Touring the Land of the Dead, Tana Toraja,
Sulawesi, Indonesia

©1997, photos and story by Dory Lynch

Imagine thinking about funerals and grave sites while vacationing! I found myself doing just that while visiting Tana Toraja, the beautiful highlands of south-central Sulawesi. You can reach Tana Toraja by taking a short flight from Bali; or by boarding a Pelni boat as my daughter and I did from the busy port of Surabaya on the island of Java. We were the only orang bulan (moon people) on that boat and I spent a good deal of time turning down marriage offers for my tall, blonde fifteen year-old daughter, Madonna, as the Indonesians had nicknamed her. We docked in Ujung Pandang, a busy, colorful port, known as Makassar during the Dutch spice trade. We rode a becak, a bicycle-driven rickshaw, to our hotel.

After boarding a bus early the next morning, we rode higher and higher toward Rantelpao by way of Pare Pare. I'd recommend the day bus because the road is full of hairpin curves. About a half an hour outside of Ujung Pandang, the landscape grew incredibly beautiful, round granite cliffs rose from the earth, and the style of houses changed to the Bugi style of wooden houses on stilts. The land felt spacious; ponies, goats, and water buffalo grazed in the fields. For twelve hours, we sat hunched on the cramped bus--as a pair of young drivers, took turns angling and ricocheting the bus up the narrow, mountainous roads. Since it was the end of the rainy season, rivers raged below us. The road was under construction its entire length in the mountains, but the drivers seemed unaware of the cliffs and muddy hillsides as they smoked clove cigarette after clove cigarette. On several hair-breath curves, I closed my eyes and hoped that we would not enter the land of the dead as one of them.

Torajan people do not believe that gods created the universe, but that the universe created gods. In their world-view, our first parents were heaven and earth. For Torajans funerals are the most important life event. They celebrate them with great feasts which lasts several days, because they believe that by dying, the dead person reaches life's pinnacle. When a person dies in Torajaland, people believe that he or she still resides in the world of the living; the person is called unnelong lendong or "lying waving like an eel." In fact, until the funeral, the family stores the body in their house and brings it daily offerings of food. Torajans consider the person to be suffering from an illness, not truly dead until his funeral when the first water buffalo is killed, when their spirit can begin its journey to the Land of Souls.

We arrived in Torajaland at dusk in a pelting rainstorm. We had planned to trek several days, sleeping in villages on the way, but it rained our first three days there; and the hillsides, rice paddies, even the town streets of Rantelpao were thick with mud. But as unlucky as we were with the weather--the rainy season was supposed to have ended--we were lucky to discover that a funeral was in progress. The next morning we hired a guide who drove us to the village of Sibata to take part in the festivities.

The erong (coffin) of the dead person--in this case a grandmother whose body had been kept for over a year while the family saved money for her funeral--lay high on a tower over the ceremonial field as though she were watching over the festivities. We arrived during the second day of the ceremony. At Sibata five hundred guests had already gathered, and every half-hour or so, another group of villagers arrived carrying a water buffalo or a large pig. We walked carefully over the courtyard, avoiding large pools of blood, and steering past an enormous sow which pecked at the head of a dead water buffalo. Water buffalo are traditionally slaughtered at Torajan funerals--as many as twenty-five, although usually the number is much lower, because buffalo meat is supposed to bless the deceased person's journey to the next world. During the long hot day, everyone paraded by with gifts, even the poorest women offered small containers full of rice. That evening, we watched a young man slash a large water buffalo with his sword. It bucked and pawed at the earth, raced around and tore out a palm tree before dying.

For the next several days, we rode bemos (small passenger vans) out of town, and hiked off the main road to visit villages and burial sites. It wasn't as macabre as it sounds. Torajaland is gorgeous. Brilliant green terraced paddies sloped down the hillsides, gangling forests of bamboo rise above them on the mountain slopes, the chocolate-colored Sa'dan River chortled past small picturesque villages where the houses are shaped like boats. Because the natives believe that the first Torajans journeyed to this land from a far-away island, the traditional Torajan house is built to resemble a boat with curved high roofs, and living quarters on the second floor.

At Ke'te Kesu, lifesize wooden statues of the deceased have been inset into niches on the stone cliffs. These tau tau are a relatively recent innovation, and since they are painted to resemble the dead on expensive jackfruit wood, only the wealthiest can afford them. Still it was a stunning effect: to have these lifesize, colorful dolls stare down at you from the rocky cliff-faces. Nearby caves are full of human skeletons, but so carefully arranged are these, even to the placement of glasses, that one couldn't help suspect that tourism has modified this practice. Nevertheless, at the losmen that night, my heart beat erratically into the wee small hours, until I wondered whether I should wake my daughter and try to find a way to the tiny airport, to return to a big city with some semblance of a modern hospital.

On our last night in Tana Toraja, we walked home in the moonlight. The Big Dipper hung low in the Northern sky, looking lopsided and out of place. The Sa'dan River gurgled by, and as we passed houses, guitar music drifted out toward us. One moment later, all the town lights flashed off, and the world became flooded with moonlight. I thought of the tau tau reflecting the cold light of the moon, of the bones of the dead in the open caves shining in the moonlight. But the lights flicked on again, the musicians picked up where they'd left off, and clean mountain air poured over us. I remembered another traveller saying, "Until death, it is all life." This quote from Cervantes in Don Quixote summarized my experiences in Torajaland, vibrant life in the midst of death.

© 2008, Dory Lynch, all rights reserved