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


Traditional Ngada Villages near Bajawa, Flores: A Surreal Experience

Dismounting my motorbike and stepping into the village of Gurusina was like entering an alternative reality, a surreal experience. Children played with rubber tyres on the dry terraced ground in the central space of the village, while women and men sat around chatting on their front porches. An elderly woman was grinding some grains and the beats of pop music from a sound system could be heard from a few houses down.

Gurusina VillageBena Village

I had hired a guide for the day, Johannes, a native Ngada person from the Bajawa area of Flores, who could speak the local language and was an expert on the culture and traditions of this region. We visited Bena village first, the first stop for many visitors who wish to see traditional Ngada villages.

Although I had heard that Bena was touristic, it was nothing compared to other tourist places I have visited in Indonesia. The village was peaceful as we entered, with no tourist hassle. Women sat on their verandas weaving the fabric that is one of the trademark handicrafts of this area.

Ngada Traditional Culture

We climbed the steep steps up to the first terraced level of the village and Johannes told me about Ngada culture.  Although the Ngada people are Catholic, traditional beliefs play a big part in their lives.

Three bhagasThe houses in a village are arranged in a square shape on terraced land completely cleared of vegetation. The space in the centre of the square is used for ceremonies and gatherings. Wooden structures are built by each clan, called ngadhu and bhaga. The construction of a ngadhu is in itself a special event, with auspicious items buried in the foundations of the structure, including a live chicken.

NgadhuThe ngadhu is shaped like a large wooden thatched parasol, the trunk of which features intricate wooden carvings which related to the number of generations of the clan represented. The stone base is used for buffalo sacrifice, and when we were in Bena the sticky blood from a very recent sacrifice, with its putrid smell, was attracting flies. The bhaga is in the form of a miniature Ngada house.

The Ngada are a matrilineal people so the houses are passed from mother to daughter. Some of the thatched rooftops had little model people or houses perched on top of the highest point; I was told that this signifies the house of the leader or highest generation of a clan, with other clan members on either side.

Clan leader houseBena village is 900 years old, and from the back of the village you can look out across the hills and mountains to the ocean. I could see other Ngada villages dotted across the green landscape, identifiable as small brown areas surrounded by green.

Gurusina Village

Leaving Bena, I made a small Rp. 5000 donation and signed the visitors’ book. We headed off to our next stop, Gurusina village. This village is less frequently visited by tourists, and we found the residents to be friendlier. We perambulated around the village, climbing down the very steep steps of the terraced ground.

Gurusina is not as old as Bena, having moved to this site some 200 years ago, when residents believed the original site, on a steep mountain side, would be threatened by earthquakes. We chatted to the current residents about their lives, and I was interested that although they live in traditional houses, with a traditional social structure and beliefs, their children do go to school nearby. With the recent welcome installation of electricity, there are televisions and sound systems in the village, as well as, of course, lighting.

A traditional Ngada house

I was pleased to be able to ask about the traditional houses with their characteristic wooden frames and thatched roofs, and one of the villagers kindly let me see inside his house.

Traditional carvings on houseIt turns out that although modern tools such as chainsaws are now used to build Ngada houses, traditional rules are still adhered to. For example, the grain of the horizontal wooden beams must point clockwise round the house. Around the door of the house the wood is carved with intricate designs, all with their own significance, for example a butterfly might be carved, symbolising something that is difficult to catch.

The roofs of Ngada houses are thatched in a distinctive shape with reeds from the area. A house might last around thirty years before needing to be rebuilt.

Inside the house is one large room, with a corner used as the kitchen area and other parts of the rooms for sleeping. Also leading off the outside veranda are side rooms on either side of the main room. These are outside the square structure of the house.The kitchen corner in the house

A Contented Traditional Lifestyle

When I had visited the Batak region of North Sumatra last year I was told that the Batak people were no longer able to build traditional Batak houses; the knowledge had been lost, and anyway, most people wanted to live in a modern house and moved out of the traditional longhouses as soon as they could afford it. Here in Ngada Flores, however, it was a different story. People I spoke to in Gurusina village seemed to genuinely enjoy their lifestyle, without yearning for a modern house. New houses are built in Ngada style all the time, and they have integrated some elements of modern technology, such as the use of chainsaws, into the traditional building methods.

How to See the Ngada Region

There are many Ngada villages arranged in this traditional style across the area around Mount Inerie. As well as visiting for a few hours, it is possible to stay the night in some villages. There are even villages that are inaccessible by road and must be reached by trekking through the forest. Most villages have a visitors’ book which you should sign and it is normal to leave a small donation of around Rp. 5,000 – 10,000.

My guide, Johannes, was extremely knowledgeable, himself an ethnic Ngada who spent his childhood in a traditional house. He also acted as my interpreter for some conversations, because although I speak fluent Indonesian, not all the Ngada people speak Indonesian. Many older people and children I met, as in many parts of Indonesia, only spoke their ethnic language. Johannes translated for me.

Johannes, my guide for the dayTaking a guide enabled me to visit more places within a shorter time and to take steep, bendy roads that I may not have braved alone. Johannes was excellent and I recommend contacting him if you would like to explore the Ngada region. He can also arrange tours throughout the island of Flores. He can be contacted by email at and by telephone on +62 (0)81 353 061310.