Safely protected beyond the lofty mountains and rugged granite cliffs of the central highlands of the island of Sulawesi, are the Toraja peoplewho live in valleys that are lush with green rice terraces and fertile coffee plantations.
“Discovered” and opened to the world from their long isolation only since the beginning of the last century, the Toraja today still adhere to their age-old beliefs, rituals and traditions, although many of her people are modernized or have embraced Christianity.
When one travels to the Tana Toraja highlands, therefore, expect to be awed by the spectacular beauty of nature, at the same time experience how communities have through the ages sustained their beliefs and traditions in splendid isolation in order to survive this eternal cycle of life and death on earth.
The road from Makassar to Toraja runs along the coast for about 130 km and then hits the mountains. After the entrance to Tana Toraja at the market village of Mebali one enters a majestic landscape of giant, gray granites and stones and blue mountains afar that form a sharp contrast with the lively green of the fertile, rain-fed terraces and the rusty red of the tropical soil. This is Tana Toraja, one of the most splendid areas in Indonesia.
Here, the nobility of Toraja are believed to be descendents of heavenly beings who came down by a heavenly stairway to live here on earth in this beautiful landscape.
And to keep up the energy of the land and its people, the Toraja people believe that these must be sustained through rituals that celebrate both life and death, which are attached to the agricultural seasons. Here rituals in connection with life are strictly separated from death rites.
Toraja is most well known for its elaborate funeral ceremonies that can take days and involve entire villages. These are not only moments for mourning but are moreover events to renew family ties and to ensure continued unity among villages and communities.
Death ceremonies, however, are held only after the last rice harvest is in and cleared, which is normally between July to September, while ceremonies celebrating life are held in conjunction with the planting season which starts in October. These timings are possible since the dead are not buried immediately but are kept for months, sometimes for years, in the ancestral house until time and funds allow for a proper funeral.
Tourists to Toraja, therefore, are either attracted by its unique culture and rituals, most of which are mostly centered around graves and death ceremonies. While others prefer to avoid the morbid images and go trekking through the spectacular, almost untouched Toraja countryside visiting remote villages, or exhilarate in rafting the Sa’dan river rapids.
Capital of Toraja is Makale but visitors usually head to the town of Rantepao, heart of Tana Toraja – the Land of the Toraja people.
To reach Toraja take a plane to Makassar. There are daily flights from Jakarta and Bali and regular flights from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It takes between six to eight hours by road to reach Toraja. While the journey may be long, but you will be well awarded with the magnificent panorama of the Toraja highlands.
There are many good hotels in Makale, Ranteapo and surrounding and experienced travel agents to take you around. Toraja is ideal for those enjoying ecotours, culture and adventure.
Just relax and watch the video of Tana Toraja below.
Most of the time, you will not find restaurants near tourist sites; however warungs and restaurants appear along the road. Best bring your own lunch box. When taking a tour, your travel agent will take the group to a restaurant or provide lunch boxes in the bus.
There are souvenirs shops in Rantepao where you can buy everything specific from Tana Toraja. There are clothes, bags, wallets and other handicrafts.
Visitors who wish to stay in the heart of Toraja have many choices since there are many large and small hotels available, however, only few have their own website. Others may be booked through hotel reservation systems or travel agents. Or if you have an adventurous soul, you can sleep in villages on the way.
• In Rantepao, explore the colourful traditional ‘Pasar Bolu’ market where you can get top end Toraja coffee beans, such as Robusta and Arabica. Here you may also find necklaces of antique beads. When you happen to visit Rantepao during the weekly market days do make an effort to see the market when water buffaloes and pigs are being auctioned.
• To see a model Toraja settlement, visit the village of Ke’te Kesu’, where you find a row of beautifully decorated Tongkonan – or ancestral homes – and rice barns. The Tongkonan are the typical Toraja saddle-shaped roofed houses, reminiscent of buffalo horns. The walls of the houses are beautifully decorated with abstract and geometrical patterns in natural black, red and white. Ke’te Kesu’ is also known for its bamboo carvings and traditional handicrafts.
• At Lemo are the “hanging graves” of the nobility, where crypts are carved high into steep rock cliffs, and wooden effigies of the deceased – called tau-tau – stand in a row on a balcony staring unseeingly over the green rice fields below.
• At Londa are coffins-filled caves piled up deep into the interior. Not for the squeamish.
• At Suaya are the king’s family graves, while at nearby Sangala are the tree-graves of babies. The ancient Toraja believe that dead babies and children must be buried into a tree, where the tree will grow around the dead body.
• Visit Palawa, the Toraja’s weaving center and an excellent village to see a Tongkonan.
• Then proceed to Batu Tumonga Plateau, – the stone that faces the sky – on the slope of the Sesean mountain, some 25 km. from Rantepao. From here you will find a spectacular panorama of terraced rice fields in the valley below shimmering like a patchwork in gradual hues of green, scattered with huge megalithic boulders. A number of these have been turned into grave caverns. Visit coffee plantations and enjoy walks through villages.
• Sa’dan To’Barana is a traditional plait center, located in the district of Sesean about 16 km north of Rantepao. This area is known for its traditional Toraja ‘ikat’ weaving.
A Bemo – local transport is the best way to get to know the locals, besides chartering vehicles (minibuses or Jeeps) with or without driver. Enjoy walking around villages.
• To get to Tana Toraja one must fly to Sultan Hasanuddin airport in Makassar, capital of the province of South Sulawesi. As a hub for East Indonesia there are many airlines flying to and from Makassar both from Jakarta, Bali, Manado and other cities.
• The only way to Toraja from Makassar airport is overland. There are no flights between Makassar and Toraja.
• There are buses to Rantepao that leave Makassar daily. The journey takes around 8 hours and includes a meal stop. Tickets must be bought in town but coaches actually leave from DAYA bus terminal, 20 minutes out of town by bemo. Coaches typically leave in the morning (7 am), around noon (1 pm) and in the evening (at 7 pm).
• Several companies in Rantepao run buses back to Makassar. The number of buses each day depends on the number of passengers.
• It is best and easiest to contact an experienced travel agent to arrange and take care of your full itinerary to the Toraja highlands.
• Visitors are expected to keep to local dress and customs and to bring a token present, such as cigarettes or coffee when entering a Tongkonan.
• As roads are not always paved, it is necessary to use a jeep or walk, even when the weather is good (between May and October).
• Beware of your head whenever going inside a Tongkonan, the Torajan traditional house, since passageways are low.
• Enrekang, Makale in the Toraja Highlands are surrounded by astonishing volcanic rocky cliffs. Do not miss this, just stop and take pictures for a while and you will not regret it.