A Countryside Dotted With Ancestors

Foreign visitors come to Tana Toraja in central Sulawesi for cultural tourism as much as for beautiful mountain scenery. We’ve written about the Torajans’ distinctive architecture and buffalo-centered funerals. Another part of their culture for which Torajans are famous is their burial practices.

Until a century ago, the Torajans had a rich variety of ceremonies for many aspects of life and death (much as the Balinese still do). But the Protestant Christian missionaries who made inroads in Tana Toraja in the mid-20th century discouraged many of the life rituals, which they said conflicted with Christianity. They allowed the death rituals, though, so now most of the Torajans’ ceremonial energies are channeled into those.

Modern coffins below and older coffins higher up

Following the elaborate funeral ceremony, a Torajan is usually laid to rest in a rocky place. The most traditional method is cave burial, in which bodies in wooden coffins are placed in natural niches in the limestone cliffs that are common in Tana Toraja. The higher caste you are, the higher up you go. Sometimes people build wooden shelves high in the mouths of caves and put the coffins there (known as “hanging graves”) to protect them from animals and robbers. Where there aren’t enough natural cave niches, family crypts are chiseled (by hand!) in the sides of cliffs or in large boulders. Or people build crypts of concrete at the bases of burial cliffs. Muslims in Tana Toraja, who make up less than 10 percent of the population, are buried in the ground with markers. But Christians, the vast majority of the local population, still favor cliff or boulder burials. After all, Jesus was buried in a stone crypt.

Where there aren’t cliffs or caves, crypts are carved into boulders

Once someone has been put in a grave, he or she is referred to as dead rather than just sick, because the body has gone from its old home to its new home. In the Torajan language, houses for the living are called “houses with smoke” (from the cooking fire on the hearth), whereas crypts are called “houses without smoke.” The funeral is the process of moving a dead person to his or her new house. In the caves, when old coffins break apart, bones and skulls are collected and placed neatly nearby. But putting the remains in a new coffin requires doing the funeral ceremony all over again, which is expensive.

When a full funeral ceremony has been performed for someone from the highest caste—at least five days long and at least 24 buffaloes sacrificed—relatives have a statue of the deceased carved in wood or stone. The statue, called a “tao tao,” is placed at the burial site, either on a natural or man-made ledge in a cliff or on the front of a ground-level crypt. Traditionally, tao taos were carved with the hands outstretched in a gesture of blessing. But the church said that blessings can come only from God, not from ancestors. So today they’re carved with different gestures, such as holding a walking stick. Some tao taos are now kept behind locked metal grilles or kept at home because many old ones have been stolen by antique hunters. There ought to be a special cosmic punishment for people who steal images of revered ancestors. (Perhaps there is.)

A gallery of tao-taos (the old one in the center has eyes made of buffalo bone)

Practices are different for miscarried fetuses or babies who die before they have any teeth (roughly the first four months). Instead of being given a Torajan funeral and being buried in a stone crypt, they’re immediately placed in a hole carved into the trunk of a tree. The opening is covered, and eventually the tree closes around it. Some people say that practice symbolizes returning the baby back to a womb, especially since the types of trees used are those with white sap, which resembles a mother’s milk. Others say that trees are used so that as the tree grows, the baby goes up toward heaven.

The holes where babies are placed are initially covered but eventually grow over with new bark, incorporating the baby into the tree.

Torajan is not a written language, so there are no records of the history of such burial practices. Traditions are handed down by word of mouth, but not systematically; there are no schools or tradition of storytelling for transmitting Torajan culture. We were told that many Torajans follow traditional practices but don’t know why—because their grandparents did it, but the grandparents may not have known why either. As a result, the explanations given to outsiders about the meaning of certain rituals can vary widely. But imagine if foreign tourists quizzed us about all of our American cultural practices: Why do we carve faces into pumpkins at Halloween? Why do we give kids baskets of candy to celebrate the resurrection of Christ? Why do we make round people out of snow and put them in front of our houses? Because that’s what we do and have done for years and years. So it is with the Torajans.

At this burial cliff, condolence signs from past funerals and coffin carriers shaped like traditional Torajan houses are left below the crypts and tao-taos

The diverse burial practices mean that ancestors are everywhere in Tana Toraja, dotting the landscape. If you’re working in your shop or rice field and glance up at the surrounding hills, you know they’re full of your people. Your history is all around you. Tana Toraja is truly the land of the Torajans, past and present, because they inhabit every corner of it.

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