The journey to Tana Toraja – the Land of the Living Dead


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By Dr Kebba Bojang

My journey to Tana Toraja came as a result of an invitation to an international cultural programme organised by University of Hassanudin (Unhas) in Makassar, the capital city of South Sulawesi province of Indonesia. The programme was dubbed Unhas ICP 2018. It aimed to bring together talented and enthusiastic young minds from all over the globe to a week cultural programme in which they will be exposed to the rich culture of South Sulawesi through field trips as well as being introduced to the Indonesian language and the local traditional dance. The participants came from all over the world: Africa, Asia, Middle East, Europe, Pacific and South America. It lasted from 13 to 18 August.


So, as part of the field trip, we had to travel to Tana Toraja (Land of the Toraja) to be exposed to the rich culture of the Toraja who are one of the four main ethnic groups in South Sulawesi. Indonesia has over 300 ethnic groups and over 700 different languages. However, all the ethnic groups strongly preserve their different cultures and celebrate them accordingly. The country has one national language called Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian Language) which serves as the official language and the lingua franca. Torajans are mountain people as they live in the mountainous regions of South Sulawesi. By physical appearance, they appear to be shorter and more stoic than the general Indonesian population. Tana Toraja is tourist destination and famous for its funeral ceremonies, stone graves and tongkonan (traditional houses). People often wonder what kind of a place would have funeral ceremonies and graves as its main tourist attractions. One answer to that could be, because it is home to a people who live for, celebrate or relate to death in ways unimaginable. In Tana Toraja, as we were told, people save money for their death. This is a kind of life insurance but with a twist. Normally, people opt for up life insurance so when they die, those they leave behind can benefit from it. However, in Tana Toraja, people tend to save in life so as to benefit them when they die.

Tana Toraja is an 8-hour drive by bus from Makassar city. So, after the completion of the activities of the first day of Unhas ICP 2018, we left the city at around 6pm to embark on the arduous journey to the Land of the Toraja arriving around 3 am the next day with about 45 minutes break on the way to have dinner among other things. Because these people live in the mountains, it took us over two hours from the foot of the mountain to get to the local hotel we stayed at. Driving on those roads up the mountain is actually not for the faint-hearted. They are among the most dangerous roads one can travel on in the world. There are a lot of twists and turns, awkward curves to be negotiated, with some parts of the road less than a meter from edge of the cliff with no barriers. A second’s miss by a driver at certain points on these roads would have the vehicle plunged down the cliff.

After a few hours of sleep after arrival, we were told that there was a funeral ceremony to attend. This was as if by a stroke of luck as this particular funeral ceremony had been six-months in the making. And oh, boy! It was indeed an experience. This was the day of this particular ceremony which is the day opened to the general public and foreigners. Funeral ritual without doubt is the most important ceremony in Torajan society; and so is the most elaborate and expensive event. It can last for days with specific rituals to be observed for each particular day which include flute music, funeral chants, songs and poems, dance, slaughtering of animals. Funerals, we were informed, are never rushed in Tana Toraja. They are often held weeks, months, or years after the death when the family of the deceased can raise enough funds to cover the funeral expenses if those were not already secured by the time the deceased passed away. For Toraja people, when a person dies, until he or she is buried, they are still ‘alive’. And even if they are buried, Torajans still believe that the spirits of the dead remain very much alive among the living. I believe the best way to describe the attitude of Toraja people towards death will be the belief in the concept of ‘transition of the soul’ to another state. So, when a person dies, the body is treated with some preservatives to keep it together and prevent it from decomposition till the time of the burial. The body will be kept in the house with people and be bathed regularly.

Once everything is set for the ceremony, all the members of the community will be informed. Parts of the preparation of the funeral is the construction of special ceremonial site with shelters which are gazebo-like where the guests and those from the public can sit and observe the funeral rites being performed. Those sitting in the shelters are served food which can include tea, local wine, fried banana, local cake. The main day of the funeral ceremony is opened to the public and everyone is expected to attend. This is premised on the belief that the more people that attend a funeral ceremony the easier it becomes for the soul of the deceased to get to ‘heaven’. And then there is the slaughtering of buffalos and pigs, which is the climax of the ceremony. The Torajans, even though majority are Christians, still fervently believe the slaughtering of these animals has everything to do with the soul of the deceased getting to heaven. The soul of a buffalo, which is an animal of prestige and very expensive in Tana Toraja, is believed to be an equivalent of ‘horsepower’ in carrying the soul to heaven.

Therefore, the more buffalos slaughtered the easier or faster for the soul of the deceased to get to heaven. For the pigs, which in this situation should be black pigs, is equated to sin. So, the higher the number of black pigs slaughtered, the higher the number of sins of the deceased expiated.
So, once we arrived at ceremonial site, we took some pictures and were shown a shelter to sit in to observe the rituals of that day. There were many tourists around, too, to witness the ceremony. Different families or clans or communities or surrounding settlements, came in a procession-like fashion with men in front, some carrying one or more pigs and some carrying bottles of local wine with women behind. Each of these arrivals was announced by the MC of funeral. Each new arrival was ushered into a shelter clothed in red which was specifically for receiving the guests. Once they were seated, the family of the deceased would come in a procession to welcome them to the funeral. After the pleasantries, that particular group would be directed to a shelter where they would sit and be served food. The same procedure was repeated for the subsequent groups that came to pay their respect to the deceased. Meanwhile, the body of deceased in a coffin was displayed in the open at the ceremonial ground.

The high point of the ceremony was the slaughtering of the animals. The most intriguing part of which was the manner in which the animals were slaughtered. For the first buffalo, a rope was tied to one of its front legs in addition to the usual rope in a hole pierced in its nose. These ropes were tied to the trunk of small tree at the ceremonial site. While the unsuspecting buffalo looked around, its throat was dramatically slashed by a guy with a special kind of knife. It was just one clean precise slash and that was it. The buffalo jumped to run away but was restricted by the ropes tied it. So, it fell down heavily on the ground and continued to kick about with blood spouting from its carotid artery. It eventually bled to death. The same act was repeated for the three other buffalos slaughtered. Though that type of slaughtering looked strange and shocking to some of us, it could be seen that the slaughterer was reveling in his acts. Buffalo being an expensive animal, the number slaughtered at any funeral ceremony is usually determined by the wealth status of the family of the deceased. Four buffalos were slaughtered in this particular ceremony. One of our liaison officers told me that when his grandfather, who hailed from Tana Toraja, died, 75 buffalos were slaughtered; with the scene looking like that of a bloodbath.

To be continued tomorrow.