Tana Toraja, the land of the Toraja, is home to more than a quarter of a million people. This indigenous people, who are known for their extraordinary funeral rituals, live in the central highlands in the left ‘arm’ of the island of Sulawesi. While the majority of the Toraja have converted to Christianity over time, their customs are still strongly influenced by their earlier spiritual and religious ideas, which are particularly expressed in their belief in the power of the ancestors and in rituals to venerate the dead which offer a very unique cultural experience to visitors.
In addition to their unusual customs, the Toraja also stand out from other ethnic groups through the architecture of their settlements. The architectural style of their houses is unmistakable, richly decorated with ornaments and buffalo horn, and crowned with striking roof constructions. The Toraja houses are typically built entirely of wood and without any nails. Consisting of several layers of bamboo, the imposing roofs sweep upwards at both ends to resemble boats in shape, making them a distinctive landmark of the region and its people.
Approaching from the south on the main route from Makassar, not only an imposing gate marks the entrance to the realm of the Toraja, but also an impressive mountain landscape with high limestone cliffs surrounding the high plateau which is the home of the Toraja people.
The Toraja and their traditions
Despite Christian missionary work, the Toraja have managed to preserve their religious and social traditions for centuries, so that to this day there are differences in language, social structures, religion and agricultural practices between the individual areas within the region.
In a traditional village, the characteristic roof shapes are not the only special feature. The number of buffalo horns attached to the front support beams of a house reflects the wealth and social status of the owner. This also applies to richly decorated walls with carved ornaments in the typical Toraja colors: black, white, red and yellow.
The village life of the Toraja
Life in a Toraja village appears very tranquil, but first impressions do not paint the full picture. The village community is typically made up of members of an extended family, each with their own duties and obligations. In particular, the pressures on individuals to make financial contributions for rituals and offerings can shake the harmony of village life.
In the Torajas’ belief, life on earth is only a transition – the afterlife is of greater importance. When a family member dies, it is believed that only the soul leaves the body, but remains in the immediate vicinity until the funeral. During this time, the deceased family member is considered ‘sick’ or ‘sleeping’, remaining in the family house, often for many years.
Toraja funeral ceremonies
A funeral ceremony consists of numerous rituals and can therefore span several days in the presence of hundreds of guests. As part of the ceremony, the ornate coffin with the deceased is placed on an elaborate raised platform, specially built for the occasion.
According to the Torajas’ belief, objects of life on earth can be taken into the afterlife. In the past, the dead were often given very precious things to take with them to the grave. At the grave site, the deceased is represented by a displayed wooden figure, a so-called Tau-Tau, which is believed to house the soul.
Water buffalos play a central role in the Toraja culture because they are considered to be a status symbol and are part of many rituals. The higher the status of a person, the more buffalos need to be sacrificed at a funeral ceremony, which makes such an event extremely expensive.