The traditional Tongkonan houses are not just a treat for the eyes; they represent the navel of the cosmos and bind community members into one sense of identity and tradition. Each has an iconic boat-shaped roof and ornate wooden stages (built without using nails!) but the main substances that build these ancestral homes are folklores, traditions, and symbols. The boat-like roof reminds the Torajans of their ancestors, who first reached the beautiful land they inherited by boat, wading through the tough ocean.
Customarily, Tongkonan houses were built facing north, where the Puang Matua or “the old lord”, resides. Thus, the posterior part of the house faces south, where life burdens and disease retreat to. Likewise, the north part of the house is reserved for offerings and children’s rooms, the south part is for the head of the family, and the middle space is for the living room, kitchen, and a room to place deceased bodies. In accordance with tradition, a newborn’s placentae is to be buried on the east side of the house, an orientation associated with life.
In a glance, each Tongkonan may look identical. But there are distinctive decorative elements and symbols that represent each family’s social strata. For example, the number of buffalo horns or pig teeth lined up in front of the house stands for the economic prosperity of the family.
The Torajans believe that their ancestors first arrived to this land in a boat. The altitude and abundance of rivers running through Toraja makes it a perfectly fertile and lush space to settle and live.
Traditional boats use human power, aided by rows, to run through the rivers. Exploring the rivers grant tourists a picturesque natural view with a lively tropical atmosphere.
Even the traditional wooden boats are a charming sight in itself, painted in bright colors in contrast to the calming earthy shades of nature.
The history of the Torajan culture dates back thousands of years ago, shown by the abundance of megalithic sites and animistic customs passed through generations.
Torajans make use of their fertile highland to make a living cultivating fields and breeding cattle, horses, and more.
Buffaloes are a common offering for ceremonies and funeral rites. In a way, buffaloes are also the currency for social status. After each ceremony, the horns are showcased in front of the host family’s house. The higher the stack, the more prosperous the family is seen. A black buffalo is valued at 60 million rupiah (about $4,600 USD – for many Indonesians, this worth more than one year’s salary) and a striped buffalo’s price ranges from 600 million rupiah to 1 trillion ($46,000-$77,000). According to tradition, it’s better for families to put off burying their deceased loved one to save money first rather than throwing a less proper funeral ceremony without the buffaloes.
Batutumonga is a popular spot for sightseeing in Toraja. Postcard-worthy sceneries of hills, jungles, and fields are in every direction you point your eyes to. Located at the foot of Mount Sesean, Batutumonga also offers an unmissable view of the mystical land of Toraja, best served with a hot cup of Toraja coffee and traditional snacks.
One of Toraja’s cultural highlights that puts the place on Indonesia’s tourism map is the burial caves. Instead of laying the deceased bodies under the ground, Torajans put them in a coffin and arrange them inside the natural caves. That way, it will be easier to retrieve the bodies for rituals like Ma’Nene, when deceased loved ones are to be taken out of the grave, bathed, groomed, and taken back to the house as if they are still alive.
Outside the burial caves are effigies, standing against the cave’s outer wall on carved balconies. Each wooden statue, called Tau Tau, represents a dead person whose body was buried inside the cave.
Lemo and Londa are among the biggest and most popular burial caves to visit. Even from outside, the sight is breathtaking, with ornate, eerie, but lifelike effigies lining up the exterior. Daring and curious tourists are welcome to explore the inside of the cave, if you don’t mind tumbling on scattered bones or accidentally pointing your flashlight at a skull on the ceiling.
Nowadays, Torajan craftsmen put much effort to achieve physical and facial resemblance between an effigy and the person it represents. Torajans believe that the dead can bring their belongings to the afterlife, so effigies are often equipped with small possessions like bags or even the Bible.
The effigies do more than scare people. They also make a unique souvenir to remember the trip by. Tourists can purchase wooden statues and other handmade crafts from local artists to bring home.
Souvenirs sold at traditional markets are crafted by local artists, guaranteeing authenticity and cultural symbols in each piece, from textiles to accessories and home décor. Do think twice before you haggle; what may seem like a little difference to you may sustain a household for a whole week.
Spend time exploring the lively souvenir market and try local food, such as pantollo and the prized Toraja coffee.
Despite Toraja’s notorious animistic customs, most of its people are now devout Christians. A 40-meter Jesus statue (slightly taller than the one in Rio de Janeiro) on Buntu Burake Hill is a testament to the new faith… and a magnificent sight to enjoy, too.
Don’t forget the most magical events of the day, the rising and setting of sun upon the mystical, magical land of Toraja. The land has several elevation point to enjoy the view from high, and givie tourists the blissful impression of being above the clouds. Head over to Lolai Village or Makale for a magnificent view from the top.