The land of Toraja’s Sizzling Highlights

As published in The Jakarta Post
Mon, April 25 2011

Known for its remarkable tenun or woven cloth and funeral ceremonies, Tana Toraja — “the Land of Toraja” — is a lot more than meets the eye.

Located in South Sulawesi, this prominent tourist destination in Indonesia is encircled by mountains, cliffs, forests and dotted with coffins as well as buffaloes.

It was an eight- to 10-hour drive from South Sulawesi’s capital city, Makassar. I did not want to close my eyes and fall asleep as the journey to Toraja offers a scenery I might regret missing.

Paddy fields and forests could be seen to the left of the road, and scary yet tremendous gaps to the right. The sky was bright blue and, through large clouds, the sun shone brightly.

Because it is a famous tourist destination, Tana Toraja is packed with visitors all year round, from backpackers to wealthy travelers.

If you want to go to Tana Toraja’s famous spots in Makale, Rantepao and Batutumonga easily, you can rent a car, which costs around Rp 400,000 (US$46) a day (negotiable). You can also take public transportation, such as a minivan (angkot) or bentor — short for becak motor (motorcycle-pedicab) — if you want to tour around the city.

Torajan houses called tongkonan, built using carved-wood panels can be seen throughout Toraja. The word tongkonan comes from the Torajan word tongkon — which means “to sit”. The walls of tongkonan are incised with wood-carving detail and are mainly colored red, black and yellow.

In front of a tongkonan, you can usually see a string of buffalo horns that show how affluent and wealthy the owner is. Four or eight horns indicate average wealth. Any other amount means the tongkonan belongs to a prosperous family.

Nowadays, many Torajans own modern-looking houses, but they still have smaller-sized tongkonan houses, which they use as guest houses.

Down below: Londa, a natural cave, is the burial ground for Tana Toraja ancestors, located in Sandan Uai village in Sanggalangi subdistrict, 7 kilometers from Makale. — Photo by Amelia Winni
Londa, a natural cave, is the burial ground for Tana Toraja ancestors, located in Sandan Uai village in Sanggalangi subdistrict, 7 kilometers from Makale,

They are also used to store gabah (unhulled rice) or as the family grave. Indeed, there is something in Toraja you cannot and do not want to overlook: corpses, coffins and graveyards.

Before stepping into these spooky spots, you must visit Batu Tumonga. Located on the slopes of Mount Sesean, a one-hour drive from the center city in Toraja, Batu Tumonga offers a splendid view of Rantepao and Tana Toraja from its peak. Having a cup of robusta or arabica coffee (Torajan exclusive coffee) in a coffee shop there while looking at the views is very enjoyable.

On the way to Batu Tumonga, graves could be spotted everywhere. Interestingly, they didn’t look creepy — but culturally appealing.

Tree grave: Babies used to be buried in the Tarra’ Tree. — Photo by Amelia Winni
Tree grave: Babies used to be buried in the Tarra’ Tree.

The next stop was the baby grave called passiliran in Kambira. The passiliran is only intended for babies who do not have teeth — they were considered sacred. Deceased babies are buried inside a hole in a tarra tree, as it is believed to place them back in their mothers’ wombs. Tarra has white sap symbolizing a mother’s milk. Approximately 80 to 300 centimeters in diameter, the hole is wrapped with enau leaves (solitary palm sugar) after the baby is in. There are 15 holes in the tarra now.

Social status, again, plays a role here. The higher the baby is placed inside the hole, the higher the social status of the family. By paying an entry fee of Rp 5,000, tourists can see and take photographs of the baby graves.

Twenty minutes from the baby grave, meet Londa — a natural cave, the burial ground for Tana Toraja ancestors. Located in Sandan Uai village in Sanggalangi subdistrict, 7 kilometers from Makale, it costs Rp 5,000 to enter the site.

Here, visitors must follow community rules — one of which is we are not allowed to move or take away the human bones. Among the tombs, you can see tau-tau — wooden effigies representing the deceased — placed on the top of Londa cave.

When you look toward Londa’s entrance, there are erong — Torajan coffins that stick out of the cliff side — filled with human bones from hundreds of years ago. Similar to the baby grave, the higher one’s social status is, the higher the dead is placed on the cliff.

Then, explore the 1,000-meter depth of Londa cave by foot and witness this coffin-filled cave with sesajen (offerings to the spirit) and items belonging to the deceased alongside.

Be careful, the ground and rocks inside are slippery and wet. Witness the infamous tale from Londa inside the cave revolving around a couple of skulls claimed to be Toraja’s Romeo and Juliet. They were deeply in love, but both families’ refusal to welcome their commitment brought catastrophe: suicide.

Toraja people place importance on buffalos. Not only do buffalo horns present social status, Torajans also sacrifice as many buffaloes as possible at a family member’s funeral. The number of animals sacrificed — buffaloes or pigs — equates to the power of the dead and their family’s.

Tedong — as Toraja people call the water buffalo — are given time to bathe in mud. Albino buffalo are given special treatment. There’s one in Londa, named Tedong Bonga. The guide says Tedong Bonga is worth more than Rp 200 million.

Another enthralling spot is Ke’te Kesu, the most picturesque village in Tana Toraja. It has a shipshape row of tongkonan and the hanging erong coffins.

Ke’te Kesu has many tau-tau on its cliffs, photos of predecessors, and wooden-carving crafts and souvenir shops selling Torajan handicrafts such as tenun woven cloths, T-shirts, ethnic jewelry and even traditional South Sulawesi costumes.

It is believed to be the oldest graveyard in Tana Toraja. To fully experience Ke’te Kesu, you need to walk upstairs with the precipice on your right.

Many skulls and other bones are on the ground. Walking past flimsy, old coffins, you can sense the mystical atmosphere around.

Valuable asset: This water buffalo, Tedong Bonga, is worth more than Rp 200 million.  Photo by Amelia Winnie
Valuable asset: This water buffalo, Tedong Bonga, is worth more than Rp 200 million.

The last and hottest place to visit is Sa’dan To’barana. This is a special place to see the making of pattanun, Torajan tenun woven cloth. You can also purchase cloth here. Sa’dan To’barana is a one-hour drive from Rantepao.

It is a traditional village in north Toraja where the pattanun fabric is originally made. Pattanun consists of a mixture of colorful tenun woven fabric and is sold at a reasonable price. You can have an authentic pattanun from Rp 100,000 to more than Rp 1 million.

You can also experience weaving with the traditional machine to make tenun woven cloth. One tenun woven cloth is 3.5 meters in size and takes two weeks to make.

Tasting Tana Toraja’s cuisine is also a must. Try pa’piong, beef/pork/fish mixed with vegetables such as utan bulunangko or jackfruit inside bamboo then roasted over a fire.

Do not forget to taste jipang Toraja, made from glutinous black sticky rice with brown sugar.

Tori cookies are also yummy and use similar ingredients to jipang but in a different form. Tori is made by adding sesame seeds and rice flour.

This superb city of graves and marvelous natural views invites those who visit the Land of Toraja to come back again.



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