I had the chance to do quite a lot of trips in Indonesia, and I must admit the Tana Toraja literally blew my mind.
It started like this: night bus from Makassar to Rantepao. Destination reached at around 6 am, sun slowly rising behind massive clouds and rain… The bus dropped me in the main street, which is, unfortunately like in many Indonesian cities, quite ugly. I picked up my backpack, disappointed by the surroundings, and took an ojek (moto taxi). Very helpful, he drove me to 3 homestays before I found a nice one to stay. Bad weather, still a bit tired, so I decided to go for a power nap. A few hours later (yes, was a big power nap), the weather seemed better, I decided to rent a motorbike and went discovering the Tana Toraja.
A unique culture in an astonishing environment
The landscape is breathtaking: succession of hills, plateaus, rice fields, rivers, rocks the size of a hill, all with flashy green vegetation and surrounded by mountains.
The Tana Toraja have a strong culture which is still omnipresent through architecture, paintings, wood carvings, funeral rites and their “cemeteries”.
Their villages are typical and unique in Indonesia. They follow the same design: two-stories houses with their typical curved-roof (looks like a boat) decorated with carved wood and animal skulls surround the central place. Each house has its specific decorations and own usage: meeting point downstairs and storage upstairs, space for cattle (pigs, cows) downstairs and living habitation upstairs…
In the Tana Toraja culture, we all come from the earth, and life is a cycle. So at the end, we come back to the earth. Deceased are buried in natural caves or, in most cases, in caves dug in rocks the size of a hill or mountains, sometimes at more than 10m high! The grave they dig is meant to host all the family after an intense and beautiful ritual.
The funeral, a life festival
On my second day in Rantepao, someone knocked at my door around 8 o’clock in the morning. It was the ojek that dropped me at the hotel the day before. I didn’t ask him to come but he provoked his chance, and he had already ordered 2 coffees. So I challenged him to find a nice and not touristic funeral ceremony to attend in the morning. After a few phone calls, he made it happen.
After 1 hour riding through wonderful sceneries, we arrived in a tiny village. The narrow street leading to the place where the ceremony takes place is surrounded by boxes buit for the ceremony and rented by families. Everyone gather there.
This celebration of death is actually a superb life festival
I was attending the 2nd day of a 5 days ceremony! Each day has its own meaning and rituals made of offerings, prayers, dances, animal sacrifices. It’s everything but sad. All the family gathers for this long ceremony, actively attending at some points and enjoying being together the rest of the time. You feel an enthusiastic mix of life, respect, tradition and joy.
Almost all funerals take place during the holy month of Ramadan. Even though this part of Indonesia is mostly catholic, families wait for the next Ramadan to organize the funeral as most Indonesian have their holydays at this time of the year. The family told me they kept the body of the 90 years old grand-father during 10 months to wait for everybody to be able to gather again.
Rituals make the magnificence of the ceremony. The traditional costumes, houses specially decorated, the food prepared and offered to each visitor (whether he is from the family, a friend or just a visitor), the colors and ornamentations on the coffin, the statue representing the deceased, kids until elderly Indonesian smiling, people delivering cows or pigs as offerings, and the surrounding atmosphere transport you.
From the newborn until the eldest of the family, everybody is here. This celebration of death is actually a superb life festival.
What are you waiting for? Book a ticket and fly there, you can end up at the Togean, perfect spot for dive & relax.