South Sulawesi’s Mythical Torajaland
Ever since moving to Indonesia, Tana Toraja in South Sulawesi has been high on my list of places to visit. However, with such an abundance of cultural attractions, historical sights and outdoor activities to see and do in Indonesia, it took three years before I finally made it there.
A cancelled flight between Makassar and Tana Toraja’s Pongtiku Airport because of adverse weather conditions forced us to take the eight-hour bus journey, shortening our trip there to only one full day. It was enough to get a taste of Tana Toraja’s highlights, but it certainly left us longing for more. The road from Makassar which leads you through stunning coastal scenery past limestone karst cliffs and lofty mountains is being upgraded in places, which should shorten the overland trip to about five or six hours. Once in Tana Toraja, you will need at least two or three days to immerse yourself fully in the well-preserved ancestral traditions, ceremonies and art of the Toraja people – the only surviving people with a megalithic culture.
To make the most of our only day in the area around Rantepao town – the cultural center of the Torajan people – we set off early the next morning with a mountain bike ride through the rural communities and villages. First we visited the traditional ancestral houses of the Torajan people, known as tongkonan. To Torajans these architectural wonders are not just homes but small, individual worlds. With their distinctive boat-shaped or saddleback roofs, the front of a tongkonan is often decorated with buffalo horns and always accompanied by an alang, or family rice barn, which although smaller is similar in structure and symbolizes a family’s wealth. Like much of Indonesia’s Austronesian-rooted architecture, tongkonan are built on stilts. Construction is arduous work usually carried out by the whole family. In Torajan culture the right to build a tongkonan was traditionally reserved for nobles, while commoners resided in smaller, simpler houses called banua.
While visiting, we were served the delicious Toraja Arabica coffee, a valuable treasure that has been the dispute of many battles, most notably, the war in the 1890’s with the Buginese from South Sulawesi over its valuable trading rights. As we were marveling at the tongkonan architecture, we spotted several albino buffaloes, known locally as tedong saleko or tedong bonga. In the mythical legends of the Torajans buffaloes play an important role and are highly valued. During funeral ceremonies these buffaloes are sacrificed, sometimes in their hundreds, after which the horns are used to decorate the tongkonan.
Our lunch included the local cuisine highlight, pa’piong. This delicious traditional dish which is often used as an offering in Torajan ceremonies is made from pork, chicken, beef or fish and then grilled inside a bamboo stem. The meat is mixed with local herbs and wrapped in miana (coleus) leaves, before being placed inside the bamboo and cooked for over an hour.
In the afternoon we abandoned our mountain bikes to do some trekking around a number of stone burial sites. As in other Indonesian cultures, Torajan funeral ceremonies play an important – if not an essential – role in their daily lives. The dead are neither cremated nor buried as the ground and its soil in Torajan culture symbolize life and renewal. Coffins are therefore kept above ground in tombs inside caves or high up above ground level in cliff faces.
New coffins placed in family tombs often end up next to the decaying remains of former ancestors – not a sight for the faint of heart! Little shrines of refreshments that include cigarettes, candy, drinks and other snacks are placed outside the tombs, and small doll-like statues representing the souls of the deceased are often seen placed near the tombs. Called tau tau, these effigies, which stand about 1.5 meters tall and are smartly dressed, represent the souls of the deceased as they continue on to the next life. Funerals are called rambu solo, meaning ‘farewell’ and are the apotheosis of Torajan culture. With each buffalo sacrificed the afterlife (puya) is entered more easily. Visitors are welcomed to funeral events as they demonstrate the inherent nature Torajan culture.
Our trip came to an end with dinner and more coffee in one of the many cozy cafes along the main road of Rantepao. Next time we’ll make sure we have ample time to explore this fascinating region – one day is not enough!