Toraja is one of Indonesia’s most enticing destinations, yet the majority of travelers pass it by in favor of Bali or Borobudur. They don’t know what they’re missing.
By Cristian Rahadiansyah
Photographs By Suryo Wibowo
Toraja June is a bloody month in Toraja. As the dry season descends on the southern highlands of Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island, funeral season also arrives, and so it is that I’ve come to the village of Barana to attend the funeral of the mother of a man named Almen. She’s been dead for six months, but I’ve arrived just in time to witness her Rambu Solo ceremony, one of Indonesia’s oldest, bloodiest, and costliest traditions in which the dead are ushered into the afterlife with animal sacrifices, dancing, chanting, and feasting ceremonies that can last for days.
Mourners are supposed to present something to the family of the deceased, and I’ve brought a pack of cigarettes with me to give as a gift. But despite this gesture, I quickly violate a slew of cultural norms as Almen shows me to my seat. Toraja runs on a caste system, and being an outsider, I don’t rank on the social pyramid. Yet Almen leads me to the front of the granary, a spot generally reserved for upper-crust Torajans, and serves me food as we wait for the ceremonies to begin. Soon, a pastor starts chanting a prayer, and then comes the slaughter. In a meadow nearby, hundreds of pigs and a dozen buffalo are killed one by one, stabbed in their bellies and sliced at their necks like a scene out of a slasher movie. By noon, the meadow is drenched in red, and though the deaths are nauseating to watch, I can’t look away. Maybe it’s true that sadism has its own charm, or maybe I’m trying to wrap my head around just how much is sacrificed here for a single death.
Toraja is a land unlike any other in Indonesia. Long isolated from the outside world, this former mountain kingdom—some 300 kilometers north of Makassar—developed a caste system and an animist religion called Aluk To Dolo (“way of the ancestors”) that values the afterlife far more than life itself. Even in the 21st century, modernity seems to be kept at bay, and Toraja’s two biggest cities—Makale and Rantepao—are little more than half-asleep towns. I’ve rented a motorcycle for my trip, and every turn on the twisting roads brings a new breathtaking view: hills of jungle and coffee farms, rice paddies stretching across valleys like verdant tapestries, and small neighborhoods of tongkonan, Toraja’s distinctive traditional houses with facades richly painted in symbolic patterns and long, curved roofs shaped like the hull of a boat.
The first outsiders to come to Toraja were Dutch missionaries, who arrived in the early 20th century. They succeeded in converting some 80 percent of Torajans to Christianity, and churches are now stationed along roadsides and an enormous hilltop cross looks down over Rantepao. But try as the missionaries did to squeeze out Aluk To Dolo, the old beliefs endured, and its funeral traditions and rituals still remain intact as a window into the culture of ancient Toraja.
Speaking to Almen about his mother’s funeral, he tells me that for the six months after her death, her embalmed corpse had been kept at home like a living member of the household. Those who die are not considered dead until the first animal is sacrificed in the Rambo Solo ceremony, and its spirit can carry the soul of the deceased beyond the horizon to paradise, known as Puya. For some households, this means keeping the dead around for years while they save enough money for a funeral. In Toraja, the per capita income is less than 30 million Indonesian rupiah (about US$1,120), and with pigs priced anywhere from one to three million rupiah each and buffalo, depending on their weight and markings, anywhere from 300 million to one billion rupiah (about US$75,000), funerals are a costly business. Almen spent a decade’s worth of savings on his mother’s.
And Rambu Solo is just the beginning. Following the ceremony, the bodies are carried in painted coffins to graves carved into the sides of cliffs or inside of jungle caves, and life-sized wooden statues called tau-tau are placed outside as grave-markers. For some nobles, a menhir (standing stone) may be planted in the ground as well, a tradition that goes back to Toraja’s megalithic roots. Every August, corpses are brought from their graves, cleaned, dressed in new clothes, and reunited with their families and villages. In Toraja, it’s as if the deceased never really leave.