) each. The size and scope alone would be enough reason for foreign and local tourists not to miss observing Rambu Solo.

Nevertheless, Rambu Solo is only one of Torajan culture’s many exotic side. As part of the first wave of humans to inhabit the Indonesian archipelago and predecessor of the proto-Malay culture, Torajan’s tradition and way of life is uniquely remarkable. For example, Tana Toraja is one of the few places in Indonesia where people still build a tribal house -the Torajan refers to it as tongkonan.

It is not uncommon to find the sight of tongkonan with its distinctive overturned-boat shaped roof, sandwiched between lush paddy fields.

Scattered around Rantepao and Makale, capital city of Toraja Regency, are villages with old tongkonans that is still inhabited by its builder’s descendants. Among those villages, Kete’kesu is the most important because it has been designated a cultural preservation site and has one of the large number of tongkonans.

Five tongkonans stand tall amid the throng of visitors; each was made without employing a single nail and adorned with their own distinctive carvings. Even at glance, the tribal houses looked very old. One of them is reportedly four hundred years old. One of them is reportedly four hundred years old. On display in front of each house are buffalo horns to signify social status. The more and bigger those horns are, the higher the status.

Across the tongkonan lie grain silos that locals call alang sura, while at the back of the complex is an ancient cemetery that is at least as old as the tongkonans, but probably more, judging from the decaying wood of the casket inside. The word “cemetery” may remind us of bodies buried below ground and gravestones, but no such thing is evident in Tana Toraja. This is another unusual aspect of Toraja culture.

They do not bury their dead like in most culture; instead they put the dead inside caves, either natural or man-made. These burial caves usually exist in high cliffs or large rocks, such as in Lokomata. If natural caves are not readily available, then it must be carved into rocks, a painstaking process that can take years to complete and usually done well before the intended occupant passes away.

From outside, the entrance looked small. But inside, the cave is large enough to accommodate several bodies along with their belongings. Sometimes, a life size statue resembling one of the dead is placed in front of the cave opening.

Meanwhile, a baby who has not grown any tooth will receive different treatment in case of death. Instead of cave, the baby will be buried inside tree trunk, such as those found at Kambira. These burial procedures are widely acknowledged as one of Indonesia’s extraordinary cultures.

Soon to be World Heritage Site

Kete’kesu, Kambira, and Lokomata are not the only places to experience Torajan culture. Other places that should be visited including Palawa, Parinding, and Londa villages, megalithic stone structure of Bori Kalimbuang, Sullukang city, Sa’dan River in the middle, also has scenic view, dominated by green color of trees and vast paddy fields. One of the several places to enjoy the view is Batutumonga on the slope of Mount Sesean. From this quiet but beautiful spot, one can see clearly the Sa’dan valley and Rantepao city below. For only a 45 minutes trip from Rantepao, tourists can enjoy trekking and lunch or spend the night here.

While traveling in Tana Toraja, tourist can sometime come across marriage or house warming ceremonies (called Rambu Tuka) that are also quite unique. The ceremonies usually entail songs and dances performed in front of the Tongkonan. Torajan people hold fast to their culture as part of their daily routine. Their remarkable way of life has made the Torajan famous in the world and Tana Toraja is now in the process of becoming a world Heritage Site.

Getting the Most Out of Tana Toraja

Tana Toraja is a little regency located in South Sulawesi Province, about 380 km from Makassar, capital city of South Sulawesi. Numerous tourist sports are scattered throughout the regency, making Rantepao city, right at the heart of Tana Toraja, a perfect spot to begin any journey. Indeed, there are hotels and restaurant in Rantepao that specifically cater to tourist’s needs.

Reaching Tana Toraja is as simple as driving through paved road from Makassar, or flying out Makassar on Merpati Airlines every Tuesday and Friday. Tours guided to Tana Toraja is also available in Makassar and a very popular option with foreign tourists because it is practical and much more comfortable.