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Seeing the Dead: Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

The Toraja people, although mostly Christian, have animistic beliefs and are famed for their spectacular and gruesome burial rites. If you take the road from Makassar or Ujung Pandang and then on to Toraja, it runs along the coast for about 130 kilometre and then the high mountains come to view. Upon entering Tana Toraja it is a majestic landscape with giant, grey granite stone with blue mountains visible at a distance after passing the market village of Mebali. They form a sharp contrast with the lively green of the fertile, rain-fed terraces and the rusty read of the tropical laterite soil. Without a doubt this is one of the most splendid areas in Indonesia. But it is the strange and specific and unique funeral ceremony called Rambu Solo that is the attraction for travellers.

The funeral is spectacular. The dead body is not buried as in other religions, but instead put in the Tongkonan or original-house. In fact, a person can be dead for more than ten years until the family have enough money to hold the ceremony. After the ceremony the dead body is taken to a cave or to the wall of a designated mountain. It is quite freaky as you will notice at these grave sites. The exposed skulls show that the dead body is in fact not buried but just put onto stone or the ground, or even put into a hole. The funeral festival season begins when the last rice has been harvested, usually in late June or July, and lasts through to September. Tourist who wants to stay in the heart of the city accommodation is abundant. If you are the adventurous type then why not stay with a family in one of the villages.

There are several places to visit in the area. Batu Tumonga Plateu is pretty surreal and the actual meaning of the place is ‘stone that facing to the sky’. From here you can see volcanic stones rising up in between the padi fields. The view is pretty awesome. The village of Palawa is an excellent one to visit if you want to see a Tongkonan. Why not take a side trip from Rantepao to Kete. This is a traditional village with excellent handicraft shops. Behind the village on a hillside is a grave site with lifesize statues guarding old coffins. Please do adhere to local dress customs and to bring a token present such as cigarettes or coffee whenever entering a Tongkonan. The best time to visit Tana Toraja is between May and October.

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