South Sulawesi in Pictures 3: Toraja Graves in Cliffs and Caves

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Tana Toraja has much to offer to tourists, and its unique graves in cliffs and caves along with statues of the dead are one of the stranger highlights.                       Advertisements

Batutumonga, Tana Toraja: On Top of the World


Our sturdy rental motorbike puttered its way up the steep, twisting road, carrying us up and down the steps created by broken asphalt. We were heading for Batutumonga, north of Rantepao, and not quite at the top of a mountain. We passed Torajan villages with traditional pointed roofed houses, graves in large rocks and acres of paddy fields. As we climbed further, the view became more and more spectacular.

Journey to BatutumongaBatutumonga by Bike

Batutumonga had been recommended to me by a friend as a great day out, and although the journey was tiring, it was worth it. Our rented motorbike turned out to be stronger than it looked, carrying us up steep, bumpy roads, and we were relieved we had chosen this older semi-automatic model rather than the new shiny automatic bikes that would not cope driving up these roads with two passengers.

Petrol is available at many small shops on the way up and even right at the top, which is just as well because driving in first gear up the slopes used a lot of gas. We passed many scenic points on the way up, sometimes stopping to take a photo and give our backsides a rest from the motorbike saddle.

View from BatutumongaBreathtaking Vista of Tana Toraja

At the top we were awestruck by the distance that is visible, covering pretty much the whole Toraja valley, with the town of Rantepao spread out beneath us. Paddy fields were dotted with villages and hamlets, the reddish pointed roofs of the traditional Torajan houses poking out between the trees.

The air was fresh and the breeze brisk, and there was a conveniently positioned restaurant where we had a well-deserved lunch of buffalo meat called kerbau pamarassan. We soaked up the amazing view, spotting more and more details as we sat at our table overlooking the valley.

Buffalo meat dishBack Down into the Toraja Valley

There are places to stay at Batutumonga, but we were just there for a short visit. So, after lunch and a break, we hopped back on our bike to start the journey down.

The way up had taken around two hours, with stops, but the journey down took only half this time, and we were thankful the motorcycle brakes were in good condition.

If you visit Tana Toraja, it is worth going up to Batutumonga; it’s nice to get out into the countryside for a day and the view from the top is simply breathtaking.

Toraja Graves: From Cliffs to Caves


Having watched a Torajan funeral ceremony the previous day, we decided to visit some of the unusual burial grounds in the area, namely cliff and cave resting places. First we visited the village of Lemo which is famous for cliff burials.

Lemo gravesCliffside Graves

Residents of this village and its immediate area, who must belong to one of the local clans, are buried in holes cut out of cliffs. I read that this tradition started because Torajan people are usually buried with their wealth, and that valuable items were sometimes stolen from graves. The graves were moved into the cliffs to deter would-be thieves.

Entering the area we paid the small entrance fee; although this is on the outskirts of a tiny village, it is set up for tourists, with some souvenir stalls. Walking down and across paddy fields, towards to sheer rock face of the cliff, the countryside was stunningly beautiful and serenely peaceful. There were no other tourists when we arrived and we saw all the wooden doors of the grave holes.

Graves in CliffsStatues of the Dead

As well as burying their dead in these cliffs, wooden statues of the dead called tau tau are carved and displayed on balconies hewed out of the cliff. More modern statues are made to resemble the dead person, but it is prohibitively expensive to commission a statue for most people, costing millions of Rupiah where it was traditionally paid for in buffaloes. I found the wooden statues standing staring blankly with their arms outwards quite eerie.

Looking more closely at the grave doors, we could see that some had recent dates written on them, and others were actually open, though we couldn’t see inside. Walking along we came upon a pile of unsmoked cigarettes, which we later found out was an offering, and some bones. The general atmosphere was spooky, with no one else around.

A recently used graveA Living Tradition of the Dead

Having had enough of this unique graveyard, we headed round to the entrance, passing souvenir stalls selling replica wooden statues and crossing paddy fields. We chatted to some of the stall holders and found out that in fact, people of this area are still buried in the cliff today; it is not a dead tradition. More than one person is buried in each hole. In the past the corpses quickly rotted away, providing space for the next one, but nowadays because they are preserved with formaldehyde during the period before burial, they take longer to decompose.

Graves in Caves

Filled with this somewhat gruesome information, we moved on to our next stop on this graveyard tour, the village of Londa, which features graves in caves. Again a small village but nicely set up as a place of interest for visitors, we paid the entrance fee and were offered an oil lamp (with a man to hold it). If you have a torch that is sufficient to see inside the caves, but if not then it is worth hiring an oil lamp to avoid bumping your head on a coffin or knocking a skull off a shelf.

Coffins, skulls and bones fill the caves.The two caves, which are joined by a narrow corridor, are still in use as grave sites. Wooden coffins are shoved in anywhere they’ll fit, along with offerings which can take the form of anything the deceased liked during their lives. We saw food and drinks as well as cigarettes scattered around the coffins as offerings. Bones and skulls line the caves’ natural shelves and little baby coffins are perched up near the ceiling. It feels like something from a horror film but this is an ongoing tradition.

Outside the caves are more coffins, this time suspended on wooden shelves hanging down from above. A row of statues of the deceased completes the eerie scene.

Statues of the dead

Hotel Pantan Toraja: Comfortable but Run-down


We found this hotel on the internet, though it turned out to be cheaper to book by phone than through Agoda. As advertised, Hotel Pantan Toraja is located just outside the town of Makale, the administrative centre of the Tana Toraja region.

Room and Facilities

Our room was spacious and comfortable but a bit run-down. The double bed was comfortable and there was a flat screen TV. A small kettle was provided but the electric cable was too short to reach the socket, so we had to perch it on the hot water flask every time we used it. There was no air conditioning but Tana Toraja is a cool, mountainous area, so we didn’t feel hot.

Double Bed RoomThe bathroom in particular, although functional, was in need of renovation. With hot water, a bath and a shower of the bath, it was a shame there was no shower curtain, but we were able to enjoy some long, soaky baths.

Swimming, Breakfast and Service

The hotel has a large swimming pool, which I used once; on the day we arrived the water was cloudy but by day two it had been cleaned. Breakfast was a buffet of rice, vegetable and chicken dishes, with tea of coffee, but unfortunately only served 6.30 – 8am, so no late mornings for us.

Hotel staff were polite and efficient but unable to help with our queries about vehicle rental or tours of the area. Most of the other guests were Indonesian domestic tourists with their own vehicles.

Swimming PoolIf you want to stay out of town and use your own transport to get around, Pantan Toraja is a good option, and fairly decent value for this area. However, if you need tourist information and services, you’re better off staying in Rantepao.

Tana Toraja: Traditional Houses, Funerals and Cake


Tana Toraja was my favourite part of South Sulawesi, despite the nine-hour bus journey from Makassar. Arriving in the cool, mountainous region we settled in at our hotel on the outskirts of Makale. The greenery of the landscape and the fresh air were a relief after hot, dusty Makassar, and the sloping roofs of traditional Torajan houses dotted across the valleys were a beautiful sight.Toraja Roofs

On our first morning in Toraja we took a public car up to Rantepao. These public cars, also called kijangs, ply the Makale—Rantepao road, operating as buses, picking up and dropping off passengers. The 18km journey only cost Rp. 5000 per person and we chatted to the other passengers, including two women who were bringing vegetables to sell at the market.

Rantepao town centreRantepao Town

Rantepao is the main town in the area for tourists, although Makale is the Indonesian administrative centre. With a bustling market selling everything from food to clothes to souvenirs, it was pleasant to walk around the town centre. You can pick up Tana Toraja t-shirts, key rings and other trinkets as well as locally produced fabrics and traditional Torajan cakes. We tried kue jipang, a sweet rice-cake, kue tori, sweet slightly spongy cakes which taste more appealing than they look, and kacang sembunyi, which means hidden peanut.

Traditional Torajan CakesWe hired a motorbike for a mere Rp. 150,000 for three days (including nights) from Lebonna on Jl. W. Monginsidi, just round the corner from Hotel Indra Toraja. Having had problems with an automatic bike on mountainous roads in Bali, we chose a semi-automatic model, which would give us the all-important first gear for climbing those hills. Although the bike appeared in poor condition, it turned out to be able to handle the broken-up asphalt and giant potholes that are a main feature of the roads in this area.

Torajan Funeral Ceremony

We had heard about the Torajan funeral ceremonies, for which this culture is famous, and which visitors to the area are free to watch. Held mainly in July and August, with the dead being preserved with formaldehyde and kept at their home for a period of perhaps months before burial, we were right on time to witness a ceremony.

The woman at Lebonna gave us useful advice: if you see a large pick-up truck full of people wearing black, it means they are probably going to a funeral. Follow the truck and you can watch a funeral ceremony without needing a guide.

We immediately spotted a truck of people clothed in black and followed it. Not far out of town, the truck did indeed lead us to a Torajan funeral ceremony, a spectacular event being held to mark a wealthy and important person’s death, with guests coming and going over a period of days.

Guests process into the funeral areaEach group of guests waited outside until announced by the MC, when they would process in, led by a singer and a flute player, and sit in the allotted place. Families donated pigs and buffaloes for sacrifice and the air was filled with the stench of killing.

We were allowed to watch, take photos and film the goings-on without any complaints; in Toraja it is normal for tourists to watch the traditional funeral ceremonies. We were pleased to be able to go without a guide, by following a truck, thereby having an independent experience and saving money. When we had any questions we just asked a bystander.

Pigs ready for slaughterWhile gruesome sacrifices may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I was pleased to have seen the funeral ceremony for which Torajan culture is famous.