Toraja: Land of Heavenly Kings

Safely protected beyond the lofty mountains and rugged granite cliffs of the central highlands of the island of Sulawesi, are the Toraja people who live in valleys that are lush with green rice terraces and fertile coffee plantations.

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"Discovered" and opened to the world from their long isolation only since the beginning of the last century, the Toraja today still adhere to their age-old beliefs, rituals and traditions, although many of her people are modernized or have embraced Christianity.

The road from Makassar to Toraja runs along the coast for about 130 km's and then hits the mountains. After the entrance to Tana Toraja at the market village of Mebali one enters a majestic landscape of giant, gray granites and stones and blue mountains afar that form a sharp contrast with the lively green of the fertile, rain-fed terraces and the rusty red of the tropical soil. This is Tana Toraja, one of the most splendid areas in Indonesia.

Toraja is most well known for its elaborate funeral ceremonies that can take days and involve entire villages. These are not only moments for mourning but are moreover events to renew family ties and to ensure continued unity among villages and communities.

Death ceremonies, however, are held only after the last rice harvest is in and cleared, which is normally between July to September, while ceremonies celebrating life are held in conjunction with the planting season which starts in October.  These timings are possible since the dead are not buried immediately but are kept for months, sometimes for years, in the ancestral house until time and funds allow for a proper funeral.

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Tourists to Toraja, therefore, are either attracted by its unique culture and rituals, most of which are mostly centered around graves and death ceremonies. While others prefer to avoid the morbid images and go trekking through the spectacular, almost untouched Toraja countryside visiting remote villages, or exhilarate in rafting the Sa'dan river rapids.

Capital of Toraja is Makale but visitors usually head to the town of Rantepao, heart of Tana Toraja - the Land of the Toraja people.

Getting There

  • To get to Tana Toraja one must fly to Sultan Hasanuddin airport in Makassar, capital of the province of South Sulawesi. As a hub for East Indonesia there are many airlines flying to and from Makassar both from Jakarta, Bali, Manado and other cities.
  • The only way to Toraja from Makassar airport is overland which takes between six to eight hours.. There are no flights between Makassar and Toraja.
  • There are buses to Rantepao that leave Makassar daily. The journey takes around 8 hours and includes a meal stop. Tickets must be bought in town but coaches actually leave from DAYA bus terminal, 20 minutes out of town by bemo. Coaches typically leave in the morning (7am), around noon (1pm) and in the evening (7pm).
  • Several companies in Rantepao run buses back to Makassar. The number of buses each day depends on the number of passengers.
  • It is best and easiest to contact an experienced travel agent to arrange and take care of your full itinerary to the Toraja highlands.

Getting Around
A Bemo – local transport is the best way to get to know the locals, besides chartering vehicles (minibuses or Jeeps) with or without a driver. Enjoy walking around the villages.

To Do

  • In Rantepao, explore the colourful traditional ‘Pasar Bolu’ market where you can get top end Toraja coffee beans, such as Robusta and Arabica.  Here you may also find necklaces of antique beads. When you happen to visit Rantepao during the weekly market days do make an effort to see the market when water buffaloes and pigs are being auctioned.  
  • To see a model Toraja settlement, visit the village of Ke’te Kesu’, where you find a row of beautifully decorated Tongkonan – or ancestral homes – and rice barns. The Tongkonan are the typical Toraja saddle-shaped roofed houses, reminiscent of buffalo horns. The walls of the houses are beautifully decorated with abstract and geometrical patterns in natural black, red and white.  Ke’te Kesu’ is also known for its bamboo carvings and traditional handicrafts.
  • At Lemo are the “hanging graves” of the nobility, where crypts are carved high into steep rock cliffs, and wooden effigies of the deceased – called tau-tau – stand in a row on a balcony and look over the green rice fields below.
  • At Londa are coffins-filled caves piled up deep into the interior. Not for the squeamish.
  • At Suaya are the king’s family graves, while at nearby Sangala are the tree-graves of babies. The ancient Toraja believe that dead babies and children must be buried into a tree, where the tree will grow around the dead body. 
  • Visit Palawa, the Toraja’s weaving center and an excellent village to see a Tongkonan.
  • Then proceed to Batu Tumonga Plateau, - the stone that faces the sky – on the slope of the Sesean mountain, some 25km. from Rantepao. From here you will find a spectacular panorama of terraced rice fields in the valley below shimmering like a patchwork in gradual hues of green, scattered with huge megalithic boulders. A number of these have been turned into grave caverns. Visit coffee plantations and enjoy walks through villages
  • Sa’dan To’Barana’ is a traditional plait center, located in the district of Sesean about 16km north of Rantepao. This area is known for its traditional Toraja ‘ikat’ weaving.

To Stay
Visitors who wish to stay in the heart of Toraja have many choices since there are many large and small hotels available, however, only few have their own website. Others may be booked through hotel reservation systems or travel agents. Or if you have an adventurous soul, you can sleep in villages on the way.

To Buy
There are souvenir shops in Rantepao where you can buy everything specific from Tana Toraja. There are clothes, bags, wallets and other handicrafts.

To Eat
Most of the time, you will not find restaurants near tourist sites; however warungs and restaurants appear along the road. Best bring your own lunch box. When taking a tour, your travel agent will take the group to a restaurant or provide lunch boxes on the bus. 

Tips:

  • Visitors are expected to keep to local dress and customs and to bring a token present, such as cigarettes or coffee when entering a Tongkonan.
  • As roads are not always paved, it is necessary to use a jeep or walk, even when the weather is good (between May and October).
  • Beware of your head whenever going inside a Tongkonan, the Torajan traditional house, since passageways are low.
  • Enrekang, Makale in the Toraja Highlands are surrounded by astonishing volcanic rocky cliffs.