Death and burial sites in Tana Toraja

Gorgeous scenery in Tana Toraja area

Gorgeous scenery in Tana Toraja area

OK – this post has been a long-time coming, sorry!

As you will recall, my last two posts about our time in Tana Toraja described our day attending a funeral, and another day checking out the buffalo market (from where families buy their buffalo to be sacrificed at their funerals).

Graves, bones and skulls!

We spent most of the remainder our days here exploring the countryside.  By foot in the local villages, and by motorbike to check out some of the ‘tourist sites’ around – which oddly enough, are mainly comprised of burial sites.  Not just any old burial sites – these were kind of interesting, kind of weird and kind of creepy.

There are three types of burials in Tana Toraja:  cliff-side caves, hanging graves and baby graves.

Cliff-side graves with tau tau on balconies (Lemo)

Cliff graves at Lemo

Cliff graves at Lemo

The day that we went to the funeral, our guide first took us to Lemo which has a number of burial sites dug into the side of a cliff.  These graves in Lemo are supposed to for the descendants of a Toraja chief who reigned over the area centuries ago.  What makes these graves so interesting is that each grave has a balcony on which stands the tau-tau – carved effigies of the people buried there.

Tau tau at Lemo

Tau tau at Lemo

Tau tau were produced to represent the status and wealth of the deceased and were representatives of the deceased, guarding the tombs, and protecting the living.    Often, the cliff graves will hold the remains of whole families.

Another balcony of tau tau watching over the land

Another balcony of tau tau watching over the land

The practice of placing tau tau on the graves more or less stopped in the 1980’s thanks to the plundering of the grave sites.  Nowadays, the tau tau are hidden behind metal fences on private property.

I actually visited the area back in 1994 (before the hordes of tourists arrived!) and one of my strongest memories was of meeting a tau tau carver at this cliff-side site.  I mentioned this to our guide, who mentioned it to the much younger tau tau carver who was working in a small souvenir shop.

The newphew of a tau tau carver I met in 1994.  His uncle is represented by the tau tau in the white and blue shirt.

The newphew of a tau tau carver I met in 1994.

It turns out this guy was the nephew of the carver that I met nearly 20 years ago – and pointed to the life-size tau tau standing behind him, which represents his uncle (in the light blue and white shirt).  And indeed I recognised the moustache!  It was a nice moment for me….

Hanging graves (Kete Kesu)

Hanging graves at Kete Kesu

Hanging graves at Kete Kesu

Kete Kesu is another well-known burial area.  As well as having the cliff side graves, they also have ‘hanging graves’- where coffins are suspended mid-air on wooden beams sticking out from the cliff.  The coffin contains any possessions that the person may need in their afterlife.

A hanging coffin at Kete Kesu

A hanging coffin at Kete Kesu (notice the bones showing through rotted botom)

Of course, the coffin (and the structure holding the coffin) are exposed to the elements and will eventually succumb.  The wood supports and/or ropes will deteriorate and the coffin will come tumbling down – as was evident at Kete Kesu.  The remains are left where they fall.  Hence piles of bones and skulls everywhere.  Yep – it’s all a bit unusual.

A fallen coffin

A fallen coffin

Baby Graves (Kambira)

The third method of burial is reserved for babies (typically a child that hasn’t yet started teething) where they are buried in a tree.

Baby grave tree at Kambira

Baby grave tree at Kambira

 A hole is dug out and the baby placed inside the tree, in a standing position. The belief is that they will continue to grow with the tree.  The tree in the photo above holds around 20 deceased babies.

Door to baby grave

Door to baby grave

It’s an unusual practice but I can appreciate the belief and concept.  (The hanging graves – not so much.)

Other tidbits on our stay in Rantepao

Torajan Houses

Tradtional Torajan style houses - found throughout the region

Tradtional Torajan style houses – found throughout the region

I found the style of Torajan houses really interesting.   Not only are they a feature at all the tourist sites (ie burial sites) and funerals, but they were all throughout the countryside and villages, to our surprise as we rode around on the motorbikes.  The traditional roof style is also added to the top of the more modern plastered concrete block houses which makes for an interesting look!

Traditional Torajan patters (photo credit:  Wikipedia)

Traditional Torajan patters (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some Torajan houses are fairly plain, and some are quite ornate with the various intricate patterns hand carved and painted with traditional designs.

Bad chicken!

We discovered quite a good restaurant here – packed with locals, good food and very cheap prices.  We had various dishes that we really enjoyed and then I went for the ‘KFC special’ for lunch – basically just a piece of fried chicken with fries and rice.  Simple food which gave a little nod towards ‘western food’.

Bad chicken

Bad chicken?

Later that night, I regretted it.  It must have been dodgy chicken. Let’s just say it wasn’t a pretty situation that night.  I stayed in bed the next day and couldn’t really eat anything for the next two days.  In fact, it probably took a good week before I could eat normally again, even though I was eventually feeling fine.  Just not hungry.  I don’t normally have problems with food while travelling so this was really annoying!

Heading to Makassar

Leaving Rantepao and the Tana Toraja area, we decided to catch the night bus back to Makassar.  It was going to be an 8 hour bus ride and at least on the night bus, it wouldn’t be so hot, we’d save a night’s accommodation, and we just might get a bit of sleep since we were taking the newer, spacious ‘Executive’ style bus.  We were wrong on that last point.

We checked out the bus ahead of time and they had large cushiony seats with foot rests – almost as luxurious as a business class seat on a plane.  It was fine for me, but not so good for Alan who is a bit taller.

We thought this was a direct bus – so everyone would load up in Rantepao, then we’d all get off in Makassar.  That wasn’t the case.  The bus stopped to pick people up and drop people off the whole way.  Each time we stopped, the lights would be turned on in their full glorified brightness so if you WERE asleep, you got a rude awakening.  I ended up wearing an airline eye mask to help block it out.

Add to that the constant honking of the horn.  Indonesian drivers are horn-crazy.  On the buses, they are loud and constant – not conducive to a good night’s sleep.  And another feature of the bus (which they reinterated several times) was the air suspension.  Very luxurious, they said.  Very bouncy, I say.  At least I didn’t get travel sick (the anti-nausea pill may have had something to do with that!)

Final thoughts

As I stated earlier I actually visited Tana Toraja before – back in 1994, before it was hit with mass tourism.  It’s been interesting (and disheartening!) to note some of the changes – like the number of tourist buses and souvenir sellers!  Admittedly it wasn’t THAT bad (say like it is at Angkor Wat in Cambodia) and when visiting sites, we just waited until the busload left, usually after a 10-15 minutes, before we continued our wanderings.  But I can only imagine what it will be like in another 10 years as they continue to improve access to the area.

Too many tourists?

Too many tourists?

The problem with mass tourism is that it changes the lives of the locals, sometimes for the better (financially) but sometimes for the worst.   An example of this from Wiki:

“A clash between local Torajan leaders and the South Sulawesi provincial government (as a tourist developer) broke out in 1985. The government designated 18 Toraja villages and burial sites as traditional tourist attractions. Consequently, zoning restrictions were applied to these areas, such that Torajans themselves were barred from changing their tongkonans and burial sites. The plan was opposed by some Torajan leaders, as they felt that their rituals and traditions were being determined by outsiders. As a result, in 1987, the Torajan village of Kété Kesú and several other designated tourist attractions closed their doors to tourists. This closure lasted only a few days, as the villagers found it too difficult to survive without the income from selling souvenirs.””

So – is tourism a good thing or bad thing?  There’s never a simple answer.  From a personal point of view, I loathe visiting places that are geared to the tourist and start to lack authenticity… but on the other hand, it brings a certain infrastructure that makes travelling in these areas just a bit more comfortable for us.

From the view of locals, tourism brings in an income which helps the community to improve their health, education and living conditions – but it usually impacts and restricts their normal, traditional way of life – and often turns their lives into a living zoo.  The funeral that we visited is an example – but then again, they invite the tourists to witness these events, and the family at the one that we attended seem to genuinely welcome visitors.   It’s a interesting conundrum.

A happy camper - at the top of Gunung Singki

A happy camper – at the top of Gunung Singki

Slideshow:  (Warning:  some photos might be offensive… related to above subject matter!)

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About BusyLizzy

Normally I live in NZ but having re-discovered the joys of independent travel over the last few years, I decided it was 'now or never' and am taking some time out to see what the world has to offer.
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4 Responses to Death and burial sites in Tana Toraja

  1. kathy says:

    Thanks again for some fantastic breakfast reading. A really intriguing way of burying babies – actually kind of nice. It would be interesting seeing how they get those hanging coffins in place. And isn’t it a small world that you would run into a nephew of someone you met years ago? – and, in addition, find his effigy. Glad to see you are looking healthy & happy. Mom

  2. Charmaine Wilson says:

    Hi Lisa,
    Once again great reading and learning about different cultures.
    Stay safe.

    BTW you’re so brown 🙂

    • BusyLizzy says:

      Thanks Charmaine! Am doing my best to stay safe – but the traffic here really makes it a challenge sometimes! With respect to the tan – I really haven’t been trying to get one as it’s just too hot to stay in the sun for long. So that’s just what has come about naturally from walking around. 🙂

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