Exploring Toraja – Where Death Triumphs Life

Exploring Toraja – Where Death Triumphs Life

Nestled in the rugged highlands of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, the Toraja region offers a glimpse into a culture that has captivated anthropologists, travellers and historians alike. The Torajan people, with their rich history, unique beliefs, and elaborate funeral ceremonies, are the guardians of traditions that have fascinated the world. Surrounded by breathtaking natural landscapes, the area serves as a backdrop to a culture that intertwines life and death in profound ways.

Toraja: The history of its people

The Toraja, meaning ‘people of the uplands’, have lived in the central highlands of Sulawesi for centuries. Their history is one of isolation, resilience, and deep connection to their land. For much of their existence, the Torajans were self-sufficient farmers, relying on the fertile volcanic soil of the region to cultivate rice. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that they came into significant contact with the outside world when Dutch colonial rule introduced Christianity.

Several factors contributed to the conversion of Torajans to Christianity, contrary to the mostly Muslim population of the rest of the country. Christian teachings and values were appealing to Torajans. The most important, however was the flexibility of Christianity, which allowed Torajans to keep their animist beliefs (known as Aluk To Dolo, or ‘the way of the ancestors’), traditions and customs. Like their unique beliefs surrounding death, elaborate funeral ceremonies and belief that ancestral spirits and supernatural forces influence daily life.

 READ: Discovering Indonesia: A 3-Week Itinerary

The natural landscape of Toraja

The natural landscape of Toraja is as dramatic as its culture. Steep mountains, lush green valleys, and terraced rice fields create stunning views. The traditional Tongkonan houses, with their bamboo roofs that mimic the horns of the water buffalo, dot the landscape, further adding to the area’s mystique.

For the adventurous, Toraja offers many hiking opportunities. Trails range from easy walks through the rice fields and villages to more challenging treks up the rugged mountains, offering panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.

 NOTE: If you consider traveling to Toraja, but are hesitant about attending the funeral, come just for the landscape. If we knew how beautiful Toraja was, we would have dedicated more travel days to this region.

Unique beliefs of the Torajan people

Torajan society is deeply spiritual, with a unique blend of ancestral worship and Christianity creating a fascinating culture. For the Torajans, death is not the end. They do not reject the medical treatments, nor the grief after losing the loved one. But they believe that after passing from this world, life continues beyond physical existence to the spiritual realm. Furthermore, the deceased are not considered truly ‘dead’ until their funeral ceremonies are completed. Toraja believe that only after the death and the funeral they can depart to the ‘better and ultimate life’. Therefore, the funerals are not a sad occasion, but rather a celebration and a happy event. These ceremonies can occur weeks, months, or even years after physical death, with the body preserved through an embalming process until the family can afford the elaborate funeral rites.

The funeral ceremonies

Torajan funerals are among the most elaborate and expensive in the world, reflecting the social status of the deceased and serving as a final act of respect and farewell. These ceremonies, lasting anywhere from a few days to several weeks, involve the construction of ornate funeral towers (locally known as “lakkian”), ritualistic animal sacrifices, feasts, traditional dances, and elaborate displays of grief and celebration. The deceased is then entombed in a cave or placed in a cliffside in a wooden coffin, symbolising a return to the earth and the ancestral realm.

The animal sacrifice

The cost of such ceremonies can be astronomical, often requiring families to save for many years. The expense is largely due to the number of buffalo and pigs that are sacrificed. Torajans believe that buffalo is needed to escort the deceased to the afterlife and ensure their status in the world beyond. The more prestigious the individual, the more animals are sacrificed, making some funerals a significant financial undertaking for the family. It is expected that each child of the deceased should provide at least one buffalo to be sacrificed at the funeral. A buffalo costs around 4000 EUR. This aspect underscores the deep cultural importance of the funeral rites and the lengths to which families will go to honour their loved ones according to traditional customs.

While some might find it outrageous and disturbing, we keep our minds open. We are not vegetarians, thus it would be hypocritical for us to judge this tradition. Naturally, we feel sadness for the loss of life, but we accept the way of Torajan people. As Ino, our guide, explained- buffalos in Toraja live a long and wonderful life. They are cared for, loved and cherished until the very last moment.

 IMPORTANT: Attending the funeral ceremony you can be present for the sacrifice if you choose to. I did not want to see it. Only Hamilton did. And it was indeed quite hard for him to watch.

Toraja funeral season

The funeral season typically occurs between July and September, following the rice harvest. This period is when most families have gathered enough resources to conduct the elaborate funeral ceremonies for their loved ones. The climate during these months is also relatively dry, making travel through the mountainous terrain easier for visitors. It’s a time when the region comes alive with traditional music, dance, and communal activities that showcase the Torajan people’s deep respect for their ancestors and the afterlife.

Attending a Torajan funeral: do’s and dont’s

Experiencing a Torajan funeral is a privilege that offers deep insight into the culture of the Toraja people. However you should know how to behave and what is expected from you. First and foremost, you should receive an invitation or a permission before attending. That’s why we highly recommend you to hire a guide while visiting Toraja. Your guide will be able to obtain such permission and will explain the cultural meaning behind each part of the ceremony.

 NOTE: Hire Ino, our wonderful guide : WhatsApp +62 852 98361065

When attending a Torajan funeral, you should dress modestly and conservatively. During the ceremony, observe quietly and refrain from interrupting the rituals. Usually photography is allowed, but you should ask your guide for permission before taking out your camera. Most likely a lot of locals and family members will want to take pictures with you- be polite and pose for the shot.

If asked- participate in the ceremony. We were handed printed pages with traditional Torajan songs and asked to sing together with the rest of the community. Of course we did not understand a word, but the melody was easy.

Always accept the welcome coffee or tea. When food is served, eat. Drink the local alcohol if it’s passed to you (at least touch it with your lips). It’s considered a grave offence if you refuse the food or drinks.

Being part of a Torajan funeral is an immersive experience. It provides a unique perspective on the Torajan people’s values, emphasising family, tradition, and the cyclical nature of life and death. For us it was a profoundly moving experience.

Our experience

Being a part of the Toraja community even for a short period of time was an eye opening and mind changing experience. It was truly wonderful to see that death doesn’t have to be something scary or taboo. After living with a Toraja family, learning from a wonderful guide and attending two funerals, we now can say that the Toraja way seems like a more natural way of partying with the deceased. Celebrating life, instead of mourning death.

We discovered that Torajans are the nicest, warmest, happiest and most open people we’ve ever met. Everywhere we went we were greeted with smiles and open arms. People invited us, complete strangers, into their homes, their tables and family events. The experience left a profound impression on us. The Toraja showed us that death doesn’t need to be fearful. That the family is the most important thing in life. That respect is learned and earned. And that there is an immense amount of goodness in people.

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