Tana Toraja is safely protected beyond the lofty mountains and rugged granite cliffs of the central highlands of the island of Sulawesi and the home of the Toraja people. ‘Discovered’ and opened to the world from their long isolation only since the beginning of the last century, the Toraja today still adhere to their age-old beliefs, rituals and traditions, although many of her people are modernized or have embraced Christianity.
The nobility of Toraja are believed to be descendents of heavenly beings who came down by a heavenly stairway to live here on earth in this beautiful landscape. To keep up the energy of the land and its people, the Toraja people believe that these must be sustained through rituals that celebrate both life and death, which are attached to the agricultural seasons. Tourists to Toraja, therefore, are either attracted by its unique culture and rituals, most of which are mostly centered around graves and death ceremonies. While others prefer to avoid the morbid images and go trekking through the spectacular, almost untouched Toraja countryside visiting remote villages, or exhilarate in rafting the Sa’dan River rapids.
The land of the Toraja people, many notionally Christian but most in practice animist, is above all famed for their spectacular (and rather gruesome) burial rites. After a person’s death, the body is kept — often for several months or even years — while money is saved to pay for the actual funeral ceremony, known as tomate. During the festival, which may last up to a week, ritual dances and buffalo fights are held, and buffaloes and pigs are slaughtered to ferry the soul of the deceased to the afterlife (puya). The deceased is then finally buried either in a small cave, often with a tau-tau effigy placed in front, inside a hollow tree or even left exposed to the elements in a bamboo frame hanging from a cliff.
Tana Toraja has unique culture set in stunning scenery. Globalisation and tourism may have impact, but if you venture away from the tarmac roads you will find soon a way of life that may seem to a visitor as if it has not changed much in the last 100 years.
Traditional Tongkonan houses stand proudly in this setting. These intricately decorated houses with upward-sloping roofs are the centre of all Aluktodolo (Torajan religion before the coming of missionaries; the ancestors’ belief) rites; from storing the harvest in the carved rice barns, “alang”, to slaughtering sacred water buffaloes at funeral ceremonies that last a week or longer. Tana Toraja’s beauty is also reflected in its people. Although they are mostly devoutly Christian (there is a small number of Muslims especially in the southern area), they combine this religious belief with magic and mysticism, and welcome visitors to witness their ceremonies.
Tana Toraja is a sleepy rural region cultivating rice, cacao, coffee, and cloves most of the year. Toraja’s arabica coffee carries a high reputation and is something that visitors may be interested in trying. During the dry season, from June until September, when children are home from school, the rice is harvested and it’s time for a “rambu solo'”, a complex funeral ceremony of the ancestors. During the time, Rantepao is transformed into a major tourist attraction for national and international visitors. Nevertheless, the region remains far less touristy than many other tourist spots in Indonesia (such as many places in Java or Bali), perhaps due to the relatively long way to come until there (which includes at least 10 hours of transportation from Makassar).