I enjoyed my stay in Tentena and was more than glad that I decided to stop there for two nights. However, it was a stopover on my way to the region of Tanah Toraja and it’s main city Rantepao. I heard great things about the area – strange rituals, funeral ceremonies and animal sacrifices, amazing traditional house scattered throughout the countryside and and an abundance of beautiful scenery all around. My expectations were high as I got into the car that I had chartered to get there. Supposedly the public bus would have taken forever so I decided to spend a little more and have the comfort of a fast and air-conditioned car. I arrived in Rantepao in the evening. My driver dropped me off t a very nice and cheap (a rare combination) guesthouse and I was lucky to get the last room available. Good start but what I didn’t know at that point was that things would not continue as smoothly as this.The next day I had arranged a motorbike to go exploring and maybe find some of the mysterious and elaborate funeral ceremonies the region of Tanah Toraja is so famous for. Funeral preparations are a focal point of life here, and the funeral of an individual is the biggest event of an individual’s life. Funerals are also very expensive, and families will save money for many years to prepare for an elaborate funeral and tomb for departed kin. As a result, it is sometimes the case that funerals are not held for many years after an individual’s death. In the meantime the body of the deceased is being kept in the families house.
Tanah Toraja and Death – Attending a local funeral ceremony
At breakfast I met Simon and Silke, also from Germany. They had arranged to meet a local guide at a funeral ceremony in the North of Tanah Toraja and they were also going by motorbike. Sounded like a good plan and I was glad that the two agreed to let me tag along. We took off after we had finished breakfast. The two had been around on bikes the day before already and hence knew their way around. We did not have very far to go upon leaving Rantepao to find a funeral being held today, traveling to the nearby village of Bori.
During our entire drive, I couldn’t get it out of my head that we would be “crashing” a funeral imminently. The idea we would play tourist at a funeral simply struck me as really odd. As we parked our bikes right next to the site where the funeral was being held my hesitancy quickly abated. This was no ordinary funeral, but rather something more akin to a county fair. Loudspeakers blared, hundreds of mourners dressed in a mix of traditional mourning attire and modern clothing sat and milled about, handlers paraded several bulls about the courtyard in the center of the funeral, a number of pigs – tied to poles and laying on the ground – had been placed in the courtyard as offerings, vendors outside sold “gifts” of cigarettes and other nick-knacks for mourners to give to the family of the departed and waiters served food and drinks to the guests. This was a funeral? I think, that the deceased had already died 2 years ago also contributed to an atmosphere not as depressed as during funerals at home.
Anyway, we walked around the packed funeral grounds and then took seats obtained for us by our guide. The funerals here are generally 4-7 day affairs, and we were here on the 5th day of the ceremony. We sat and watched the goings-on in amazement, eating the snacks and drinking coffee and tea served to us by the family of the departed. At one point we got introduced to a member of the family of the deceased. After a brief chat we handed over our presents – a big package of cigarettes which is apparently very common . The whole idea of having one’s funeral be the most important event in an individual’s life is hard to comprehend philosophically, but it certainly made for a fascinating experience to observe a part of the Torajan funerary ritual. I should mention that usually a lot of animals get sacrificed and slaughtered during such a ceremony. Especially the slaughtering of the buffaloes is supposed to very cruel and gory. I didn’t regret having missed that part of the ceremony although we spotted one carcass in the courtyard of the ceremony.
Graves, hanging coffins, skulls and bones
The second half of the day Simon, Silke and I made our way down to the South of Tanah Toraja. We wanted to explore some of the grave sites, another highlight of the region. It is not just the funerals here in Tana Toraja which is a big deal. Rather, the graves of the departed are often also quite elaborate in scope. These graves varied enormously, from being tombs in giant boulders, artistically carved wooden coffins hanging in trees and stone cliffs to occupying entire tongkonan, the strangely shaped traditional houses of the Torajans. Death really plays an omnipresent role here. The places we visited along the way displayed a big part of that. Besides spooky grave sites with coffins, skulls and bones all over we discovered an elaborate site which also featured a number of so called Tau Tau. Those are wooden sculptures of the deceases which are placed in front of their graves. Only the richest of the Torajans are allowed and can afford to have such a sculpture made.
After we spent a day all around death and decay we enjoyed our drive back into the sunset through the lush and green ricefields of Toraja. All of the things we had seen so far almost made us forget about the other great aspects of this region – beautiful landscapes, friendly people and a very special atmosphere.
Rice Terraces, jungle clad hills, tongkonan and friendly locals. A day in the North of Tanah Toraja
As nice as my stay in Toraja started as bad it continued. The second day was characterized by grey skies and non stop pouring rain. There wasn’t a chance to do anything and enjoying it. But it’s nature and you can only accept it. So I spent the day sleeping in, checking mails, editing pictures and eating. My hope were high for following day but it got worse. I woke up with an upset stomach and spent the rest of the day lying in bed and running to the toilet. Again, no chance of going outside to do some more exploring. The only good thing was that I had a TV in my room.
Those events only left me one more full day to explore the surrounding area of Tanah Toraja. But after having been so unlucky, luck was finally on my side again. Again at breakfast I met two French girls who had arranged a guide to go to the regional market and hiking the North afterwards. I was able to join them and off we were by public transport to the market. The market is quiet an event since it only takes place once every 6 days. It is the regions central trading place for buffaloes and pigs which are always needed for the many funeral ceremonies in and around Toraja. Buffaloes were on offer everywhere – small ones, big ones, older ones, young ones and the most expensive ones, the white ones. The more white they have the more expensive they get. It was really interesting to observe the trading and haggling for the animals. The market was very authentic with a rugged and still raw atmosphere to it.
After a bit of strolling around it was time to head North. We took a Bemo, a local minivan, and drove along bumpy roads to a saddle high up in the hills. From there we started our hike. On the way up to Batutomonga, we began to pass a series of traditional villages, each dominated by a number of tongkonan towering over the rest of the village. Before Tanah Toraja I had never seen firsthand anything like that. While some residents still live in these elaborate dwellings, which look straight out of the pages of National Geographic, modernization has relegated many of the tongkonan to mere storage units which lie adjacent to newly constructed homes.
We continued our hike and passed by wood-shop where the guys were working on those elaborate woodcarving used for building the tongkonan houses. It was amazing – they still carve and paint everything by hand. A skill that must have been passed from one generation to the next and hasn’t lost any of its importance in Torajan culture. Pieces like the ones the guys were working on would easily achieve the highest prices in Europe. There it was just part of the daily business.
The last part of our small excursion was the best in my humble opinion. We hiked across the greenest rice fields, observing the locals being busy harvesting, and had the best views down the valleys of Tanah Toraja. The landscape there is just amazing – the paddies are so lush and green, the air is fresh and clean, the climate is nice and cool and around every other bend you can spot something of interest. Buffaloes bathing or grazing, locals working or huge boulders seeming strangely misplaced in the rice paddies. It was great and for me definitely one of the highlights there.
Last thoughts …
Although I was only be able to actively explore Tanah Toraja for two days, it was fascinating and probably one of the most authentic side-trips I have done during my journey. The things you can see and explore there are just so far away from anything else that it is a trip for your mind and senses. I wish I could have spent a little longer there and especially in the beautiful North. The region has so much to offer and I think a couple of days hiking with stays in some of the more remote villages would have been great.
Being usually pretty skeptical about hiring a guide, it definitely made the experience there more worthwhile. The hike on my last day simply would not have been possible by myself. The info you get from a local guide is also priceless. So I reckon that hiring a guide, even if it’s pricey, definitely makes sense in Toraja.