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.

Torajan festivals

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.

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