The first thing you notice when arriving in the highlands of Toraja is the landscape. The road winds up through forest and villages perched on the mountainside, occasionally pausing at cliff tops overlooking enormous valleys below. The land in Toraja is like a tropical take on the European Alps, draped in a warm equatorial blanket of emerald green palm trees and plantations; this is one of the few places in the world where tropical palms grow next to pine trees. This otherworldly blend of flora is just the beginning; the landscapes of Toraja form the backdrop for unique and otherworldly traditions unlike anything else in the world.
“Death is central to life in Toraja, and celebrated with outlandish ceremonies.”
Known as the ‘land above the clouds’, Toraja is home to beliefs and customs belonging to a different time. Cradled by the rugged granite mountains in the highlands of central Sulawesi and shrouded from the outside world by a curtain of gossamer cloud, the people of Toraja have developed a unique and complex culture relating to rites of passage, ancestors and perspectives on mortality.
Toraja is divided into two main regencies; Tana Toraja, with its capital at Makale; and Toraja Utara, centred around the capital at Rantepao. All around, landscapes of terraced rice fields swoop down in steps to rolling valleys below. In addition to rice, the region produces some of the world’s finest coffee; a signature taste that can only be created by a combination of the unique topography and traditional farming practices of Toraja.
In Toraja, daily life is dictated by fascinating practices known as Aluk Todolo (Way of the Ancestors), comprising a dizzying total of 7,777 rules that cover everything from birth, marriage and death, to farming, food and family relationships.
An intricate system of ownership, capital and debt revolves around the region’s sacred buffalo - precious ceremonial commodities which can cost as much as a house. A whole industry and micro-economy has been created around the trade, sale and sacrifice of buffalo, so essential to the many ceremonies of the region and synonymous with the very soul of Toraja.
“precious ceremonial commodities which can cost as much as a house”
Prices for each animal can range from Rp30 million to Rp300 billion. For middle-class families, a minimum of 24 buffalo is expected. The buffalo themselves are doted upon as sacred deities, living out sedentary lives at pasture in the idyllic fields and minded over by loving family members.
The markets of Rantepao are where you can find purebred buffalo; the local equivalent of a Lamborghini showroom. These herds are a living treasury for the region, but despite their extraordinary value, buffalo are never stolen; to do so would be considered sacrilegious to Torajans, who value the prized buffalo above all else in their culture. Images of the animal can be seen in the motifs of local fabrics, in the carvings of rice barns and in the inscriptions of graves.
In a direct link to Toraja’s animist heritage, the buffalo’s true value becomes apparent during funeral ceremonies. Death is central to life in Toraja, and celebrated with outlandish ceremonies. Funerals take a lifetime to prepare for, and then last for days, with communities travelling from far and wide to join celebrations that include parades, processions, feasts and animal sacrifice.
“deceased relatives can only ascend to heaven if they see their families happy and hear their laughter”
Approximately forty percent of native Torajans live outside of Toraja. Dispersed throughout Java, Kalimantan, Sumatra and beyond, many spend their whole lives working and saving to afford extravagant funerals for their relatives. During this time, bodies of the deceased are preserved and kept in the family house alongside their next of kin and are referred to as Makula (meaning ‘sick person’) until a funeral ceremony can be arranged. This can take months or even years.
Torajans believe that the dead can only ascend to heaven (known as ‘Puya’) if they see their families happy and hear their laughter. As a result, Torajan funerals are a uniquely happy and exuberant celebration. To western eyes, this world of mummies and open tombs can at first seem macabre and a little ghoulish. However, over time in the company of Torajans, it becomes clear that their joyful customs surrounding death serve a clear purpose. Communities in Toraja are bound by their complex belief system and united by a spiritual conviction that stretches beyond the grave.
Rantepao is the epicentre of seasonal funeral practices in Toraja, where the years of preparation, prayer and saving comes to fruition in a blaze of colour and ceremony. From June through September, families collect in the fields and scrubland surrounding the city to put on these extraordinary and unique events. Outsiders are usually welcome. In fact, visitors will often find themselves treated as foreign dignitaries; honoured guests who add an international flavour to the event and contribute by their very presence to the extravagance of the proceedings.
August is a great time to visit Toraja, with a range of events and traditions fixtures of the calendar. During August, Toraja International Festival celebrates the ancient and sacred megalithic roots of Torajan culture through a series of events and showcases. The festival highlights arts and crafts from the region, along with opera, traditional music performance and choir recitals. Adding to the crowds that descend on Toraja at this time of year, 650 runners participate in the Toraja Marathon. The event takes competitors and spectators alike on a journey through the awe-inspiring scenery of the region. Whatever time of year you visit the highlands of Toraja, you will find an extraordinary blend of nature, culture and adventure.
Torajan buildings are unmistakable. Imbued with spiritual significance, they are decorated with countless buffalo horns, elaborate inscriptions and carvings. Such complexity and craftsmanship elevate these structures above the status of storehouses and dwellings, and turn them into works of art and temples of worship.
“works of art and temples of worship”
In this vast rolling vista of farmland, villages, valleys and mountain ranges, the distinctive sloping roofs of houses (Tongkonan) and rice barns (Alang) can be seen jutting through the trees. Oriented always from north to south, the Tongkonan house is an exquisite example of traditional architecture. It also symbolizes the intricate relationship that exists between generations; a Tongkonan house is always paired with the Alang rice store, facing south to north.
Alang symbolizes the father who feeds his family, whereas the Tongkonan represents the maternal side and is where the family sleeps. Villages usually feature a watering hole for buffalo along with animal pens, family graves and plantations, completing the complex self-sufficient ecosystem which makes a Torajan village.
“a communal society, defined and dictated by its ancestors”
The Tongkonan-Alang duality serves as a hub for villagers; ancient designs, embodying the values of a communal society that is defined and dictated by its ancestors. These complex structures are the setting for intricate cultural practices and ancient beliefs, which have played out in this region for generations.
Rambu Solo: Experience a Torajan Funeral Ceremony
Red flags flutter in the breeze and children blow bubbles into a swirling haze of barbeque smoke and the dust kicked up by hooves. Everywhere there is a general hubbub of noise and chatter as families meet. Young men with fresh blood on their knuckles carry fermented palm beer called balok in tubes of green bamboo to thirsty relatives, sloshing as they go, whilst a loud speaker crackles into life and the booming voice of a village elder starts reciting prayers from the bible. Along with the psalms are reminders about parking arrangements and procedures for the capture of escaping pigs.
A pair of coffins lies in state on a bamboo scaffold up above, shaded from the sun by a crimson curtain and peering down on the proceedings below. A column of people in black arrive under large, triangular hats. Their serpentine conga line weaves into an arena flanked by tables, where families are smoking, joking and enjoying a meal of beef stew, pork and vegetables. This is Rantepao in Tana Toraja, and a funeral is getting underway.
“It is moments such as this that Torajan people live for”
Torajan funerals – known as ‘Rambu Solo’ - are a visceral, exuberant and unforgettable experience. This particular ceremony lasted for three days, included around 400 guests and required the sacrifice of a hundred pigs and thirteen buffalo. A relatively modest affair by Torajan standards.
There’s an audible gasp as the crowd draws its breath and, one-by-one, the buffalo are slaughtered with a single blow to the jugular by machete. Within moments of falling, they are skinned, butchered, cooked and distributed as a stew with rice and vegetables to all in attendance. It is moments like this one that Torajan people live for; communities are drawn together from far and wide as old debts are paid, relationships are re-cast and relatives can finally transcend their earthly bonds to take their place amongst the ancestors.
Life in Toraja is idyllic, extravagant and unique; carrying ancient customs proudly forward into the modern age. Death here is more like a comma than a full stop; for travellers to Toraja, the experiencing the customs of these ancient highlands provides an unforgettable exclamation point in the journey.
Death is central to life in Toraja. Just outside the village of Londa, a labyrinth of caves pockmark cliffs in the forest, where coffins reach out from cracks in the rock and skulls stare blankly from the blackness. This graveyard seems an unlikely place for tales of romance.
The crypt keeper raises his paraffin lamp and a flickering halo of firelight settles on two skulls. Side-by-side in the dust, they stare back at us as he tells their story by the spooky light of the lantern. In a nearby village, these two star-crossed lovers had been forbidden to marry, so took their own lives together. For nearly a hundred years they have slept in the inky gloom of these catacombs. “Like Romeo and Juliet,” says the crypt keeper. All around him are bones and boxes; generations of other families, each with their own stories to tell.
Torajans are unafraid of death. In fact, most of their lives are spent in preparation for and contemplation of their own mortality. Grave sites like the ones in Londa are built into trees, rocks and caves, and watched over by sentinel effigies of the dead called ‘Tau Tau’.
“The dead remain a visible and vital part of daily life”
These lifelike characters, carved from wood and painted with powdered ocre, embody both the spirits of the dead and the local attitudes to death - corpses are not hidden away or buried here; they remain a visible and vital part of daily life, consulted and cared for as if they were still alive.
The lovers’ skulls sink back into the blackness and we follow a tunnel towards the sunlight. Deep in the darkness of Torajan tombs, communities are bound by ancient beliefs that reach beyond the grave. Where ancestors watch over the living and lovers find eternity in the shadows.
In Toraja, if an infant dies before it can grow its first tooth, villagers traditionally buried the body in a special ‘grave tree’; the idea being that the body is returned to the cradle of Mother Nature. Little compartments are carved into the trunk of a Tarra tree; chosen for its white sap, resembling mother’s milk, whilst the surrounding area is planted with bamboo to imitate the soft and soothing “shhh” sound of a mother to her newborn.
“It is only after the baby’s soul has forgotten its mother that it can go to heaven”
Over time, the grave will close over naturally and the body of the baby will merge with that of the tree. As the tree grows upwards, it carries the soul of the infant towards heaven (Puya). Mothers who have lost their children are not permitted to visit the site for several days after the burial, for fear that the infant’s soul will return home with them. It is only after the baby’s soul has forgotten its mother that it can be ready to go to heaven. Until recently, all villages had their own Tarra tree where babies would be buried. The practice is now fading, as Christian missionaries have introduced and implemented earth burials to the region. Tomb trees like the one at Kambira remain a moving and tender testament to the old ways.
For adult family members, it is believed that the higher the grave site, the nobler the burial. In the north of Toraja communities would build megaliths, each one representing 24 buffalo sacrificed for a deceased relative; whereas in the south, villagers built their graves into natural caves, or hung their coffins from the jagged buttresses of cliffs.
“The higher the grave site, the nobler the burial”
Large rocks in the highlands continue to be turned into tombs by hand; solitary family members diligently tap away at the rock with a chisel by torchlight until a cavity large enough to hold a body has been excavated. South Toraja is also the birthplace of those distinctive effigies (Tau Tau) that accompany the tombs.
Toraja’s Black Gold
For lovers of coffee, there can be few places in the world more captivating than the highlands of Toraja. At 1,500 metres above sea level, the fertile slopes of Toraja offer perfect atmospheric conditions for three types of coffee beans to grow in abundance; Arabica, Jember and Robuster; each with its own unique character.
Similar to Sumatran blends, but with a noticeably more earthy aroma and acidic taste, Toraja coffee has a distinctive full-bodied caramel flavour and is widely sought-after by coffee connoisseurs from Japan to the USA.
Coffee was first brought to Toraja in the 1850s. Following an outbreak of rust disease on Java in 1876, which devastated many of the large coffee plantations there, the small independent farmers of Toraja assumed centre stage as Indonesia’s most productive and lucrative coffee producers.
“Per kilogram, Toraja coffee was more valuable than gold”
When the first coffee crop left Indonesia it sent shockwaves through the merchant world; the value was several hundred dollars per kilogram; a price that made it more valuable than gold. This miraculous cash crop sparked a gold rush, along with land disputes similar to the spice wars engulfing Ternate. Centuries later, Indonesia remains the third largest producer of coffee in the world, producing over 540,000 metric tons annually.
Today most of the coffee produced in Toraja is still grown by independent smallholders, with about 5% coming from seven larger estates. Coffee yields from Toraja are relatively low - around 300kg per hectare. Beans from the region are still picked and sorted by hand, using traditional techniques, which, like so many cultural practices in Toraja, have persisted for centuries and continue to captivate the modern world.
“The perfect storm of quality and exclusivity”
The small capacity for coffee production combined with the quality of the coffee beans makes coffee from this region some of the most desirable in the world. This perfect storm of quality and exclusivity has landed Toraja coffee the status of Geographical Indication Protection (GI).
There is no better way to experience Indonesia’s ‘Black Gold’ than by resting your feet on the ornately carved wooden balcony of a Torajan hillside warkop, overlooking the terraced patchwork of plantations where it is grown. Drink in the spectacular views and sip a cup of this unique and spellbinding brew in its natural habitat.