Some 250km north of Makassar, a steep wall of mountains marks the limits of Bugis territory and the start of Tanah Toraja’s highlands, a beautiful spread of hills and valleys where sleek buffalo wallow in lush green paddy fields. With easy access and one of Indonesia’s most confident and vivid cultures, Tanah Toraja is planted firmly on the agenda of every visitor to Sulawesi. Tour groups tend to concentrate on key sites, so it’s not hard to find more secluded corners.
Tanah Toraja’s main town, at least as far as tourists are concerned, is Rantepao, 18km north of the regional capital, Makale. It’s a popular base for travellers, most of whom descend for the major festival season between July and September. Expect hot days and cool nights; there is a “dry” season between April and October, but this is relative only to the amount of rain at other times, so bring non-slip walking boots and rainwear.
Tanah Toraja is known as Tator in the local idiom, and you should look for this on transport timetables. There are buses to Rantepao from points all over Sulawesi, including night buses from Makassar.Read More
Rantepao is a prosperous market town on the rocky banks of Sungai Sadan Valley, home to the Sadan Toraja. A number of key sites lie within walking distance.
Rantepao stretches for 1km along the eastern bank of the Sadan. The central crossroads is marked by a miniature tongkonan on a pedestal: north from here is Jalan Mappanyuki, a short run of souvenir shops, bus agents and restaurants; Jalan Ahmad Yani points south towards Makale before becoming Jalan Pong Tiku; east is Jalan Diponegoro and the Palopo road; while westerly Jalan Landorundun leads to the riverside past a small fresh-produce market.
Rantepao’s main market – the biggest in Tanah Toraja, 2.5km northeast of the centre at Terminal Bolu – is a must: where else could you pick up a bargain buffalo then celebrate your purchase with a litre or two of palm wine? Large markets are held every six days, though you’ll find some traders in the marketplace every day of the week. You can walk there in half an hour by following Jalan Mappanyuki over the river, passing a few impressive tongkonan before crossing the river again to the market.
Torajan culture and festivals
Torajan culture and festivals
Anthropologists place Torajan origins as part of the Bronze Age exodus from Vietnam; Torajans say that their ancestors descended from heaven by way of a stone staircase, which was later angrily smashed by the creator Puang Matua after his laws were broken. These laws became the root of aluk todolo, the way of the ancestors. Only a fraction of Torajans now follow the old religion, the strict practice of which was prohibited after head-hunting and raunchy life-rites proved unacceptable to colonial and nationalist administrations. But its trappings remain: everywhere you’ll see extraordinary tongkonan and alang, traditional houses and rice-barns, and the Torajan social calendar remains ringed with exuberant ceremonies involving pig and buffalo sacrifices. Torajans are masters at promoting their culture, positively encouraging outsiders to experience their way of life.
Ceremonies are divided into rambu tuka, or smoke ascending (associated with the east and life), and rambu solo, smoke descending (west and death). A typical rambu tuka ceremony is the dedication of a new tongkonan.
The biggest of all Torajan ceremonies are funerals, the epitome of a rambu solo occasion. Held over several days, it starts with the parading of the oval coffin. At the end of the first afternoon you’ll see buffalo fights. The following day – or days, if it’s a big funeral – is spent welcoming guests, who troop village by village into the ceremonial field, led by a noblewoman dressed in orange and gold, bearing gifts of balok (palm wine), pigs trussed on poles and buffalo. The next day, the major sacrifice takes place: the nobility must sacrifice at least 24 buffalo, with one hundred needed to see a high-ranking chieftain on his way. Their horns decorated with gold braid and ribbons, the buffalo are tied to posts and their throats slit, the blood caught in bamboo tubes and used in cooking. Finally, the coffin is laid to rest in a west-oriented house-grave or rock-face mausoleum, with a tau-tau, a life-sized wooden effigy of the deceased, positioned in a nearby gallery facing outwards, and – for the highest-ranking nobles – a megalith raised in the village ground.
Attending Torajan ceremonies
Witnessing a traditional ceremony is what draws most visitors to Tanah Toraja, particularly during the “peak festival season” in the agriculturally quiet period from June to September. To visit a ceremony outsiders should really have an invitation, via a guide. As more participants means greater honour, however, it’s also possible to turn up at an event and hang around the sidelines until somebody offers to act as your host. You are highly unlikely to be the only foreigner attending; snap-happy tourists are part of the scenery, with each sacrifice a photographic feeding-frenzy. Make sure you take a gift for your hosts – a carton of cigarettes, or a jerry can of balok – and hand it over when they invite you to sit down with them. Do not sit down uninvited; dress modestly and wear dark clothing for funerals – a black T-shirt with blue jeans is perfectly acceptable, as are thong sandals.