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The Toraja people are known for their ancient traditions that have managed to maintain to this day. Until the 20th century, when the Dutch arrived, the whole area was organized into small autonomous villages where they practiced their animistic beliefs far from the rest of the western world. With colonialism Christianity was introduced and later Islam, today even the mayority are considered Christian the numbers of muslim are growing. Despite this, the Toraja have created a syncretism of religions embracing the more «modern» ones but without leaving aside many of the animist beliefs.
They are located in the central area of the island in a mountainous area full of rice fields and areas of exuberant jungle vegetation. The various Toraja peoples are mainly distributed in the regency of Tana Toraja (“Land of the Toraja”) and the ethnic group in total is formed by around one million people. The most populated city and reference tourist center is the town of Rantepao from which you can access all the other towns in the area to get to know the region.
The landscape of the area is spectacular, between rice paddies, jungle and forests of huge bamboo.
One of the most popular burial systems for the Toraja culture is based on a coffin, but instead of being buried as done in other cultures, it is placed elevated and hung with ropes or thanks to wooden structures. The coffins found in villages like Londa date back 300 years ago.
Another of the burial systems we visited were the burial niches in the town of Lemo. Here the tombs are directly carved out of the rock. Theoretically one of the reasons the graves were dug into the wall is to keep it out of the reach of looters as the bodies were buried with valuable possessions.
In the image on the left we can see a Christian cross creating in my opinion a very interesting image, it combines elements of very different cultures and integrates them into the same burial site. The Indonesian government has now recognized the original beliefs of the Toraja under the name of «Aluk To Dolo» («the way of the ancestors») as a sect within Indonesian Hinduism.
In the village of Kambira we saw one of the most fascinating elements reflecting the beliefs of the Toraja people. Babies who died before their teeth came out were buried in this tree. Since they were not yet considered adults, they could not access heaven with the usual funerary rites. To find a solution they were buried in a fetal position inside the tree and covered the hole with palm leaves. Over time the tree covers the little one and helps him get to heaven, a very strong image on a symbolic level.
But undoubtedly the most interesting ritual and a living reflection of the beliefs of the Toraja are their complex funerals. This is the reason why this region attracts tourists since 1970, the year in which the Western world discovered these unique customs, and which is both shocking and fascinating from the Western perspective.
Funerals are a social event of great relevance for the Toraja as they serve as a meeting point for the residents of the area and relatives who come from all over the country to attend them.
The prestige and social status of the deceased is defined by the size of the funeral and this by the cattle sacrificed. During the funeral hundreds of pigs are slaughtered practically wherever your eyes look, without apparent control and in any corner.
However, the animals of greatest importance are the buffaloes, central components of their culture and iconography. During the funeral they are sacrificed before the attentive eyes of all those present. At the funeral I witnessed, three buffalo were sacrificed (I have tried not to publish the most delicate images) but at larger funerals more than a hundred can be slaughtered.
The relationship and sense of community that exists between Toraja families is also very unique. As a gift, both pigs and buffalo are given to other members of the community, thus ensuring that when one dies the favor will be returned.
All the food is prepared and distributed, as a foreigner you will be invited to eat, drink and enjoy the company of the attendees. However, it is expected that as a guest you contribute with a present, in our case a couple of packets of tobacco.
This was the person in charge of guiding the ceremony.
The meat and guts are cooked together with other ingredients in bamboo tubes that are placed directly on the fire. Alcohol is also present at the funeral, very strong and served in the bamboo too
Simply by walking through the beautiful valleys you can see that it is a very special and unique area. The rice fields and bamboo forests dotted with the characteristic Toraja houses are an inspiration to any traveller and a glimpse to ancient times. And of course their customs and beliefs are something that can not be found anywhere else in the world.
The visit to Tana Toraja was one of the trips that I found most interesting and with which I have learned the most. I recommend visiting the area in the summer time as this is when funerals are held. On the other hand another event that is held every 3 years is the very curious so-called Ma´nene (also known as Walking Dead) when the relatives take their mummified relatives out to the street to walk with them. On the other hand, the island of Sulawesi offers many other things to visit both culturally and naturally: world class diving sites, etnic groups living in stilt houses above the sea, paradise islands…