Graves and skulls in Tana Toraja
Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia, 2009-05-04 12:00 by Laerke
A 9 hour bus trip from Makassar brought us to Rantepao, a smallish city in the heartland of Tana Toraja, it was quite cool and for the first time in a very long time were we wearing closed shoes! Jeans and a light sweater were comfy in the chilly evenings.
Tana Toraja is a bit of a cultural island hemmed in by mountains on all sides. The indigenous culture is all about the dead, funerals and graves! Kind of macabre, but also very interesting. The scenery with its many greener than green rice fields reminded us of Bali, and the traditional house of the architectural style of the Bataks in Sumatra. But the cave graves, hanging graves, life size dolls of the deceased and the omnipresent buffalo were something completely new to us, but as we were to experience quintessential to Tana Toraja.


We rented a motorbike so we could drive into the countryside and see the sights by our selves, as we didn’t want to be stuck with one of the many stupid “guides” who hung around everywhere in town and constantly asking you if you need “information” aka their services.
The motorbike had gears, as automatic bikes wasn’t available; it was the first time Martin had ridden a non-automatic, but after a little practice everything went smoothly. We set out on the narrow but pretty empty roads and headed for the hills. After many hairpin turns and potholed tarmac we reached the small town of Batutomonga where we had lunch with the most beautiful view over the valleys below. After lunch we asked around for the path to the small town of Pana, which according to the Lonely Planet guidebook should be a good hiking trail, and Pana should have more graves cut into the cliff face. After asking a couple of groups, we were told we could ride the motorbike all the way down to Pana, and from there take a shortcut back to Rantepao; the path would be bumpy but passable on a bike we were told. And bumpy it was! Our small motorbike braved the stony trail, and only at the steepest point did I jump of and sent Martin and the bike forward alone, as it didn’t have very high clearance it easily scrapped the bottom on the rocks when we both sat on it. It was certainly off-road driving, but the scenery was magnificent and lazy as we are, it was a lot quicker and nicer to bump along on a motorbike than should we have walked all the way ourselves. In Pana we stopped to search for the graves; at first we were mislead a bit by a sign, but a gang of children came running and showed us the way. At first the children were a bit naughty and uncontrollable as they often are in groups, but when I started talking to them in Indonesian, they soon quieted down and where a really nice bunch. We signed the guestbook and off we were, the 2 of us and 7 kids. With much “Hati hati Tante Lily” (“Careful Aunt Lily”), we climbed some steep slippery steps and soon we were at the graves. The oldest of the children, a girl about 9, was an excellent guide, talking and talking in Indonesian, sometimes a bit too fast for me to understand everything though :-)

Buffaloes are a status symbol for the Toraja people, and are of paramount importance in many traditional ceremonies. The buffalo has traditionally been a symbol of wealth and power – even land could be bought with buffaloes. Sought-after albino buffaloes can change hands for more than US$8000.

One of the most noticeable aspects of the Torajan culture is the size and grandeur of their traditional houses, called tongkonan. It is the meeting place for the family; even families who have a “normal” modern-style house will often have one of these traditional houses too. Everywhere we went we saw the magnificent houses everywhere.
The towering roof, rearing up at both ends, is the most striking about the tongkonan, some believe the roof represent the horns of a buffalo, while others suggest it represents the bow and stern of a boat. On the front of the house a row of buffalo horns a displayed, the more horns the higher the household’s status.

The Torajas despite now being Christian still maintain many aspects of their previous traditional culture, they believe that you can take possessions with you in the after-life, and the death generally go well equipped to their graves. Since this led to grave being plundered the Torajans started to hide their dead in caves. These caves were hollowed out by specialist cave builders, and often built high up on cliff faces to make them as inaccessible as possible. The coffins go deep inside the caves, and sitting on balconies in the rock face in front of the caves are life size wooden dolls, “copies” of the dead. These are called tau-tau and they sure would be enough to scare me from trying to rob any graves near them!

All this emphasis on the dead and graves could be a little unnerving but out in the open on a sunshiny day it wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t until we got to the Londa cave grave it got really freaky! It is a very extensive burial cave at the base of a massive cliff face, we climbed up many sets of stairs passing hanging graves; hung up high on the cliff face the bottoms of the coffins were starting to rot away and we could look up and get a glimpse of bones… One places a bunch of skulls were piled up in a heap, a lot of cigarettes had been offered to these skulls, some even stuck out through the nose holes. At the top the entrance to the burial cave is guarded by a balcony full of the most life like tau-tau dolls we saw. It was completely dark inside the cave but we had a flashlight each and ventured in. It was kind of muggy and humid inside and the stones were slippery from the water dripping off the stalagmites. As we got deeper in we started to see the graves, it was a little scary to suddenly shine your torch on an open casket filled with bones! As we kept going in further the cave started narrowing in, still coffins, bones and skulls lying around the place. At one point in noticed a huge spider, about the size of an open palm, on the wall right next to me. That was it for my grave lurking expedition! I made for the exit while Martin hung around inside a bit longer. While waiting for him outside the cave I amused the some Indonesian tourist by posing for pictures with them.