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.
Life & Death
One of the uniqueness of Toraja people is their view about life and death. Talking, or even thinking about the subject may be considered taboo for many of us, but for the Toraja, death is a lifelong preoccupation. From a young age they learn to accept death as part of life’s journey, and when a family member passes away, in accordance with their traditional religion – Aluk To Dolo (“way of the ancestors”), which sits surprisingly comfortably alongside Christianity – they are treated as if they are sick (toma kula).
The Toraja people mummify the bodies of the deceased and care for their preserved bodies as though they are still living. There are around one million Torajan people, most of whom live in the South Sulawesi region, who believe that after death the soul remains in the house.
Their skin and flesh are preserved from decaying and rotting – which begins within days of death – by a coating of a chemical solution called formalin, which is a mixture of formaldehyde and water.
The stench is strong, so the family will store lots of dried plants beside the body to mask the odour.
The food, water and even cigarettes are offered to the toma kula on a daily basis, because it is believed the spirit remains near the body and craves care.
And they talk to the dead too. If you happen to visit a Toraja who has a deceased member of the family kept in the house, they will introduce you, mention your name, tell the dead that you are in the house visiting them.
Yes, there are funerals too, but a lengthy one, which is actually a festivity, and can take up to 2 weeks depending on the status of the deceased. The body is placed in ceremonial palaquin, which is the shape of a traditional house – Tongkonan, and carried by many men – and accompanied by members of the village – to the burial site behind a procession known as Ma’Palao/Ma’Pasonglo. This so called burial site is a cliff, where the deceased is traditionally buried in a hollowed out cliffside grave that sometimes are as high as 30 meters off the ground. Generally, the higher up the body is buried, the higher the deceased status in society, and whom had been buried with symbols of their wealth such as gold. The bodies were deliberately placed in hard to reach places to discourage grave robbing.
Toraja regencies lies within the South Sulawesi Province. Since 2008, the Tana Toraja Regency was divided into North Toraja Regency, with Rantepao as capital city, and the southern part maintaining its name, the Tana Toraja Regency, with Makale as capital city.
For simplicity’s sake, from the tourism point of view, the name of Tana Toraja or Toraja refers to both Regencies (before it was split in two).
Makassar, the provincial capital city of South Sulawesi Province, is the gateway to Toraja:
- Road distance from Makassar to Makale: 296km.
- Road distance from Makassar to Rantepao: 314km.
Fly to Makassar first, sightseeing around Makassar, and then :
- from Makassar proceed by car or bus to Makale and Rantepao (6-8 hours), or
- from Makassar (UPG) fly to Palopo (LLO) first, and proceed by car (2 hours, 59km) from Palopo to Rantepao and Makale
There are direct international and dommestic flights to Makassar, such as from Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Jakarta, and Bali.
The Land Above The Clouds
Even though the landscape is not manicured as in Bali, Toraja offers stunning views, green and lush rice terraces, traditional Tongkonan houses, besides their unusual tradition. Breathtaking views in the early morning can be witnessed from Lolai Hill, overlooking the white clouds below. Meanwhile, Batutumonga Village offers view over the clouds too, and when its clear, the fantastic view towards rice terraces. For coffee addicts, Toraja highlands are home to coffee trees growing wild on cliffs, considered as one of the best coffee origin in the world.