The islands of Indonesia is home to myriad indigenous communities, but you’ve probably yet to encounter a culture as distinct and fascinating as that of the Toraja of Sulawesi. Inhabiting impossibly picturesque mountains – the Tana Toraja – in the south of the island, the Toraja hold onto much of their traditional animist beliefs, despite having largely converted to Christianity early in the 20th century.
The most enthralling facet of Toraja aluk set of beliefs is their burial rites. The funeral – tomate – itself is a major, and complex, affair attracting hundreds of people and lasting for up to a week. The deceased are never buried; they’re placed in wooden coffins which are put into carved niches and caves in the cliff sides of the mountains. An effigy of the deceased – a tau tau – is placed by the coffin; much work goes into these to make them a true representation. In some cases, such as the death of a child, the body is placed in a hollow of a tree. Some bodies are hung in bamboo cages from the cliff side.
Another remarkable thing about these funerals is that many families can’t afford one immediately, so they may take place years after the person has died. The body is embalmed and remains in the family home until all the ceremonial rituals have been completed. Part of these rituals include the slaughter of buffaloes to help spirit the deceased into the afterlife. Each family member must sacrifice a buffalo – the meat is then distributed to village members.
The Toraja’s unusual burial rituals aren’t the only unique aspect of their culture. Their houses are also noteworthy for their ancestral Tongkonan houses with steeply sloping wooden roofs, reminiscent of a boat. The landscape here is also worth the journey to the highlands. Wonderfully serene, its altitude keeps the climate temperate and fresh, with limestone cliffs and mist-wreathed mountains completing an other-worldly scene.