We flew from north to south for the second part of our journey through Sulawesi – from Manado to Makassar. Travelers had told us that the journey to the Togian Islands in central Sulawesi was easier from the south, and we also wanted to visit the mountainous region of Tana Toraja, with its unique traditional way of life.
Edwin, our guide from Minahasa (see Sulawesi Penjelajahan) recommended a Torajan guide, Gibson, who we met in Rantapau. His local knowledge gave us a fascinating insight into Torajan culture as we spent two days touring the area.
The Toraja inhabit the vast, rugged landscape of the South Sulawesi highlands. Although nominally Christian Protestant (imposed by Dutch colonial rule and evidenced by the numerous churches and cathedrals), the Toraja have an ancient animist faith that continues to determine much of their daily lives. Gibson recalled a local priest explaining to an anthropologist that his congregation were Protestant for one hour every Sunday, but animist for the rest of the week. They have an ancient caste system, centred around the extended family, their traditional home and complex rituals about death.
Although modern Torajans may have left the area and made money, for example in the Indonesian oil and gold mining industries, their position in society is not measured in modern wealth but where their family is in the ancient hierarchy. Torajans (loosely translated as mountain people) believe in a mythical land to the south, to where the dead must travel and much of their elaborate ceremonies centre around this transition.
Family homes, tongkonan, are built collectively in a traditional style, using interlocking, elaborately carved wood, with no nails, always pointing north to south. The roof is made of overlapping bamboo, styled to represent the bow and stern of a boat.
They are built on stilts and have similarly crafted rice stores around them. The rice stores are a sign of wealth and have a raised door and round pillars to keep the rice safe from rodents.
In tropical conditions, the bamboo roofs are soon bursting with life and need to be replaced every six or seven years.
Internally, the room allocation also represents life’s journey – the young sleep in the northerly-most sections, the elderly nearest to their final destination, in the south.
Death in Toraja
We were introduced to the Toraja view of death with visits to a series of cliff faces and caves where upper-class Toraja dead are entombed. The graves are guarded by tau tau (life-sized wooden effigies) carved in their image. These eerie, striking cliff cemeteries and caves are scattered throughout the region.
Bodies are put into graves once they have decomposed, meaning many generations will share the same space. The coffins (shaped like a traditional house) are carried to the cliff face or cave, and left to rot. Torajians have been outraged and offended to discover some of the ancient tau tau have been stolen and sold in the international art market.
The most poignant burial site we visited was a tree where babies were buried. Situated close to a Torajan village, only those children from the village who had died before growing teeth were buried. They had to be buried within an hour of death. They were placed in the tree in the foetal position, and once sealed the parents walked away without looking back. The sap from the tree was believed to nourish the child until it was ready to make the rest of it’s journey. It was a sad and peaceful place in the forest.
Thankfully most of these graves are decades old and our guide explained that UNICEF now provide a free healthcare programme for new mothers and babies in the region. Infant mortality has dropped accordingly.
One constant factor in our tour through the region was the importance given to buffalos, both as a sacred animal and a signifier of status. We saw them washed and pampered everywhere and found ourselves discussing the key discerning features of the most prized animals.
Unlike elsewhere in Asia, they are not worked; rather they wallow in mud and have their needs catered to daily – until the moment when they are brutally sacrificed, usually in a funeral ceremony.
As shown earlier, houses are decorated with buffalo horns to demonstrate traditional status and wealth. When we visited the market in Rantapau we were told that the most prized animals were sold for up to US$4,000.
The importance of death to the Torajan way of life is shown most clearly in extensive funeral celebrations, taking place over days, and normally years after the person has died, with the body remaining in the family home throughout. The funeral itself is a celebration involving hundreds and is more of a going away party than a sad occasion.
When a Torajan dies the deceased is not buried but is embalmed and stored in a traditional house under the same roof with his or her family. Until the funeral ceremonies are completed (often years later, depending on the family being able to raise the money for this most important celebration), the person is not considered to be truly dead but merely ‘a person who is sick’ or ‘asleep’. During this time, the deceased family member is symbolically fed, clothed, cared for and taken out, and is still part of the family until arrangements are in place to send her/him on their final journey to the land of souls.
The funeral we attended was particularly lavish and involved two deaths, a man and a woman.
Both were of the status to have tau tau, which means over 200 buffalos would be slaughtered on the final day and the meat distributed within the community. Pigs and buffalo are also slaughtered daily, to feed the large numbers attending.
Temporary accommodation needs to be built to house and feed the visitors, and the family members dress in elaborate traditional costumes.
Everyone is involved, it demonstrates the importance of family and community to Torajans.
The funeral procession involves carrying the coffin back and forth, with much laughter and good humor.
The Togian Islands
Situated only 40 km from the equator, in the Tomini Gulf, central Sulawesi, the Togian Islands are difficult to reach.
We hired a car for two days to make the journey from Rantepau – Tentena – Ampana (not a cheap option) in order to then catch the speedboat to Wakai. With an overnight stop there, we could catch the public ferry early the next day to the volcanic Pulau Una Una. We had met a couple in our lodging in Rantepau, Willi and Katja, who were heading in a similar direction, but they decided to take the public bus in order to save some money and maybe get to the Togians quicker.
The first leg of our journey, the 300km from Rantepau to Tentena took 11 hours to drive – two mountain ranges and a long section of the highway/roadworks reduced to a sea of mud in a tropical downpour, with a truck stuck at one stage, blocking the road.
After a night’s sleep in the Victory Hotel, Tentena, we got up early the next day to find Willi and Katja sitting in the breakfast area – they had just arrived! Their bus had broken down and the journey had lasted 20 hours. They decided to travel the next stage in the car with us and we got on well, sharing information and stories from our collective traveling adventures.
So, getting to the Togians is an adventure in itself, but there is a real sense of peace and isolation when you arrive, you really have ‘got away from it all’.
We spent our time in Sanctum Una Una, a dive resort with great diving just a short boat ride away. Our cabin looked out over the tranquil sea and the sounds we heard were rolling surf, the humming of cicadas and the burp of geckos.
With such a wonderful location, the other key ingredient is the people, and they were fabulous. Joni and Indah were so friendly and kind – we won’t forget the birthday cake for Anne, Indah😁 🎂😁. The dive guides, Dorian, Allie and Emiline shared their enthusiasm every day and even though Anne couldn’t dive she saw bump heads, schools of barracuda, turtles and beautiful coral while snorkeling.
Great staff, great guests and great crew. Thanks guys.👍
From the Togians we took a complex route back to Bali and checked in to our regular Denpasar lodging -for the fifth time this year I think! We’ve stored our dive gear with Made and Widuri in Jepun Segara and are touring Cambodia for a month or so. In reality we don’t intend to rush around too much, so it may be a country we will have to return to.
Follow the blog to find out!