Toraja — not for the faint hearted…

Going to a funeral is not anyone’s idea of fun, but if you’re in Toraja, that would be the one thing many adventurous tourists would wish for


IT WAS just a simple plan. Fly to Jakarta and spend a night there, possibly enjoy the night life a little bit, before continuing the journey the following morning to Makassar in Sulawesi.

Once we were in Makassar, we’d just take our time to explore the city and perhaps take a boat ride to the surrounding little islands for a little bit of fun in the sun.

Alas, it was not meant to be. The moment we touched down in Jakarta, this writer and two travelling companions were forced to stay indoors. The rain was too heavy and moving around in Jakarta would be a waste of time.

The following day, the enthusiasm was still high as we were about to fly into Makassar, which might be a good change. The weather might be sunnier and brighter. No such luck. Even the flight was rather scary as the plane rattled almost all the way to Makassar.

It was still raining heavily, and there was nothing much that could be done.

Even the trip to La Galigo Museum and the port (the ships were still built the way the Bugis and Makassar people did centuries before) became rather sluggish and uneventful.

So, on the third day, the three of us decided to take the becha to the nearest travel agency for some advice as we had at least three more days in Sulawesi before flying back to Kuala Lumpur.

“I am afraid there’s not much we can do,” the nice lady at the agency said. “Unless, if you want to try Toraja. That would be the driest area at the moment.”

So, Toraja it was…

The trip from Makassar to Toraja started before noon, and the writer and his travelling companions reached Toraja only after sunset

Pit Stops

The journey from Makassar to Toraja the following day was really daunting. We were already cautioned that it would be at least eight hours before we reached our destination. Nevertheless, the unforgiving long and winding road through various parts of South Sulawesi was certainly an eye-opener. The trip started before noon, and we were told that we’d reach Toraja only after sunset.

The first two hours or so were not as eventful. It could be likened to a road trip through the rural areas around Alor Star and Sungai Petani to perhaps Changlun.

We stopped for lunch at Parepare, a city located on the southwest coast of Sulawesi, about 155km north of the provincial capital of Makassar.

The surroundings still felt familiar as the port town is one of the major population centres of the Bugis people. It was more like going through several kampungs between Batu Pahat and Muar.

We continued our journey north and the scenery (and temperature) began to change. Occasionally, we’d see locals in tribal threads walking along the lonely road going about their daily routines.

There were huts tucked in between the trees or perched on the ledge of the hilly area. The surrounding jungle got even more dense as the van pushed onwards to our destination.

We stopped for tea at Gunung Buttu Kabo-bong, also known as Gunung Nona, in Enrekang, 280km away from Makassar. Fried bananas, pancakes and some local dessert were served there, apart from local coffee.

There was a viewing deck that would allow you to really enjoy the breathtaking view of Gunung Nona. If you’re trying to figure the name out, just imagine that you’re a gynaecologist who is about to give a female giant a thorough check-up, and you’d get the whole picture.

Since the “rest and recuperation” spot, which is more like a large warung built on a hillside, is your last stop before proceeding to Toraja land, it is also advisable that you freshen up and utilise the bathroom as much as you can.

A few hours later, as the air got a little bit more dense and colder, we reached Toraja, which was marked by a huge gateway that read “Selamat Datang di Tana Toraja”. By then it was also dark and pretty chilly, and we could not think of anything else but getting to the hotel for a hot shower and a good night’s sleep.

When a Torajan dies, family members of the deceased are required to hold a series of funeral ceremonies, known as Rambu Soloq, over many days

Two Weddings and 4 Funerals

“Good news! We’ve been invited to a funeral!” the tour guide said enthusiastically the following morning.

Now, no one really knew how to react to that piece of news. Even if you say “that’s great!”, it would still come out wrong.

Going to a funeral is not anyone’s idea of fun, but if you’re in Toraja, that would be the one thing many adventurous tourists would wish for.

“Some people would come all the way, hoping to experience a Torajan funeral. Not everyone gets to see it. We do not have a schedule for the ceremony. Some visitors would spend a long time here, but they never got the chance to witness.

“There are also others who are not even allowed to attend it. We are lucky, I guess,” the guide said.

Apparently, during their lives, the Torajans work very hard to accumulate wealth. Unlike other societies, however, they do not save their money to give themselves a good life, but rather, for a good send-off in death. In fact, the extravagance of the funeral marks a Torajan family’s status.

Funeral ceremonies are incredibly important in Toraja and are usually held weeks, months, or even years after the death of a person. The waiting period allows the family of the deceased to raise enough money for expenses.

The funerals are raucous affairs involving the whole village and traditionally last for days or even weeks. Specifically, a funeral reinforces the eternal bond between the living and the dead.

When a Torajan dies, family members of the deceased are required to hold a series of funeral ceremonies, known as Rambu Soloq, over many days.

During that period, the deceased is not buried but is embalmed and stored in a traditional house under the same roof with his or her family.

Until the funeral ceremonies are completed, the person is not considered to be truly dead but merely suffering an illness.

The dead relative is referred to as “a person who is sick” or “the one who is asleep”. The “waiting process” could even last several years after death, depending on how long it takes the family to raise money.

During this time, the deceased family member is symbolically fed, cared for and taken out, and is very much a part of their relative’s lives.

So there we were. We arrived just when the ceremony was about to begin. We were brought to the buffalo-slaughtering field. You see, family members are required to slaughter buffaloes and pigs as they believe that the spirit of the deceased will live peacefully thereafter.

The ceremony is certainly not for the faint-hearted. The sight and smell would be enough to make your head dizzy. From afar, you could hear pigs squealing as they were released to be slaughtered.

After the sacrifice, the meat was distributed to the funeral visitors in accordance with visitors’ positions in the community.

Traditionally, the heads of the buffaloes are returned to what is locally known as puya (a site for the soul or spirit of the dead person) and their horns placed in front of the house of the kin.

The more horns that decorate the front of the house, the higher the status of the deceased. The body is not buried until the 11th day of the ceremony, with the final resting place being either in a cave or up on the cliff.

A wood-carved effigy or tau tau, carved with the likeness of the dead person, is then placed on the balcony of the tomb to represent the dead and watch over their remains.

We thought that was that. Not really… The guide told us that we had been granted permission to attend at least three more funerals!

“You guys are lucky! Very often tourists who took all the trouble to come here were turned away. In your case, you are getting more than what many would bargain for,” our guide gleefully said.

The 3 friends crawled through a dark and narrow cave into a catacomb that was filled with coffins and caskets and the remains of the dead

“Lumayan ni pak!” the driver quipped.

During the three days in Tana Toraja, we were also brought to another Toraja area called Ke’te’ kesu’, where the dead are not placed in cliff-dug graves, but in wooden caskets hanging from the side of cliffs.

For some reason, the three of us ended up with another guide who made us crawl through a dark and narrow cave into a catacomb that was filled with coffins and caskets and the remains of the dead.

We only realised how tight and “populated” the area was when the guide lifted the kerosene lamp in his hand. It was certainly an experience one wouldn’t forget for a very long time.

We were also brought to the smallest of the Toraja burial grounds that are mainly for babies.

The guide told us that if a child dies before he’d started teething, the baby is wrapped in cloth and placed inside a hollowed out space within the trunk of a growing tree.

“The trees are usually milky sap plants that symbolises the mother’s milk,” the guide said. Needless to say, we were just overwhelmed by the whole experience, which was never really part of the plan. By the fourth funeral, two of us decided to stay in the van.

We were also invited to a wedding, which was not as grand as the funeral. It was also our second wedding in Sulawesi as we also managed to be part of a Bugis wedding in Parepare, on the way up to Toraja.

Now, that was certainly one unforgettable holiday. Another round? Perhaps not…