Backpacking through Tana Toraja

The ground fell rapidly away into the deep valley that ran parallel to this section of road and stretched down for miles towards the floodplain. Every inch of the valley was covered in a patchwork of emerald green rice paddies that shimmered in the wind. We turned another bend on the switch back road and came across a small cafe that hugged the slope on the edge of the hairpin bend. There was a table outside and we dropped gratefully into the seats. Nobody had the energy to talk and so I just stared glassy eyed across the floodplain to a crescent of hills that obscured the horizon. From this height, our starting point, the provincial capital of Toraja, Rantepao, was little more than a few dots that spread across the floodplain; it had been a long walk.

Tana Toraja the Highland

This was my third day in Toraja in the highlands of Sulawesi and the region had simply blown me away. The area is most famous for its unique architecture with the distinctive arched roofs that from the side resemble buffalo horns. These buildings, many of which are actually large family crypts, are closely linked to the lavish funerals, where buffalo costing as much as $40,000 a piece are slaughtered as part of the funeral celebrations. In fact, death is probably the biggest industry in Toraja. Most tourists who come to the region will try to attend a funeral and visit the local burial sites.

Burial grounds in Toraja are many and varied. There are the baby graves, where the corpses of infants are placed in the trunks of living trees. The bodies of the dead are placed in natural caves. More elaborate tombs have been hacked into the side of the cliff face while outside the graves wooden likenesses of the dead stare out at the world. Yet the work that has gone into these burial grounds is nothing compared to Londa. Here, in the middle of a modern cemetery is a stone circle constructed from enormous pillars of rock that was created hundreds of years ago. Like Stonehenge, the rock was transported across huge distances to create an animist monument to the deceased. The most common method of burial however continues to be the small family mausoleum.

Almost every house in the countryside has a mausoleum attached to it. One however is often not enough and the larger houses often have four, five or even six tombs lined up in two rows in the front garden. The older mausoleums look like they have been transplanted from some dystopian vision of the British countryside; small buildings with thatched roofs and wooden walls.

Before arriving in Toraja I thought that the traditional Torajan family mausoleums were made popular and largely maintained for the benefit of the tourism industry; while there is an element of truth to this, three days in Toraja makes it obvious just how alive these traditions still are. New buildings are springing up everywhere and topped with corrigated iron roofs they are easy to identify.

In fact, rather than tourism pushing these traditions forwards, the local government has inadvertantly played a pivotal role in the increasing amount of money that is being spent on mausoleums and on funerals. In December 2011, 350 buffalo were slaughtered for a yearly festival that was funded by the local government.

Tana Toraja Indonesia

Buffalo have always been central to the life of the Torajan people, they are a sign of wealth. Traditionally small numbers of buffalo were slaughtered at a Torajan funerals. The death of a rich tribal chief would see just 20 bulls slaughtered. However, from the start of 2012 this changed. The number of buffaloes slaughtered at funerals has surged and with it the price of the bulls.

The people of Toraja are now going through a period trying to keep up with the Jones’ as each funeral becomes more lavish than the last. All of this is paid for by the wealth that is being drawn in from remittances and tourism dollars. How sustainable this will be hangs in the air, but for the moment the funeral industry in Toraja is thriving.

Toraja trip

Instead of attending a funeral however, I had opted to go hiking through the rich and fertile valleys of Toraja. Sitting in my seat waiting for my coffee, I reflected that I had made the right choice. The buffalo I had seen so far on my trip were all alive and healthy, the people I had met seemed happy and perhaps most importantly for me, the sun was shining and my feet had stopped aching.