The Funeral Festival You’ve Got To See To Believe Wander Wonder

In August 2014, globetrotter Redzuan Rahmat (The Furious Panda) witnessed a festival like no other. Would you dare to follow in his footsteps?

My flight was from Singapore to Jakarta, followed by a transfer to the Soekarno–Hatta Airport domestic terminal before heading to Makassar. Yes, Indonesia is my happy hunting ground, my to-go destination for felicitous festivals and spectacular sights. This time round, my destination is Tana Toraja, where the funeral festival takes place around August each year.

But first, a little bit of background behind the Tana Toraja funeral festival …

The Toraja people are a group native to the odd K-shaped Indonesian landmass known as Sulawesi. Unlike their neighbours the Bugis and the Makassarese, who can both be found near the coastal areas of Sulawesi, the Toraja inhabit the highland areas. This area is known as Tana Toraja, which translates to Toraja Land.

What is fascinating about the Toraja culture is that they believe when someone dies, he or she is not truly dead. Not yet anyway. Rather, a departed individual is considered to be just “sick”. The dead would remain in the home of the family, treated as though he were still alive. He would only be considered truly dead after a proper funeral ceremony has taken place. This funeral ceremony would be as grand an affair as possible, with hundreds of guests including family members who return home from all over the world, in order to provide a fitting send-off for the departed. The whole event takes place over a week or more. Preparations for the funeral begin months in advance, in order to arrange the massive logistics, which include the construction of stands and houses to hold the guests, catering enough food for everyone, and making sure the entire village comes round to help. Buffaloes will be sacrificed during the funeral ceremonies. The bigger the funeral, the better the send-off. At least 30 buffaloes need to be sacrificed – many more if the deceased is someone important.

Go Away Toraja bull

Photo: The Furious Panda

As expected, the funeral festival is costly. Now, all this expenditure needs to come from somewhere. If the deceased has a large family, with rich children and grandchildren who are able to support the funeral, then it is all well and good. Most of the time, though, getting enough saved for the funeral would take time. In fact, it could take years for the family of the deceased to save enough for the funeral. During this time, the deceased would remain in the homes of the family, considered still living and merely “sick”.

To the rest of us, this idea of the dead not really being dead might seem a little macabre. To the Toraja, it is something perfectly normal. The funeral festival is part of the Aluk Todolo, or the ancestral way of the Toraja.

The Tana Toraja Burial Sites

Someone told me before the trip that the bus journey from Makassar to Rantepao would be a nightmarish 10-hour journey through winding, bumpy roads that would test the most resilient of travellers. Apparently that isn’t true, for I had just spent the night on the overnight Makassar-Rantepao bus – a comfortable VIP coach with reclining seats – cuddled with a Donald Duck pillow and a Betty Boop blanket, issued to every passenger aboard the bus. I slept like a baby.

Rantepao is a small, unremarkable Indonesian town, and would have been completely off the tourist radar if not for the fact that it is right in the middle of Toraja land. However, being the closest major town (and capital of Toraja regency), it is the base from where I would visit the Toraja funeral sites and villages to witness the funerals.

I parked my backpack at the Pison Hotel, which is a great location to hunt for other travellers to share the cost of hiring a vehicle and guide for the day. There are plenty of guides hanging around outside the hotel. We went with just a driver, minus the guide, since speaking Indonesian would not be a problem for us.

Lemo Cliff Graves

Our driver, Pak Lusin, had been taking tourists around Toraja for over twenty years, and obviously knew what he was doing. The first stop was the cliff graves at Lemo. Looking up at the rock face before me, I could see some of the 70 or so square doors found in the Lemo area. Each door marked the entrance of a grave, housing the remains of family members. Many were carved with abstract buffalo motifs.

The cliff graves Photo: The Furious Panda.

The cliff graves of Lemo. Photo: The Furious Panda

These were the family graves of the kepala suku, the chiefs and noblemen. The earliest graves had been carved out way back in the 16th century, and generations have been buried since. Each carved out hole might take anything from six months to a year to manually hollow out, and typically would contain one or more bodies from the same family. Commoners would have less elaborate settings for their graves, in holes carved out of smaller rock outcroppings.

Besides the graves, balconies carved into the rock face hold rows of tau-taus, ancestral figures who gaze down below, holding out their hands as if offering blessings. These were not entirely dissimilar to the ancestral figures I’ve seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia, wherever a culture of ancestral worship prevails. Some were elaborately dressed in traditional Toraja clothing and very life-like in appearance.

Near the cliff graves, we passed a shack, in which an artist was in the process of carving out what looks like a female tau-tau. He offered some helpful nuggets of information. “It takes up to a month to make one of these ancestral figures. The ones I have here are for sale to visitors. Those to be used for burials need to undergo a series of complex rituals involving the family members.” I decided I did not want one of these uncomfortably realistic human figures, so I thanked him and quickly moved on.

An artist carving tau-tau at a souvenir shop. Photo: The Furious Panda

An artist carving tau-tau at a souvenir shop. Photo: The Furious Panda

Tongkonan – Those houses with the pointy roofs

We passed by the distinctly saddle shaped roofs of the Toraja houses. These house are known as Tongkonan, and are communal gathering places used for meetings and receiving guests. Later that day, I entered one of these houses and examined the various motifs carved into the walls of these Tongkonan houses. The pointed roofs resemble the prow and stern of a ship and reminded me very much of the Batak houses of north Sumatra. Both have similar styles, and some say that the two people are related, with very similar cultures. Pak Lusin told us the Tongkonans with a white flag outside means that there is a “sick” person within the house. I spent the rest of the ride looking out my window at each Tongkonan house, hoping to see a white flag.

Tongkonan houses. Photo: The Furious Panda

Tongkonan houses. Photo: The Furious Panda

Kambira “Baby Graves”

Every visitor to Toraja knows of the Kambira grave site. These are the baby graves, the site where Toraja babies who died before they started teething were buried. The main sight is a large, old tree, whose trunk contains doors similar to the ones carved out at the Lemo cliffs. These doors though were made out of wood, and much smaller. Inside each one lies the remains of a dead baby. You can be sure tourists get excited to see this tree. Never mind that the last baby burial here at Kambira took place back in the 1959.

Behind each flap is the remains of a dead baby. Photo: The Furious Panda

Behind each flap is the remains of a dead baby. Photo: The Furious Panda

Each of the doors has a number of wooden spokes sticking out of them. The quantity of spokes determines the importance and stature of the baby. Twelve is the highest rank. I only saw one with nine spokes, no more.


Buffaloes are a big deal here in Toraja. They represent wealth, and are used in many agrarian societies here in Southeast Asia. What is different for the Toraja, however, is that the buffaloes and pigs are also used as sacrificial animals. A typical wedding would be simple, with a few pigs being sacrificed. We passed by a house where the menfolk were busy blowtorching(!!) a pig, before another group sliced it up, separating meat, bone and innards. And that was the wedding.

The Toraja funeral is a lot more extravagant, with the number of buffaloes being sacrificed having to befit the status of the deceased. It’s a prestige thing – the more important the person, the more buffaloes sacrificed, and hence the bigger the sendoff. Anything upwards of 30 buffaloes is necessary for someone of noble birth or importance. And three years back, there was a grand funeral for the deceased, a school cleaner whose 12 successful children financed the sacrifice of 300 buffaloes. The whole funeral costs 3 billion Indonesian rupiah (a jaw-dropping 250 000 USD!). Not exactly small change for simple village people.

And the price of a buffalo? A single buffalo bought in the markets of Rantepao could easily cost 4 million rupiah. And special buffalos, such as the albino one we passed by while on the way to the next burial site, cost double of what a normal buffalo would cost.

If you think that all these seem really excessive, you would not be the only one to think so. Other Indonesians think that the Toraja are ostentatiously rich because they splurge on so many buffaloes. But the fact is that they can afford to buy the buffaloes because they lead very frugal lives, preferring to spend all their savings on funeral affairs.

Tampanggalo Burial Site

This burial site was recommended by Pak Lusin over the more famous Londa. Both offer similar cave burial locations, but the latter require a guide and is a lot more commercialised. Reaching Tampanggalo, I looked before me. The cave in question houses 200-year-old graves, way back when Christianity has yet to arrive in the region. These were the caves of the Sangalla kings. On the ceilings and walls of the cave were hanging coffins “erong” in the curved shape of a ship. Some of these had fallen apart over time to reveal their contents: skulls and the skeletal remains of long dead ancestors. Tau-tau lined the walls of the caves, ancestral guardians watching over the site for the last couple hundred years.  There is a story about how the Sangalla ruler at the time, Puang Manturino and his wife, Rangga Bulan picked Tampanggalo as their burial site. However only his wife ended up being buried there. He was buried elsewhere. But a strange thing happened: the villagers found the body of Rannga Bulan was magically transferred to Tampanggalo.

The cave burial site of Tampanggalo features hanging coffins,  tau-tau and plenty of skulls. Photo: The Furious Panda

The cave burial site of Tampanggalo features hanging coffins, tau-tau and plenty of skulls. Photo: The Furious Panda

Suaya Cliff Graves

Housing the graves of seven noble kings of the Sangalla, the Suaya stone graves were carved into the cliffs, very similar to the ones at Lemo. However, the Suaya graves were less well-kept and the tau-tau here were in less “pristine” condition. In fact, they look more eerie, with their grey painted faces and blank stares. Stone steps led off to the right of the cliff. I followed and after huffing and puffing for 10 minutes, found myself amongst thick undergrowth at the top of the cliff. Unfortunately, the foliage was blocking whatever view there was of the surroundings below. I scrambled back down and continued to the next site.

Cluff Photo: The Furious Panda

Suaya stone graves, carved into the cliffs. Photo: The Furious Panda

Kete Kesu Site

The last destination for the day was the traditional Toraja village of Kete Kesu. Spruced up and beautified for tourists, this centuries old village nevertheless was a very good representation of a Toraja settlement. Two rows of Tongkonan houses line up with their entrances facing each other. Buffalo horns adorn the front of the house, the remnants of generations of sacrificial animals.

A trail leading off from the houses brought me to more elaborate burial sites. Standalone single chamber buildings stored remains of important family members, complete with tau-tau in the image of the deceased outside. The trail continues up the cliff, along which were more hanging coffins, many of them opened to reveal grinning skulls. Some visitors, or maybe locals, had helpfully offered cigarettes to these skulls.

A more elaborate tomb with the tau-tau of the deceased couple. Photo: The Furious Panda

A more elaborate tomb with the tau-tau of the deceased couple. Photo: The Furious Panda

The trail ended at the mouth of a small cave. The interior was completely dark, and a torch was needed as I went in deeper. It was late afternoon by then, and most tourists had gone back, leaving the cave exploration to just me. Creepily, there was a stone coffin. I pointed my light at it. Inside were the remains of one individual, still covered in his original clothing. Later, I learnt that locals do not bring people into the cave after 5pm as there have been stories of terrified visitors running out of the caves.

The interior of the cave is nearly pitch dark,  and houses an old coffin. Photo: The Furious Panda

The interior of the cave is nearly pitch dark, and houses an old coffin. Photo: The Furious Panda

I must admit that I was a little spooked, and at that point decided that I had had enough of burial sites for the day. We went back to Rantepao, had dinner and prepared for the next day – a full Toraja burial ceremony, the Rambu Solok, in the village of Nanggala.

A Toraja Funeral

The main event of the day was a grand funeral held in the village of Nanggala. This was the first day of the multi-day event. According to our guide, the first day of Rambu Solo has the most varied and interesting activities going on. The second day would have relatives and visitors coming in, and the next few days would have buffalos sacrifices. However, if you have just one day to see as much as possible, day number one is your best bet.

The first day event proper starts off the Rambu Solo ceremony, which honours and sends off the deceased to the afterlife. An important event, because this is the moment when the deceased leaves this world and joins the next. In fact, it is probably the most important event on the Toraja calendar. Bigger than weddings and birth celebrations.

As befitting an event of such importance, the guest list is long. Entire villages are housed in the funeral compounds on sheltered raised platforms, covered by the distinct upturned boat-shaped roofs. Family members return home from afar, called back home to pay their last respects.

Welcome to the funeral

We arrived with our guide. The funeral was already taking place on an open field, surrounded on three sides by roofed platforms housing guests. Most of the platforms were occupied by local relatives and friends. One housed all the foreigners, eager beavers with cameras at the ready. I was ushered onto one of the other platforms, thanks to our driver Pak Lusin, to sit with some of the family members of the deceased. Taking out the ten cigarette pack I had brought along as a gift, I handed it over to the most senior looking relative. We were served tea and what seemed to be some sort of sweet, fried flour fritters. I looked around.

Floral wreaths hanging on large colourful cardboard signs indicated that there were in fact two deceased. Apparently, the wife had died a year earlier, and while making preparations for the funeral, the husband also died some three weeks back. It therefore made sense to do the double funeral. The family had some well-to-do children who bore the cost of the funeral. Imagine the cost to upkeep all the guests for the duration of the funeral! Since they were not obliged to contribute any money for the funeral (I did not need to pay anything to attend, rather they were honoured to have visitors who had travelled there from so far away), all the costs were borne by the deceased’s family.

Cardboard signs for the deceased couple. Photo: The Furious Panda

Cardboard signs for the deceased couple. Photo: The Furious Panda

The atmosphere resembled more like a busy marketplace than a sombre funeral. There was an emcee who was directing the proceedings with a loudhailer. Standing prominently in the centre of the field, tethered to a tree, was a distressed looking buffalo awaiting its last moments. More interestingly, a group of similarly dressed locals, all wearing blue t-shirts, were standing shoulder to shoulder and holding hands in a tight circle. Their attire was probably sponsored – more costs incurred! The Blueshirts were chanting and moving in unison, almost hypnotic. They would take turns, one by one, to chant a little something about the deceased. After one had finished, the whole group would chant the chorus, before the next person beside him took over.

Next, the procession brought in an elaborate Toraja-house shaped structure housing the bodies of the deceased. There were two coffins in the base of the structure, followed by layers culminating in the upturned-ship roof. It was huge, and required at least 10 people to carry it.

First, the structure was lifted up and down repeatedly, with water being thrown at it. Then came the fun part. The objective was to raise the two coffins up on to the highest raised platform in the field. This was the vantage point for the two deceased to look over the entire field, where they could “enjoy” the proceedings over the next few days. It is said that the higher the point, the easier it is for the deceased to reach the afterlife. Lifting the entire structure was not as simple as it sounded. What happened next was a complex Tower of Hanoi scenario. The emcee directed everyone (more than 20 people!) to work together to lift up each piece of the structure – first the upturned-ship roof, and finally the two coffins up to the vantage point.

By this time, the Blueshirts were done with their chanting and an announcement was made for everyone to be seated. An elderly speaker, possibly the eldest son of the deceased, got up to speak to the crowd. The tourists were shepherded back into their enclosure. A bit like buffalos inside a cage waiting for the slaughter.

Tourists were shepherded back into their enclosure. Photo: The Furious Panda

Tourists were shepherded back into their enclosure. Photo: The Furious Panda

Our emcee declared “Barangsiapa yang membuat kekacauan di upacara yang penuh dukacita ini, akan dikasi sumpah serapah yang tertinggi dan bencana yang tertinggi!” Words uttered that would fly by all the foreign tourists, unless of course they happened to speak Bahasa. Translated it read: “Whosoever creates disturbance during this event full of grief and sadness, will be cursed to the highest hells and may the greatest misfortune befall him.” “Creating disturbances” would presumably include not being seated when you are told to. One particularly fidgety tourist decided she had enough and wandered off, walking right in front of the speaker. Misfortune, I mouthed to myself. Gulp.

The speaker then went on for a while, giving a eulogy in the local Toraja language, which of course I couldn’t understand. Random locals started coming up to the speaker and offer condolences by putting in Rupiah notes into his pockets. It was an important part of the ritual, but a pretty dry one for the tourists.

Finally the event that everyone was anticipating: the sacrifice of a single buffalo. This ritual normally takes place during the later days of the Rambu Solo, and dozens of buffalos may be sacrificed during the ritual. However, this time only one single buffalo was brought forward, a show for the tourists.

The tethered buffalo, by now panic-stricken, was tied to a tree. The man tasked with killing the buffalo was experienced, having killed more than 300 buffaloes. He was said to have magical powers, and his blade blessed so that the buffalo would go down with one strike to the jugular. To me, he just looked really eager to do the deed.

The blade slashed through. One strike and blood spurted out as we tourists watched in horrified fascination. The buffalo began to wobble a little, and finally crashed into the ground. It took many more minutes as the life ebbed out of it.

This post was originally published in Redzuan’s travel blog, The Furious Panda.

About the author:

Redzuan Rahmat is a travel fanatic who yearns to see everything and experience everything. Red loves visiting unusual destinations and is equally comfortable getting lost in museums, mountains, and malls. He spends his spare time obsessing about his next trip, usually to some remote corner of the world. He blogs about his adventures & misadventures on The Furious Panda.

With wanderlust flowing in her veins, Lili has always had grand dreams of travelling the world, escaping to exotic locales and experiencing different cultures. Whenever Life gets too much for her, she reaches straight for her earphones to tune out the world. More than just a temporary distraction, music has a profound way of taking her to places that stir the soul.

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