In the mountains of Sulawesi, a unique culture has evolved where life and death go hand in hand. Take a trip to Tana Toraja, where no one really dies
WARNING! This post contains a gruesome image of an animal sacrifice.
In recent years I’ve travelled across Indonesia – from urban Java to the jungles of Papua.
But my heart belongs to Tana Toraja.
Tana Toraja – or Toraja Land – lies in the southern mountains of the Republic’s fourth largest island, Sulawesi.
It has a fascinating, confounding culture that’s different to anywhere else in the Indonesian archipelago.
Christianity was brought to the region in the early 1900s by Dutch settlers. But, over the decades, European rituals have melded with ancient animist beliefs.
Today, most Torajans regard themselves as Protestant.
But in the Sulawesi highlands animal sacrifices are a daily occurrence, life and death go hand in hand, and elaborate funerals are the glue that holds communities together.
It may not be the island nation’s most famous tourist destination. But, for me, Tana Toraja is the jewel in Indonesia’s crown.
Life and death in Sulawesi
I spent a week in the Torajan capital, Rantepao, in 2015.
I loved Toraja so much that I returned in 2019, and stayed in the nearby city of Makale.
While exploring Toraja I’ve had many incredible experiences that will eventually feature in my blog.
As I write about my adventures, I hope to introduce the complex belief system that shapes Toraja’s unusual customs.
But to set the scene – and put the subject of this post, burial cave Londa, in context – there’s one thing you need to know.
In Tana Toraja, death is part of everyday life.
While mortality is a taboo that many Westerners find difficult to discuss, it’s embraced and celebrated by Torajans.
In the highlands of Sulawesi, death is not the end.
Burial sites in Tana Toraja
In Torajan religious belief – known locally as alukta (our religion) or aluk (religion) – death is the final part of a three-stage journey.
Souls are conceived in heaven, pass through this world, then proceed to life after death.
To Torajans, the dead are not gone.
Deified ancestors continue to watch over their families, and sites such as Londa symbolise the continuity of life.
As nobody truly dies in Tana Toraja, it would be inappropriate to bury loved ones beneath the ground.
Instead, the dead are traditionally interred in one of 3 ways:
- inside large family coffins (erong), which are placed inside natural caves or on wooden beams hammered into the sides of cliffs
- in man-made caves (liang) that are painstakingly chiseled into walls of stone
- inside tombs designed to look like traditional Torajan tongkonan houses
Burial sites in Tana Toraja are not thought of as graves. They’re considered to be second homes.
In the mountains, graves are normally called tongkonan tang merambu – houses from which no smoke rises.
Tana Toraja’s first cave grave
Londa is around five miles south of Rantepao, and is one of the most famous burial sites in Tana Toraja.
The cave is nestled in rich farmland. All around are rice terraces and farms teeming with crops, where lazy water buffalo graze.
But this richness of life is in stark contrast to the chamber of decay ahead.
According to local myth, Londa was the first burial cave in Tana Toraja and was founded by a wealthy nobleman called Tangdilinio.
After his death, Tangdilinio’s descendants claimed Londa as their ancestral plot.
The idea inspired other rich families in Toraja – and when all the natural caves were taken, the practice evolved into man-made caverns and tombs.
But these Torajan burial traditions are stories for another time.
Tau-tau: doppelgängers of death
When entering Londa, the first thing that will strike you is a row of wooden statues that fix visitors with a steady, unblinking gaze.
These figures are tau-tau, and they play a vital role in Torajan religious rituals.
Tau-tau are wooden effigies of the dead, and in Londa they represent people interred in the cave.
Antique tau-tau like those in Londa bear only a passing resemblance to a living person. They have wide eyes, stiff limbs, and are a stylised portrayal of what a Torajan looked like in life.
By contrast, the tau-tau at modern Torajan funerals are eerily-realistic, and are life-sized doppelgängers of the deceased.
The word tau-tau derives from tau, which means person. The repetition of the word implies a negative – that is, the tau-tau is a person, but not a real person.
Tau-tau has also been translated as ‘not quite human, not quite puppet’, and sometimes the statues are called bombo (spirit) or payo-payo (shadow).
Both men and women have the same rights to tau-tau in Tana Toraja.
Like highland burial sites, these statues are symbolic of the Torajan belief in the continuity of life.
Tau-tau keep the memory of a departed soul alive.
They remind relatives that their loved ones aren’t gone, but have just moved to a new stage of life.
In Londa, several groups of tau-tau watch over the graves.
The exact details of who they represent have been lost over time, but locals believe the tau-tau are based on rich Torajans and tribal chiefs.
The tau-tau stare at visitors from high platforms. It’s as if they’re standing on a palace balcony, looking down on the commoners below.
Working class Torajans normally settle for budget tau-tau. These are made from straw or bamboo, and bear little resemblance to the people they honour.
The middle classes mostly opt for affordable tau-tau made from kapok wood. This cost-effective material is more durable than bamboo, and can be carved into the crude likeness of an ancestor.
But for the upper classes, tau-tau are a work of art.
Top of the range tau-tau are made from nangka (jackfruit) wood. This material is soft and forgiving, and can be easily carved into recognisable features such as wrinkles and baggy skin.
It also naturally discolours over time to take on a highland flesh tone.
Creating a tau-tau is long, complex and bloody process. If you’d like to learn more, I’ve described how tau-taus are made at the bottom of this page.
Carved Torajan coffins
To the left of the first cluster of tau-tau are several coffins, many of which are hundreds of years old.
The coffin lids curve upwards at both ends, like a Torajan tongkonan house. They’re adorned with carvings called pa’erong along the sides.
Pa’erong are said to attract blessings from dead ancestors, and include images of buffalo, pigs and boats.
These symbols are chosen as it’s believed the departed need these treasures in their journey to the next world.
In most cases, coffins are not placed at ground level.
As the caskets often contain valuables that make them a target for thieves, they’re normally balanced high above the ground – either strung from ropes or resting on wooden beams hammered into the rock.
This lofty position also keeps the coffins out of reach from hungry animals.
Each coffin holds multiple bodies, and caskets are normally reserved for a single family.
Like tau-tau, the materials used to make a coffin depend on social status.
Coffins for Torajan nobles are made from luxurious sandalwood, while jackfruit wood is used for the middle classes.
Plain caskets for commoners are made from cheap materials and don’t have any carvings.
But, no matter what wood the caskets are made from, they don’t last forever.
In Londa, the passage of time has created a burial site that’s not for the squeamish.
Place of skulls
Over the years, the coffins in Londa have split open and spilled their grisly contents.
This natural damage was made worse when caskets were moved to higher ground during the Buginese invasion of the late 1600s. Many coffins were wrecked in transit.
In the late 1900s, Londa was overgrown, unkempt and strewn with human remains.
But in the 1970s, when Tana Toraja began to attract foreign visitors, locals realised that tourists would pay top dollar to see the cave.
A clean-up was launched.
But this restoration didn’t include any attempt to reunite remains with their ramshackle coffins.
Instead, skulls and bones were artfully placed around the cave – in natural alcoves, on stone ledges, and on a long bench built to showcase Toraja’s forefathers.
Londa has a similar atmosphere to the Catacombs of Paris.
Visitors are plunged into a shadowy, claustrophobic space where they’re surrounded by decay.
A feeling of horror can be overwhelming for anyone who’s uncomfortable around the dead.
The bones of Londa
Many visitors have complained on travel forums about the way human remains are displayed in Londa.
They say it shows disrespect for the dead. But I didn’t see it that way.
Londa is a place where Torajans continue to pay homage to the region’s forefathers.
Gifts are left for the dead every day. The most common present is cigarettes, which are carefully inserted into ancient jaws.
Cigarettes, which are a valuable commodity across Indonesia, can be found in tidy piles all around Londa.
As almost everyone I met in Tana Toraja was a heavy smoker, I expect the souls of the departed are delighted with these decadent offerings.
The magic of Toraja
There are several cave graves around Tana Toraja, but Londa was one of my favourites.
I liked it so much that I visited twice in the same week.
Other graves feel more exposed and chaotic than Londa.
At burial sites such as nearby Bukit Buntu Ke’su, you need to be careful not to trip over human remains. But a sense of order at Londa makes it feel more sombre and respectful.
Also, while the tau-tau you’ll find elsewhere around Rantepao are more striking, you can stand close to the timeworn statues in Londa.
In the silence, you can sense the personality of the departed souls they symbolise.
Tana Toraja is a magical place. I had plans to return in August 2020, but COVID-19 drove a truck through all my travel plans for the year.
But if good fortune ever takes you to the highlands of Sulawesi, make Londa an essential stop.
Check out the full Life and death in the highlands photo gallery.
How how a tau-tau?
It’s believed that tau-tau were first made in the 19th century. Today the statues are created by specially-trained artists called pande tau-tau (effigy maker).
In recent years the quality of Torajan statues has evolved sharply, and woodworkers now travel to Indonesia’s artistic hub, Bali, to learn their trade.
Traditional tau-tau, such as those in Londa, are stiff, stylised, cartoonish representations of the departed.
But in modern Toraja, tau-tau of wealthy citizens are human-sized, intricately carved and eerily-realistic.
Tau-tau for the rich
Making tau-tau for rich clients is a long, complex process, and is shaped by the region’s religious beliefs.
The process begins when the tau-tau’s head and body are roughly cut to shape.
When the artist has a foundation to build on, a knife is used to shape the head and carve features.
This work is done in a sacred sequence: mouth, nose, ears, teeth, neck, chest, waist, legs and arms.
Each stage is preceded by bai todi, a common Torajan ritual in which a pig is sacrificed.
When making tau-tau for rich clients, a lot of animal blood is spilled.
This initial carving work represents the first part of a Torajan’s spiritual journey – birth in heaven.
Once the carving is complete, the massabu rite begins.
This sees the tau-tau being dressed in traditional Torajan clothing, which is often gear that belonged to the deceased. A bag of betel nuts is also slung over the statue’s shoulder.
Massabu symbolises the second stage of a person’s journey – life on earth. This includes their birth, marriage and agricultural accomplishments.
Once massabu ends, the tau-tau is placed at the west side of a family rice barn. It faces towards the building in which the dead body is resting, awaiting burial.
Several rituals follow that focus on the dead body. Afterwards the tau-tau is carried to a local market, where people offer it gifts of tobacco and betel nuts.
Predictably, there’s also a pig sacrifice.
The last part of a person’s spiritual trip – the journey to life after death – is symbolised by the rite of ma’tatau.
In this the tau-tau is turned to the east (symbolic of life) and then to the west (symbolic of death).
In a eulogy that accompanies the ritual, a preacher describes how the departed’s soul is travelling to the south.
It’s ascending into the sky, where it becomes a deified ancestor.
When the coffin is carried to its final resting place, the tau-tau goes with it. The statue is then sealed inside the grave.
In the past, tau-tau were often placed on display platforms in front of graves.
But as hundreds of tau-tau have been stolen by antique hunters over the years, the statues are now locked away.
It’s forbidden to touch a tau-tau, except during the ma’nene (ancestor contacting) ceremony. During this ritual the statues are cleaned and redressed.
During ma’nene, a gift for the dead can be placed in the tau-tau’s outstretched palm.
Ma’nene also sees corpses removed from their resting place and given a change of clothes.
But, like so much in Tana Toraja, ma’nene is a story for another day.