The Toraja people and the most complex funeral rituals in the world

The Toraja people and the most complex funeral rituals in the world

Ke'te' Kesu, Toraja Utara.
The Tana Toraja is a regency of South Sulawesi in Indonesia, a picturesque mountainous region that is home to an indigenous group known as the Torajans. For the Toraja people, life very much revolves around death, but not in a morbid sense. For them, a funeral is a great celebration of life, much like a going-away party, and is an occasion in which the entire family of the deceased, and all the members the village take part. Their ancient traditions involve funerary customs that have been practiced over many centuries and are known to be the most complex funeral traditions in the world.
The population of the Toraja is approximately 650,000, of which 450,000 still live in the regency of Tana Toraja ("Land of Toraja"). Most are Christian, others are Muslim, and a minority still retain the local beliefs known as Aluk Todolo ("Way of the Ancestors"), which are most visible during funeral festivities and burial customs.

Before the 20th century, Torajans lived in autonomous villages, where they practised animism, the worldview that non-human entities, including animals, plants, and often even inanimate objects or phenomena possess a spiritual essence. They were relatively untouched by the outside world until Dutch missionaries arrived to convert the Torajan highlanders to Christianity. Nevertheless, even those that follow other religions in Tana Toraja, still converge when it comes to ancient funeral customs.

Unique Funerary Customs

When a Torajan dies, family members of the deceased are required to hold a series of funeral ceremonies, known as Rambu Soloq, over many days. During this time, the deceased is not buried but is embalmed and stored in a traditional house under the same roof with his or her family. Until the funeral ceremonies are completed, the person is not considered to be truly dead but merely suffering an illness. The dead relative is referred to simple as "a person who is sick" or "the one who is asleep". Remarkably, this could even last several years after death, depending on how long it takes the family to raise money. During this time, the deceased family member is symbolically fed, cared for and taken out, and is very much a part of their relative's lives.

Toraja Beliefs

In the Toraja myth, the ancestors of Torajan people came down from heaven using stairs, which were then used by the Torajans as a communication medium with Puang Matua, the Creator. The cosmos, is divided into the upper world (heaven), the world of man (earth), and the underworld. At first, heaven and earth were married, then there was a darkness, a separation, and finally the light. The Torajans traditionally believe that death is not a sudden, abrupt event, but a gradual process toward Puya (the land of souls, or afterlife).

The Aluk Todolo belief system still very much governs the life of the society, demonstrated by Toraja cosmology, ceremonies, settlement arrangement, houses, decorations, the role of water buffalo, and of course, the funerary customs. According to UNESCO, the Torajan cosmology represents an ancient cosmology common to pre-state Southeast Asian communities which is now vanishing.

Tourism in Tana Toraja

Tana Toraja is now the second most popular destination for tourists in Indonesia after Bali. However, tourism in Tana Toraja is very much a double-edge sword. The influx of foreign visitors boosts the economy of the local region and 'motivates' the local people to keep their ancient customs alive, partly for the benefit of visitors and partly for their own benefit. These traditions may have otherwise become lost due to the influence of outside forces over the years. According to UNESCO, their heritage has an "indispensable scientific value as a source of analogy to study the past" and "the cultural landscape created based on local wisdoms may bring awareness on the nature-culture relation". But tourism has not been without its cost. Developers have been known to exploit the local people and many of their sacred relics, like the tau tau, have been bought or stolen by tourists.

Nevertheless, the Torajan heritage has been handed down from generation to generation for at least 700 years, but probably as far back as prehistoric times, and it is still very much a 'living culture'. It survived invasions from the Buginese in the seventeenth century, and the influx of Dutch missionaries in the early 20 th century, and it still endures today. According to UNESCO, the importance of preserving the Torajan traditions lies in the fact that "such complicated and expensive ceremonies sustain many aspects of prehistoric megalithic culture which cannot be found in any other part of the world today."

​References: (By April Holloway)



No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment
Already Registered? Login Here
Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Captcha Image

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to

Most Popular Post

Please publish modules in offcanvas position.