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Tanah Toraja - Funeral, Tombs and Traditional Houses

View South East Asia Grand Tour 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.


Having arrived after dark last night, we take a quick walk around the grounds of the hotel this morning to take some photos and familiarise ourselves with the facilities.

Toraja Heritage Hotel

The architecture of the rooms is based on the traditional boat-shaped Tongokan ancestral houses with their dramatically upswept roofs, which are unique to this area.





It's a large hotel, although it doesn't appear to be anywhere near full, judging by the number of people out and about this morning.

The large, open reception / lobby area


Toraja Funeral

This area is home to an ethnic group of people known as Toraja (meaning the ‘people of the mountains’). They live according to rules defined by their ancestors and traditional religion, known as ‘Aluk to Dolo. The most important ceremony of the Torajan people is the funeral (more important than weddings or births), which includes pig and buffalo sacrifices, and can last for many days. We have been invited to such a funeral, but first, we must buy a gift to bring to the party.

200 cigarettes to give as a gift / offering at the funeral

Animal Sacrifice

We arrive at the site just after the first buffalo has been sacrificed, with the animal lying in a pool of blood on the ground. The next victim soon follows.



I struggle to watch the process, although seeing it entirely through the viewfinder of my camera makes it less ‘real’. I have deliberately not included any more photos from the killings here, but have made a separate entry for those who are interested. You can see that here.

Eight buffalo are slaughtered in total, which I understand is average for a funeral. The exact number of animals to be offered depends on the status of the deceased. The sacrifices are believed to aid the spirit's journey to the afterlife (Puya) and showcase the family's prestige.

The slaughtered buffalo are later expertly chopped up and distributed to the attending families. This ritual is considered an act of ‘returning the meat to the community’. The rationale behind this is that when the deceased was alive, she will have attended death ceremonies and thus taken meat from those death ceremonies. Hence, the meat of the buffaloes at her funeral ceremony is to ‘be returned back to the community'.


A group of youngsters watch the procedure with total indifference.




The funeral is held in an enclosure with several buildings, each of which is numbered: Number one is the main building where the family is sitting and the coffin is stored on the floor above.





We are directed to building number five where we are offered tea and cake.


The green cake is called bolu and is flavoured with pandan.

This is the point where we hand over our offering.


Next door to us is the MC Building, number six, where the Master of Ceremonies announces visitors, reads out poems, and lets people know what is happening. We even receive a personal welcome in English. Being a Master of Ceremonies at a Toraja funeral is more than just being able to chat into a microphone, in order to gain a recognised qualification they have to be fluent in the Torajan high-language because the announcement and pronunciation of the guest names should be flawless and accurate.


There are two official photographers (one with a 360° camera), a videographer, and a dronographer.


The buildings reserved for the locals do not have chairs, however, with guests sitting around on low platforms.


Buffalo and pigs are paraded down through the enclosure for the family to inspect them before they are taken off to be killed.




After slaughtering the pigs, the hair is burned off, and the carcass is taken back for inspection.




Clearing up the mess left behind by the terrified animals.


Family and friends arrive in long processions, one after the other, with some of the people closest to the deceased dressing up in traditional outfits associated with funerals.






We are surprised to see the Western girl who was in front of us in the queue for immigration at Makassar a few days ago.

The Aluk – the Way of the Ancestors – dictates that only noble members of the society can have the most elaborate and lavish funeral, which over one thousand people will attend. These ceremonies are so expensive that families may need months or years to save up enough money. Meanwhile, the body is kept in the house (injected with formaldehyde), and family members will place food next to the deceased, and talk to them. The Torajans believe that a person doesn’t die, they are just sleeping while waiting to enter the next life. For the Torajans, it’s of utmost importance to send off their deceased loved ones with full respect and celebration. Death is a social event for the whole community.

It is time for us to leave the funeral and move on to see what else is around in the Toraja Highlands. We follow a couple of pigs on bikes.



It’s school pick-up time, and mums come along on small mopeds to collect their little darlings – and their friends.





Having been lucky enough to attend a funeral, we will now find out what the next step is in the traditional ritual. Here at Lemo, a number of tombs are hand-carved into the rock face, with the remains carefully placed inside the tombs.


What makes these hanging graves so unusual, are the balconies created in front of the tombs, on which Tau Tau – life-sized and life-like effigies of the dead, complete with realistic facial features – stand and stare at visitors.



These are the oldest burial cliffs in the area and date back to the 16th century. Prior to that time, the final resting place of the deceased was elaborate, boat-shaped wooden coffins placed at the base of cliffs. After these tombs were extensively plundered, locals began burying their dead in high cliff-face vaults. It is also thought that the higher up on the cliff face your body is placed, the shorter the journey to the afterlife. These days family vaults may contain several generations of family members - each balcony represents one family


Standing amongst the dead and their life-like guardians is a beautiful, albeit slightly eerie, experience: the way the Torajans revere their deceased ancestors with the lovingly carved tau tau, the respect, the celebration of life, the integration of the deceased into the family even after death.


There are a total of 75 graves here at Lemo, each one carefully carved out by hand.


Tau Tau

The carving of the tau tau requires great skill, as each is created to closely resemble the deceased, with special attention given to facial features, body shape, and height. Usually jackfruit wood is used for this carving as it tends to yellow with age, to a colour very much like human skin. There is a great deal of prestige attached to these statues, and the greater the status the more intricate the carving, as you can see from the image below, taken outside a nearby woodworking shop.


Inside, the shop is full of completed effigies waiting to be collected. I can only assume that they are carved ready for when the family accumulates enough wealth to be able to pay for an elaborate funeral. Fewer people choose to use tau tau at their relatives’ tombs these days, as a result of thieves consistently stealing the effigies from the stone graves. Instead, families now often choose to keep the effigies at home.


While the woodworking is extremely creative and talented, I can’t help but be a little freaked out by these life-like icons of dead people.


Today the woodworker is not making tau tau, but a small carving that he will later put up for sale to tourists.




Panorama Restaurant


Funerals seem to have been turned into a brand in this area, even the napkin is folded to resemble a tau tau.


Pumpkin soup to start


The main course is pork in ‘black sauce’ with white and black rice and a plate of vegetables.




When all this has been served and we are just about to dig in, the waiter brings out a traditional local dish of chicken cooked inside a bamboo stick.



There is certainly plenty of food, especially for lunch.


Dessert is a sweet soup with banana, papaya, and tamarind.


The restaurant overlooks a pond and beyond, hence the name Panorama Restaurant.


Panga Fruit

On the road we see seed kernels drying in the sun. Nadja calls them Panga fruit and explains that while these fruits and seeds are still pale like this, they are poisonous, whereas once they are dried they turn black and they are then safe to eat.



Tampang Allo

Unlike Lemo, where coffins were placed in graves carved into the sheer rock face, here at Tampang Allo, they were left in a naturally formed semi-open cave. The ancestral graves are said to belong to the Sangalla royal family.




Customs state that should one of the coffins fall down, it must be left where it is – hence there are skulls and bones scattered around inside the cave.



All the pictures were taken by David, using his mobile phone and/or screenshots from his camcorder.




This is the saddest of all the Toraja burial sites, with little niches carved into a tree where babies are buried. Infants who have not yet teethed were traditionally believed to be more pure than adults, and that their bodies and spirits would be absorbed into the tree and continue to grow with it, holding the belief that the tree would act as the child’s new ‘mother’. The sap of the tree acts as the breast milk, to assist in the rebirth – or continuing growth.

Jackfruit trees are usually the preferred grave site of infants, as the softer wood makes it easier to carve. The holes are covered with bark from the palm tree in order to protect the grave from would-be animal raiders, as well as protect it from evil spirits. The position of the grave in the tree is important, and should be on the opposite side of the trunk to where the house is so that it does not face its ‘old mother’. The mother does not attend the funeral, nor is she supposed to visit the grave afterwards. She needs to let go of her baby to the new ‘mother’.


Unlike adult funerals, where the deceased is kept in the house for weeks, months or even years, babies are usually buried the day after they die. The position of the grave in the tree depends on the family’s social class, with babies from higher classes buried higher in the tree, and lower classes nearer the bottom.


While the death of any child is incredibly sad, I think this tradition is also very beautiful, with the belief that the birth mother hands over the baby to nature for another ‘mother’ to look after the baby as it continues to grow. The practice of burying infants in trees no longer takes place – the last tree funeral was around fifty years ago.

Tongkonan Houses

Seeing images of this style of architecture online in the past, is what initially attracted me to visit Sulawesi.


As we make our way through the countryside, we stop at regular intervals to admire the many tongokans found at the side of the road. When literally translated, ‘tongk’ means sit, and ‘onan’ means ‘together’. Tongkonan therefore means “sit together”. These unusual buildings are the traditional ancestral houses of the Torajan people who have lived in this area for centuries. Originally it was only the nobility who were permitted to construct such elaborate buildings, but these days the rules are not so strictly enforced. Before the 20th century, most Torajans lived in autonomous villages and the vast majority practised animism, effectively untouched by the outside world.


The tongokan structures are traditionally built on stilts, facing north-south (north is considered the symbol of life), and have distinctive boat-shaped saddleback roofs with huge upswept gables. The original Torajans who inhabited this area came from China and were boat sellers.


In some places, such as here in Karuaya, the houses are arranged in a row, side by side, with the families’ rice barns opposite, a customary symbol of wealth. Usually built next to rice fields, the barns are considered the ‘wife’ of the rice fields and the field is her husband, according to the traditional division of labour, where the wife would be at home preparing food while the husband’s duty would be to search for that food outside the home.

Tongkonan Karuaya

Rice barns

Next to the rice fields

The rice barns are constructed on stilts from a hard wood that is capable of withstanding rats and other small creatures attempting to claw or bite their way into the structures. Rice is stored in complete darkness inside.


The buildings are richly decorated, with the walls of some of the buildings entirely covered in colourful designs. Buffalo heads denote whether this is a traditional ancestral structure or just merely a family house (no buffalo head). The rooster head protruding from the top of the buffalo symbolises justice and law.

Intricate wall paintings

Buffalo head and rooster

The buffalo horns are said to ward against evil spirits, especially when there is a dead body in the house awaiting burial (which would be indicated by a white flag flying). The horns also denote the wealth and status of the family, as they would indicate the number of buffalo that have been sacrificed during a family member’s funeral.



Interiors are typically cramped and dark with few windows, however, most of daily life is lived outside the homes, with interiors simply intended for sleeping, storage, meetings, and occasionally protection. There are usually three rooms inside: in the north is a sleeping room for guests and also a place where offerings to god are made, the middle room contains the living area with kitchen, and on the south side is the sleeping area for the elders. Dead bodies are usually kept in separate tongokans without a living area.


Tongakan Karuaya also includes a petrol station.


Young boys hanging around

Sweet potato leaves – while these are perfectly edible, and often used as a vegetable, picking them means the potatoes do not grow as large as they otherwise would have done.

A young girl playing in the sand

A tail-less cat

Kete Kesu

This is said to be the oldest tongkonan in Tanah Toraja, at some 500 years old. Now a UNESCO Heritage Site, the area is firmly on the tourist circuit, and often perform traditional ceremonies such as funerals, and today we see several of the tongokans being prepared for the death rituals. Kete Kesu means ‘centre of activity’.


While it may be the most famous of the tongokans in this area, I am sad to say that find it a little bit of an anticlimax after visiting the other, much less touristy villages earlier, especially as these houses have scaffolding attached for the funeral preparations.



I spot a group of girls who are taking lots of photos of themselves in various combinations of ‘models’ and ‘photographers’ as youngsters do everywhere in the world.


On the spur of the moment, I decide to have a little fun ‘photobombing’ their pictures, running to stand at the back of the group. While I expected them to (hopefully) enjoy my little game, I am not prepared for the reaction I get: a massive repeated shriek of “Oh my gawd, that’s not fair!” Fearing that I have misjudged the situation, it soon becomes evident that the young girl taking the photos is most upset because she too wants to be in the picture with the foreigner.


Several combinations of photographs are taken over the next half an hour, and we chat to the girls at length. They are part of an English study group at a college in Makassar, and are absolutely delighted to be able to practice their English, and even more so when they find out that we are actually from England! Their command of the language is excellent, and we share jokes and stories. When we part, they claim that it has been the highlight of their visit to this area.


What a fabulously enjoyable way to finish a thrilling day of explorations.

Back at the hotel, we order drinks from room service, and sit on the balcony re-living some of the many incredible experiences from this, the most intense days on the trip so far, while sipping ice cold beers. Life is good, and we count our lucky stars that we are so fortunate to be able to travel and enjoy such adventures.


Neither of us are feeling hungry after the huge lunch, so we swap dinner for another beer (or two).


Thank you so much to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this wondrous trip.


Posted by Grete Howard 10:05 Archived in Indonesia Tagged beer rice_fields indonesia cat cake tombs death party balcony unesco photographer parade buffalo traditions carving sulawesi graves coffin status bones procession ancestors funeral sacrifice slaughter woodcarving pigs visitors poison adventure_travel toraja cigarettes formalin videographer lemo prestige undiscovered_destinations deceased room_servce panga petrol_station toraja_heritage_hotel sweet_soup fruit_soup panga_frui tampang_allo semi_open_cave cave_burial skulss human_bones skull_and_bones kembira baby_graves tree_burial tongkonan traditional_architecture rice_barns buffalo_horms protection_from_evil kete_kesu photo_bombing burial_cliffs jackfruit_wood pumpkin_soup pork_in_black_sauce chciken_cooked_in_bamboo torajah tanah_torajah rantepao aluk_to_dolo buffalo_sacrifice animal_sacrifice death_ceremony death_ritual funeral_ceremony funeral_ritual afterlife dead_person tea_and_cake dronographer masters_of_ceremonies torajan_language pig_sacrifice friends_and_family animists school_pick_up_time pig_on_a_bike tau_tau

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What a day! I also know Sulawesi from the same pictures like you I guess and hope to see it as well one day. I love to see the last resting places myself and like you I love the idea of the tree and giving back to nature how hard and difficult it is ... but the idea of the slaughter of animals is the only downsight, I guess you feel the same.
Loved the photobombing by the way!

by Ils1976

Thank you for your many comments Ils, it is very much appreciated ♥

by Grete Howard

no it is my pleasure! I love to read your blogs not mentioning seeing your more than amazing pictures! You are an inspiration! :)

by Ils1976

Wow, what a day! I love the design of the houses and the beautiful carvings. While the animal sacrifices must have been challenging to witness, the funeral as a whole looks like an amazing experience and the children's clothes are so pretty. The hanging graves etc are fascinating too. I've never thought of visiting Sulawesi, but ...

by ToonSarah

Thanks for your comments Sarah, I have wanted to visit Sulawesi for a while - it really is a fascinating place, so very different to anywhere else we have been.

by Grete Howard

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