Tana Toraja: Living Among Dead Getting to know the unique culture of the Torajan people in Sulawesi

Death is just another part of life for the Torajas. When someone dies, that person isn’t buried immediately because the deceased is not considered dead but sick and keeps on living in the family home.

Dead but not really

With our guide Yacob (a very kind and knowledgeable man who last year guided a National Geographic team around Tana Toraja; read the very interesting article here) we visited a dead woman. That’s right, we didn’t just go to see her but we visited her.

Before we entered, we agreed that we’d talk to her and thank her for receiving us. But once we were inside the room where she lay in a coffin, none of us six tourists talked to the dead woman. In fact, we kept very quiet and left the room as soon as possible. Our way to deal with death and to treat a dead person is completely different from the Toraja’s. There were two little kids in the house and they obviously didn’t mind at all that there was a dead woman in the next room. For them the woman is still alive, she’s just sick.

Not all the dead are kept in the house though. If a child dies before it has teeth, it is considered to be still holy and is buried in the trunk of a big tree so that it keeps growing with the tree.

Changing traditions

A long time ago, the Toraja used to place the mummified bodies of the deceased in front of their graves. Now, they no longer do this because many mummies were stolen. So instead of the body, they now place a wooden tau-tau, a statue that represents the deceased, in front of the grave. These tau-tau can be very elaborate and look very much alike the deceased. Not all graves are guarded by tau-tau, however. One of the reasons is that they are very expensive (up to 1500 USD), so not all families can afford one for their deceased family members. The other, more disturbing reason, is that even tau-tau get stolen, therefore some people prefer to keep the tau-tau of their ancestors at home. Sadly, people who are blinded by the prospects of making big money don’t respect anything; a story all too well known.

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Exploring Tana Toraja

We rented ojeks (motorcycles) with drives and went all around the countryside and the mountains surrounding Rantepao to visit several grave sites. They’re everywhere and just by seeing so many grave sites it becomes clear that death is a big part of the Torajan life.

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The highlands offer stunning scenery, especially around Batutumonga, and although the ojek was not very comfortable, it was a great tour. Guidebooks talk about hiking in Tana Toraja and many tourists come with the intention of hiking in the mountains and through rice fields. It sounds amazing but frankly, I wouldn’t recommend it. There are no real hiking trails and motorcycles drive everywhere and at all times. Sharing your trail with annoyingly loud motorcycles isn’t fun and the area is just too big to be covered on foot. There’s so much to see, so it’s way better to get some wheels, with or without driver, and to explore the area like that.

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How to Contact Yacob

If you go to Tana Toraja, contact Yacob (+6281241652407; yansenada@gmail.com). He’s usually around Pia’s Poppies Hotel – which is a very nice and inexpensive hotel, very much recommended!

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