Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi (Part 1) – Ancient Beliefs in the Modern Times

Submitted by indohoyindohoy on 18 November 2010   •  Itinerary

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Since ages ago, I’ve been curious about Tana Toraja in the South Sulawesi. I heard about the extravagant funeral ceremonies, I’ve seen the tongkonan keychain souvenirs, and I heard that bodies aren’t buried in the ground like they mostly are, but displayed on mountain walls. So in this Sulawesi trip, I had to have Toraja squeezed in our itinerary. I wanted to know what it’s all about!

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

Click here for our previous Tana Toraja travel information by Mumun a while ago.

Kete Kesu

Kete Kesu (read: Keh-Teh Keh-Soo) is a village in the south of Rantepao that accommodates rows of traditional Toraja houses called tongkonan and rice sheds. They are neatly organized and bordered with lush paddy fields.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

We took an angkot from the main road of Rantepao to a T-intersection (oh..sowwy I forgot the name) and then hopped off when the angkot would make a right turn, and we continued with ojeks to the left turn.

Angkot fee was IDR 3,000 / pax, and ojek was IDR 5,000 each. Later when going back to Rantepao, we hopped on an angkot that passed by the road exactly at the mouth of Kete Kesu village, also IDR 3,000 / pax, no need for ojek.

Truthfully, Kete Kesu was not the Toraja village that I had in mind. Somehow, I had my own ideal image that Toraja villages would be raw and jungly, something more untouched. So that’s a little disappointment right there. But hey, Tana Toraja has been a famous tourism site for the longest time, so I should’ve known.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

On the site, there were lots of bule ..err.. Caucasian tourists. If you’re one and you plan to visit Kete Kesu, be prepared to feel like a Hollywood star. Especially in the weekends, high school kids would come in large groups with their teachers intentionally to practice their English skill with the tourists. Friendly sessions would end with them taking pictures with the tourists.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

 Photo: courtesy of Reno

And then we went up the stone stairs, passing by graves, coffins, skulls and bones, and tao-taos against the stoney walls. A tao-tao is a doll made to represent the dead. But of course, only the rich and autocrats deserve a tao-tao.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

 Photo: courtesy of Reno

Because tao-taos are believed to bring magical powers, there had been stealth and vandalism of tao-tao, that’s why now some of them are locked in a fence. Even skulls are vandalized and garbage are thrown in a grave cave. I wonder if there had been any haunting stories following these damaging acts. Wouldn’t it be interesting? Would make a great episode of The Ghost Whisperer. Err…or something scary for real.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

There was also a huge coffin on one side of the path to the grave. I think it was about 3 m high. Now according to the locals, the bigger and grander the coffin is, the more prestigious the rank of the person that died. He/She could be aristocrat or come from a line of royals. Judging by that coffin alone we can be sure that the person died was from a filthy rich family.

Batu Tumonga

This is an area at the slope of Sesehan Mount that overlooks Rantepao and much of the Tana Toraja area. Honestly I didn’t do much research before going to Toraja. Other than because I didn’t have much time between my work deadlines, I thought Reno and Mumun had done theirs so I could just tag along. Hee hee.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

Now, because of that, I didn’t really know what to expect when Reno had scheduled us a trip to Batu Tumonga (by that time Mumun had gone to Makassar ahead of us to spend some quality time with her family there). I thought we were gonna see another special grave hill and village again, turns out we went up the nice asphalt road and stopped at this Mentirotiku restaurant. We beheld the fresh and many layered scenery with zero effort from our table. Grayish blue and green mountains as the backdrop, lush tropical forests and paddy fields set before it and making sorta like a circle that surrounds Rantepao’s tiny houses. Oh stop me before I’m making poems here.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

Lunch was terrific and we had the very Torajan menu, buffalo meat. For more details, check out our Eat tab.

To Barana

To Barana  is a village where we made our first stop before reaching Batu Tumonga. Our driver/semiguide was related to the people in this village, I think. He took us to a cloth workshop. Prices range from about IDR 150,000 / piece to IDR millions, depending on the quality and size.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

I wanted to get me at least a piece, but I hesitated. Not because it wasn’t pretty, believe me I even had a hard time choosing my favorite, but because I was afraid my expenses would be over limit. Oh why can’t I grow money trees in my backyard? Oh wait, I don’t have a backyard. Anyhoo, the weaver lady seemed unpleased when I turned out not buying anything. She lost her friendliness all of a sudden. * eyerolling *

Tinimbayo

This part of Mount Sesean slope was also like an ethereal view to me. We made a quick stop at the only coffee shop built on a sorta cliff overlooking a miraculous greenery. Reno had his cup of coffee while I was just enjoying the view, fresh cool air, and breezy wind.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

 Photo: courtesy of Reno

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

A couple of Danish travelers hiked their way up the valley and took a rest next to us. We had a nice chat including about how Reno and they love the Danish band called Mew so much – I guess music IS a universal language – and ended with us making a deal to share a rental car plus the driver to a funeral ceremony the next day with them, Mie and Martin.

Lokomata

On our way down to Rantepao from Batu Tumonga, we were advised to see the Lokomata, means 1,000 Eyes. So we did.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

Actually, we’ve seen quite a lot of stone graves where bodies are put in the square holes. And these huge stones can be found just about anywhere amongst the greeneries, even only several inches to the road shoulders. Each stone usually consists of less than 10 graves, depending on the size of the stone.

Now, Lokomata is even more humongous of a rock, even 5 trucks could probably fit in there. Hence the graves are even more, that’s why it’s called the 1,000 Eyes, a spot-on figurative name.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

Lokomata, not unlike the other grave stones, is located at the side of the road. We had a little problem passing by a broken down truck on such a narrow street. Instead of just waiting for our turn to pass, Reno and I decided to continue by walking and get picked up again at the Lokomata. It was a very nice walk, we got to look closer to nature rather than looking out from the rolled down window.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

About half an hour later, we got to the gigantic rock and many other tourists had been there, checking out the graves with amazement.

Bori Parinding

I grew up reading the Belgian comic, Asterix, so I couldn’t help but always had a mental image of Obelix (Asterix’s beloved sidekick) carrying around a conical gigantic rock whenever I hear the word “menhir”.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

About half an hour apart from Rantepao town, there’s this garden of menhirs. Rocks are planted in the ground instead of plants. Each menhir represents a royal deceased. There are even some families of menhir that consist of 2 tall ones as the mom and dad, and 2 short ones as the kids. It’s cute and sad at the same time L

Entrance fee: IDR 5,000 / person.

Funeral Ceremony

 ** warning: this section contains an image that might not be suitable for children, animal-slaughter haters, and the faint-hearted**

The extravagant Torajan funeral ceremonies I’ve been hearing about are actually family events, which aren’t listed in the state or provincial tourism department whatsoever. So the schedule is not something that you could look up in the Internet or some other place. You need to dig the information from someone local, may them be some random towners or your local tour guide.

From our driver and a tour guide whom we chatted with at Kete Kesu, we gathered that there’s a funeral going on at Suaya village. But I remember that we first arrived at the wrong village of the same name. They too were having a funeral, but it wouldn’t start until another week.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

The interesting thing about this funeral was that it’s sponsored by a cigarette brand, as you can see the logo in the decoration. It sort of reminded me of music concerts that I’ve been to..hehe. I didn’t get to ask more details about how it came to that, because we kinda rushed to get to another village that was having the funeral for real (our driver made some phone calls to find the right information- thank God for mobile phones).

We arrived at the funeral scene at about 11 AM. It was the 2nd of many days of the whole ceremony and had started since around 9 AM, hence we missed the buffalo slaughter. When we got there, we caught sight of buffalo heads and guts in the middle of the field, surrounded by a lot of people on the stilt house and tents. And by tents, I mean gazebo-like wooden buildings that were built for the funeral purpose only.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

We took a spot in between tents. They were very welcome to tourists or just anyone who wanted to see the ceremony, as long as everyone minds their manners. The more people show up in the ceremony, the better reputation for the family.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

What came next was the sacrificing of black fat pigs that were tied to some bamboo poles. Again, it reminded me of the grilled boars that Obelix and Asterix always had in the comic. You’d have to excuse me for these comic references since I don’t have many references concerning pig-consumption.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

Turns out, pigs are killed in the different way as buffalos. They’re not slaughtered by the throats, instead stabbed by really sharp pointy knives right to their hearts. The killing was done in the back part of the field, I’m not sure why they didn’t do it in the middle. So we made a trip back there, and I swear to God that one time would be my last time witnessing the stabbing of pigs. It wasn’t just the sight that bothered me, but the sound even heartbreaking.

These sacrifices are contributions from the deceased’s relatives and close acquaintances. The more sacrifices in number and value, the better  it does to the family’s prestige. Funerals can cost hundreds of millions IDR, that’s why it usually takes place months or years after the death. Just enough to save up and to gather relatives in their most convenient times.

Then we decided to move back to the main area of ceremony, and they let us to sit on the balcony, where the body and direct family were. Talk about being welcomed! It was nice to sit up there cos we could see everything that went on in the field, but it also felt weird because we didn’t even know anyone there and yet we got the VIP seats, were served some cookies, tea, and coffee.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

There was a woman crying over the deceased, sitting next to the coffin, and was comforted by the widow. Hm, I wonder what could cause such grief to someone even more than to the widow. Some drama scenarios flashed in my head for a while.

Later on we found out from our driver, who was with us in the balcony as well, that we should have brought a gift for the family. It could be something as little as a bundle of cigarette pack. Too bad we didn’t know that earlier, so instead we pitched in some money, IDR 25,000 each.

After an hour or two, we decided to step out of the ceremony. Mie and Martin felt more and more uncomfortable being in the middle of the festive ceremony that normally should be more of a grievance, and Reno and I thought it was enough as well. Plus, more tourists in groups started to show up and crowded the balcony. We didn’t have the heart to eat any buffalo for our lunch afterwards.  But chicken would do.

What visitors need to know is, ceremonies are also a statement party. The more people visiting, the more prestigious a ceremony is considered. Especially when it’s foreigners and important people like celebrities or high rank government officials, attend the venue. Although some might feel uncomfortable in such setting, believe us when we say they are very grateful. You are welcomed and it’s not small talk when they say you are. This also explains a bunch of tourist coming in busses to witness the ceremony. There will be parts of the ceremony especially for the family but usually the part in the field and open areas are for everyone.

Baby Graves

Next was a brief stop at this place where they buried babies in trees. What an odd thing to do, you might think. However, the Torajans did that to actually give the babies back to nature, sort of like letting the trees take care of them.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

According to our driver,  this practice had stopped because more Toraja people now are Catholic and they can’t fit that kind of practice in the religion belief. But for the stone burial, somehow they can find a reason in the Catholic teaching. Beats me.

Entrance fee: IDR 10,000 / person.

Travelers usually head to Tana Toraja from Makassar or from the north, like us. So here’s what we experienced getting in from Tentena.

From Tentena

We left Tentena by bus at 5ish PM, hopping on the bus southward to Rantepao (the tourism city of Tana Toraja) at a T-intersection near Tentena’s bus terminal. We had to wait almost an hour because the bus got a little stuck by a landslide somewhere before getting in Tentena. There was really nothing to do but play our made-up games and munching on snacks.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

The Challenging Ride

The bus ride cost IDR 100,000 / pax, we paid on it later at night. I’m not sure if you can but the bus tickets in advance. Fortunately there were still quite many seats to choose from. Unfortunately though, it was a non-AC bus. I didn’t mind the natural ambience because the night was cool anyway, but I was bothered by others’ cigarette smokes.. Yup, people smoke in the bus, and there’s really nothing you can do about it. These kinds of people, usually they wouldn’t care if someone else is bothered, so asking them to put the cigarettes off would be a waste of time and probably a trigger to a clash. You could try, though.

At about 2 AM the bus pulled over and the driver took a TWO HOURS break with his mates in a 24-hr diner, I forgot where. It was quite irritating to me cos I hate wasting time like that, just sitting clueless in the bus. Babies were crying, others were mostly sleeping, I had to hop off and nag the driver to continue our trip quick. The driver reasoned with me, saying that there’s a landslide ahead and he wanted to go pass that area when it’s not too dark anymore, and that it’s better to arrive at Rantepao later when it’s daylight already. Yeah whatever. This kind of unexpected stuff is something that you should be prepared for before deciding on taking holidays to Indonesia. But that’s what makes it more memorable and fun, don’t you think?

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

Photo: courtesy of Reno

About half an hour after my complaint, the driver finally came back and started the bus. It probably had nothing to do with me, he was just probably done with his beers.  Off we went continuing our trip. And guess what. There was a landslide at a very sharp turn, and a gorge to our right. When the bus made the sharp turn, somehow it did – standing ovation for the driver, a part of the bus body was actually above the hollow gorge. Reno was sitting on the right side, so the gorge was actually beneath his butt. That’s awesomely scary!

Arriving

At last, we arrived at the heart of Rantepao at about 6 AM. The city was still half asleep, shops were still closed but some people were sweeping the yards and preparing business already. So, in total, our trip was 11 hours with the actual ride of 9 hours.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

If you go from Makassar, it would take about the same time as from Tentena.

A lot of people fly from or to Bali, they’d have to get to Makassar first because Toraja’s airport hasn’t had an international service yet.

Getting out of Tana Toraja

The 9 hours bus ride from Toraja to Makassar can start in the morning or night. Those who just can’t get enough of the green forest and paddy field view would rather take the morning bus. We do like the greenery, but we chose to save time and lodging budget by taking the night bus.

Indonesia Travel - Tana Toraja

We got the tickets atoh I forgot the bus agent, but it’s one of the places on the main street, and chose the bus with air suspension, IDR 10,000 more expensive than the one without. So it’s IDR 100,000 / pax. And guess what, it was the fanciest bus I’ve ever been on! It’s got colorful lights on the ceiling – I said fancy, not good taste – video monitors on every several rows, and the seats are wide and comfy! I take it that bigger built Caucasians would be comfy on these buses. Hm, that’s great for tourism, since I met lots and lots European travelers throughout Sulawesi.


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