Elaborate Funerals and Eloquent Architecture
Once known as the Celebes, Sulawesi is a fascinating island destination for exploring one of Indonesia’s most distinctive cultural groups. Tanah Toraja, or Torajaland, located within mountainous folds north of the popular port city Ujung Pandang, is famous for its unusual and elaborate death feasts.
A visitor hits the jackpot if he or she arrives in time for a local funeral ceremony, to which outsiders are enthusiastically welcomed. Joyous celebrations of the soul’s departure for the hereafter go on for days, and are marked by flowing palm wine, music, dancing, colorful dress, and the sacrifice of a pig or water buffalo or two – or dozens, depending on the family’s means. Wooden coffins and earthly goods are buried in caves hewn into the limestone cliffs.
The Toraja profess Christianity, but instead of crosses, carved and painted wooden effigies – lifelike figures of the deceased called tau tau – line the cliffs. Although grave-visiting is the draw (there are cemeteries for the nobility, cemeteries for babies . ..), the island itself is a marvel to explore, for the templelike architecture of its tongkonan homes (bamboo-roofed structures that resemble the prow of a sailing ship), clove and banana plantations, bamboo villages floating on beautiful Lake Tempe, and remote mountain enclaves accessible only by foot.
Unlike their policy in other parts of Indonesia, the colonial Dutch encouraged the Toraja to preserve their rich architectural and cultural traditions – with the exception of human sacrifice, a custom extinguished sometime ago.