Tana Toraja: The Most Distinct Funeral Rituals In The World
March 1, 2016
Tana Toraja lies about 328 km north of Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi Province,in the central highlands of South Sulawesi.
Toraja Funeral post is included in my 110 days around Southeast Asia. In our itinerary we had just a couple of days in Rantepao, we looked for a guide and wished (this is bizarre) there was a funeral around that day. Me and my girlfriend (it was amazing sharing this experience with her) stayed in Pia’s Poppies guesthouse, it was pretty good and we paid about 15$AUD for a big room with hot shower, just what we needed after those two long days of trip.
After a full breakfast we spoke with one local guide and he explained us what we could have seen and discovered in Rantepao destination and, for our happiness he confirmed that there was a big funeral on the same days. We chose a top guide for our day tour.
In this post I just want to focus on the Torajan spectacular burial rites. Prior to the arrival of Christianity, the Toraja people believed in many gods and worshipped Puang Matua was the special god of the family, clan or tribe. Christianity undermined some traditional Torajan beliefs, but the ceremonies are still a vital part of their life. Anyway, despite the strength of traditional beliefs, Christianity in Toraja ia a very active force.
We went to the funeral that same day and everything was a little bit strange for us. For the Toraja people, all their lives rotate around death. For them is the majesty of the funeral and not the wedding, that marks a family status and it is a great celebration of life. Without a proper funeral rite the soul of the deceased will cause misfortune to his family.
As the guide explained us, that ceremony was the second one because the first one was celebrated just after dead. The most important ritual is often held weeks, months, or even years after the death of a person; to give to the family of the deceased time to put aside enough money to cover the expenses. During this period, the deceased is not buried, but it gets embalmed and keeps staying under his family roof. Their unique and traditional houses, we took many pics of them, are called Tong Konan. Until the funeral ceremonies are completed, the person is not considered to be truly dead but merely suffering an illness.
We received an invitation from the family to visit the deceased in the ceremony; it was an honour for us and with the local guide we met the husband of the young woman dead from cancer and we gave him some cigarettes to thank him for the invitation.
That day the ceremony was a festive event for every member of the society. Traditional dancing, presentation of the guests to the family, offer of food and drinks; that was the main action of that day.
The ceremony went on for several days and involved hundreds of guests. The day after was really shocking and amazing at the same time for both of us.
We went back in the early morning in the same area (without the guide) and we attended of one of the most important part of this ceremony, that involves the sacrifice of buffalo. The Toraja people believe that the souls of animals should follow their master to the next life, hence the importance of the animal sacrifice. Before being sacrificed, according to a very strict procedure, the buffalo takes part in trials of strength known as tedong silage. After that the neck of the buffalo is cut with a sharp blade and the animal bleeds to death.
After the sacrifice, the meat is distributed to the funeral visitors in accordance with visitor’s position in the community, and the spirit of the deceased is also entitled to a portion of meat. The heads of the buffaloes are returned to what is locally known as puya (a site for the soul and spirit of the dead person) and their horns placed in front of the house of the kin. The number of the horns that decorate the front of the house, indicates the status of the deceased.
While the sacrifice of the common buffalo is acceptable, traditional Torajan believe that offerings of albino buffalo are preferable. Buffalo with these characteristic are very rare, constituting a mere 8% of the total population. Therefore, it is not surprising that these animals can cost between 15 to 30 millions rupiah, depending on the perceived beauty of the animal.
After the Tana Toraja funeral rituals for the dead person the deceased was buried. It was buried not in the ground, because the final resting place is in a cave up on the cliffs called Tau Tau.
Conclusion: Tana Toraja Funeral rite was the most impressive experience in all my journey around Southeast Asia. A trip that was like a cultural documentary brought to life. These ancient traditions belong to cultures, and cultures make societies. In the end, we all have our own cultures, beliefs and traditions but we are all the same, humans. The ceremony was really interesting for me, but I agree that is not for everyone. Even if we are talking about culture and tradition between the public the most were tourists. Tana Toraja is now the second most popular destination for tourists in Indonesia after Bali. The influx of foreign visitors boosts the economy of the local region and “motivates” the local people to keep their ancient customs alive, partly for the benefit of visitors coming to see the “show” and partly for their own benefit.
How to get there, best time and cost
Suppose you are already in Sulawesi Island, you can getto Tana Toraja either from South or North:
- From Makassar (South): Tana Toraja is 300-km and 8-10 hour drive from Makassar. There’s several bus companies making the journey from Makassar to Rantepao and Makale (Main hubs of Tana Toraja region). The cost is between 7 to 15$AUD. There are morning and overnight buses.
- From North: my and my girlfriend had to choose this way to get there and it’s longer and more tiring than the other option. Before going to Tana Toraja we stayed at the Togean Islands. After a long day of travelling we arrived in Tentena, the main harbour from/to Wakai (Togean Islands). From there we took a morning bus to Palopo, we slept there and the day after we took another bus to Rantepao. We didn’t spend so much money but it was really tiring and stressful.
- Wear black or dark-coloured if you attend a funeral ceremony and don’t forget to bring some gifts of sugar/cigarettes for the family of the deceased.
- Tana Toraja also offers a some great to do-it-yourself and explore the clear outdoors meeting local people too.
- Rantepao is the easiest place to stay because is near all the major sites and has a good range of accommodations and restaurants.
- Ask before taking pictures, there is a balance between being respectful and getting great pictures!
- Avoid the peak season, July and August, you could feel uncomfortable looking at the region fill with tourists and backpackers anxious to attend the large funerals where dozens of buffalo costing tens of thousands of dollars will be slaughtered.
- My last tip: This is a Sulawesi Travel Must. Don’t get stuck with the thing that ruins your day, life is too short to be wasted in your crap. Smile and be positive because there are so many beautiful reasons to be happy, one of those is travelling.
Author of this post: Davide
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I am tempted to say that the practice is cruel but what the heck, it is not my land so why should I pass any judgement. Tell me, what emotions swept through your mind when you witnessed these rituals. Be honest. And would you recommend this place to any travellers to Sulawesi?
That’s really hard for me! First of all I absolutely hate any animal suffering but I wanted to be immersed in their culture and watching it was part of it. I can’t tell you how difficult was not to show my emotions about the slaughter. One thing is sure, the buffalo meat is given to guests! I recommend this place to any traveller that is doing a trip to Sulawesi, there is not just Buffalo sacrifice there, there is new and wonderful culture to discover!! Thank you so much for your comment and to be considered this blog 😀
This was an incredible story and sounds like a rewarding experience. I always enjoy learning about different cultures when I travel and in your case a proper funeral and the meaning to the people. Thank you or sharing this experience I really enjoyed it and learned a lot.
Thank you so much Christina, I really enjoyed my time there discovering their incredible and amazing culture
Wow! This was a bit of a bizarre but a fascinating read…I would love to attend one as well. It was a bit sad to see buffaloes being sacrificed…hmmm…
I think it was the worst part of the ritual; was not easy trying not to show my emotion during the sacrifice! Thank you so much for your comment and to be passed here on utravelshare.com
Sounds pretty different. Never heard of this kind of ritual. Nice post
Thank you so much for your comment and to be passed here on utravelshare.com
Sounds like an interesting ceremony. So far away from anything that we in Europe are used to. Must really have been a honor to be invited to such an event. 🙂
A lifetime experience and something I will never forget! Thanks for commenting my post, keep following me around the world!!
This sounds so gruesome. I guess different cultures have different customs, but still a bit cruel.
You are right, it’s a little bit cruel, considering that they give buffalo’s meat to guests!! different culture and different tradition! Thanks for commenting my post, keep following me around the world!!
Thank you for sharing this. I also aspire to take a trip where I can truly interact with cultures, rites and traditions.
In most of Africa, burial rites are similar — in that they are celebrations, because life doesn’t end with death.
The photography is impeccable!
Exactly Celma, like here in Sulawesi there are many locations in Africa that do the same rituals!! Thanks for commenting my post, keep following me around the world!!
Interesting funeral ritual. However, I hate the sacrifice part. That makes me feel sad
You are right, it felt me really sad but I wanted to immerse myself in that part too! Thank you for your comment, I appreciate!
Seems like quite the interesting funeral ritual. It’s strange that it has become something tourists come to watch. I guess they must still believe in the ritual since I couldn’t see them goiing through all that just for the tourist dollars.
Well, they absolutely believe on that! Anyway when the dollars started becoming easy, also funeral rituals became bigger and full of tourist!! thanks for your comment here, keep on reading my adventures around the world! 😀
Though we find it interesting to learn about different cultures and respect them too. Attending a funeral would be something we wouldn’t look up to not at least as a tourist. It was heart-wrenching to learn about the poor buffaloes and its astonishing that that funeral there is more of a celebration than mourning.
It was hard to see buffalo sacrifice but I really wanted to immerse myself in that part of the ritual too! thanks for your comment here, keep on reading my adventures around the world! 😀
That was really unique… but do not feel very good about the poor buffaloes but every culture has its own rules…
Attendinga funeral in a dfferent culture is something new though… hadn’t thought of it before…
Unique life experience in Rantepao, I really suggest this one for every kind of traveller! thanks for your comment here, keep on reading my adventures around the world! 😀
In most of the countries including mine, visiting a funeral is only intended for close family and friends. So I find it a little bit strange that you can visit it as a tourist. Even though different people have different customs for the dead, I wish it was not commercialised as this place. Also it is the first time I am hearing of getting gifts for the family of the deceased.
Every day we learn something new when we travel.
Dollars became easy for all the local people, so even if they really believe on that funeral rituals became really crowded of tourist, especially on July and August! Thank you for commenting this post, please keep following uTravelShare around the Globe!
Interesting story. Nice to read. I have been to Toraja myself and made some pics there too
Thank you so much for this comment, stay tuned 😀
This is a pretty amazing story! I cant help but feel super sad for the buffalo though. 🙁 Maybe it is just because that photo is so graphic haha. But really interesting!!
Yeah, I felt the same at that time!! A different culture to discover and…I explored it! anyway Thank you so much for this comment, stay tuned 😀
Truly distinctive! Never seen or heard of a ritual quite like this before. And the photo you got of the buffalo being sacrificed is a very impressive capture indeed (though those of a squeamish nature may disagree…)
Really impressed, you got it!! thanks for your comment
Whoa! What a ritual! And imagine taking sweets and cigarettes, never heard of this anywhere else.
You got me interested in this.
Different people have different traditions, this is a perfect example! Thanks Indrani for your comment 😀
Before reading this article I had never thought about attending a funeral while traveling. A great write-up is all I can say. You described the rituals very beautifully. Was it not a strange feeling attending an unknow person’s funeral?
Well, it was a little bit strange but just when we arrived there! After few minutes I have seen something like other 15 foreign people, so my strange feeling changed! Anyway, lifetime experience! thank you and keep following us around the world