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Tags: Indonesia, Toraja Cultural Immersion, Stories,

Tana Toraja: Learning the Importance of Life Through Death

Exploring the otherworldly land of Toraja made me think about the legacies we leave behind

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I knew a little about Toraja from my quick research on the flight to Jakarta. In particular, my interest was piqued when I heard about their elaborate burial ceremonies. The Torajans’ apparent fascination with death seemed to be so alien to the world I was used to, a world which seems to fear aging and death.  

After arriving in Jakarta, I headed to Makassar and took a bus from there to Rantepao, a small town in the middle of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi and the central point of Tana Toraja. Even after I had arrived in Rantepao, I still had no idea how I was going to immerse myself in the Torajan people’s world.

As luck would have it, I bumped into Lina (Co-founder of Seek Sophie) at my hotel’s reception just as she was about to head off on a two-day trip around Toraja with her local guide, Markus. I asked if I could join them and with that, the three of us hit the road.

It all starts at the buffalo market

We started by visiting the buffalo market. Here, Markus began telling us about their local culture and traditions, which were largely centred around the buffalo.

The Torajan people live most of their lives in anticipation of a very beautiful and elaborate burial ceremony. For the Torajan people, the burial ceremony is intended to be a celebration of the deceased’s life and the highest expression of the family's love for the deceased. The ceremony is centred around the sacrifice of animals, mostly buffaloes and pigs, the spirits of which, the dead are believed to ride to heaven.

Once a week at this market, the best buffalo specimens are purchased to be sacrificed at upcoming burial ceremonies. Certain buffaloes (the black and white ones) have more value than others, and each one can cost tens of millions of rupiah. The Torajan people attach so much importance to the buffaloes that the animals are not allowed to work in rice fields and are raised like pets — massaged and bathed every day.

The celebration of a life well lived  

[Note: This contains images that some may find disturbing.]

A little later that morning, we were invited to attend a burial ceremony. Even though I had read about these ceremonies, I was apprehensive.

Given the elaborate nature of the burial ceremonies, families often need to save up for months, even years, to pay for the ceremony. As a result, the deceased’s body is often kept in the family home during this time and the deceased is treated as if he is “sick”, not dead. Every day, the deceased's friends and family visit him and serve him meals, just as they would if he were alive. 

After the family has saved up enough money for an elaborate burial ceremony, they will start planning the ceremony. 

The day of the burial ceremony starts with an elaborate procession of people carrying and following the casket from the family home to the ceremony’s venue. Hundreds of guests are invited to the ceremony, and they come dressed in all manner of attire, from traditional Torajan dress to shirts and sarongs.

All of the invited guests bring gifts. These can be gifts of food, animals to sacrifice, money or cigarettes. At the venue, we were greeted by a couple of government officials in uniforms. Markus explained that each gift had to be recorded by the government as the deceased’s family were required to pay taxes on the gifts.

The officials busied themselves with checking the gifts, assessing their value, and meticulously recording the information in a book. Markus told us that a copy of the book would also be provided to the deceased’s family, so that the family are able to keep track of which guest has brought what gift. This is a convenient way for the family to know how to reciprocate when a guest later invites them to a burial ceremony of the guest’s family.

The main event of sacrificing the animals began shortly after all the guests had arrived. If you are a vegan, a PETA activist, or just a sensitive person, this ceremony might not be for you. We watched on as the family members selected and slaughtered the animals by cutting each animal’s throat. The family members then proceeded to cut the animal’s carcass into parts right in the middle of the “arena” for everyone to see. I found it hard to stomach the sight.  

[If people would prefer not to see this part of the ceremony, they can let their guide know so that they can avoid this part. There's also the option to stand further away from where the ceremony is taking place, so you don't get to see the grisly sight.]

Seeing this obsession with death also got me thinking about life. In many ways, the elaborate burial ceremony is a reflection of one’s life.

According to tradition, the deceased’s family has a responsibility to ensure that this final rite of passage accurately reflects the standing of their loved one in the community, through sacrificing highly valued buffaloes and arranging the best possible venue for the ceremony. Each of these elements reflects not only the standing of the family in the community, but also the commitment of the family and friends to the deceased.

This makes it critical that one lives life in a way that would compel loved ones to go out of their ways to honour one. I suppose this is no different to how most of us go about building our own legacy, although the expression of our legacy is unlikely to be as tangible and as evident as numerous slaughtered animals. Having buffaloes sacrificed in your honour certainly does focus the mind.

Going deep into the heart of Torajan villages

After this, we took our scooters into the countryside to visit traditional villages. As we rode down winding roads, we took in the breath-taking views of lush rice fields interspersed with the majestic traditional Torajan boat-shaped houses.

The Torajan villages are still very traditional. They are organised with the boat-shaped residential houses on one side, and rice barns on the other. This leaves a thin strip of land in the middle where daily life takes place.

It was a pleasure to see that the boundaries of the existing houses and the organisation of the village are respected even as new houses are erected in the village. This deference for traditions and sense of continuity from the past to the present can be felt throughout Toraja. I mused that this could be one of the reasons why the strong traditions of the Torajan people have been preserved through the ages.

Modernity has not passed the Torajan people by. They are fully aware of the outside world, and co-exist with it. This makes it even more impressive that they continue to maintain their traditions amidst the rapidly changing world around them.

Watching the burial ceremony, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Torajan people had the right idea all along. Perhaps by living for one's legacy instead of ‘living for now’, one will be able to lead a fuller and richer life, a life filled with rich traditions, strong communities and at the end, a celebration of a life well lived.

Afterword: This story was written by Jerome, a fellow traveller that Lina, Co-founder of Seek Sophie, met when she was exploring Toraja.