Tana Toraja (land of the Toraja people) occupies the mountainous region in the northern part of South Sulawesi. It is Sulawesi's premier tourist attraction, at one stage hoped by Indonesian tourism officials to come second after Bali as a tourist destination. Many visitors to Sulawesi arrive at the airport and head straight up the highway to the north on the 300 km drive to Rantepao, which takes around 8 hours at the average Sulawesi highway speed of 40 km/h (no matter what Google says), not bothering to stop in at Makassar, 20 km to the south.
And there are a number of good reasons to visit Tana Toraja (or Tator, as it is abbreviated, of course):
- it’s cooler up in them there hills
- you can get a beer there (or any other alcoholic drink that takes your fancy), as it’s a mainly Christian community in otherwise mainly Muslim South Sulawesi
- the mountain landscape is pretty damn spectacular
- Torajan culture is … interesting.
- if you are researching cocoa in far-flung locations, it's the quickest way to get from Wotu, in the northeast of the province, to Pinrang, on the west coast
As the fieldwork came to an end and some visitors dropped in from Oz, we had the opportunity to head back to Tator with a bit more time on our hands, for reasons 1–4. There’s lots to see (and think about) in Tana Toraja, so I’ve had to do this in three instalments!
Once again, both our trips were organised by Dodo the Penman and we were ably accompanied by our driver, Bayu, and two great Torajan guides Enos and Martin. All are highly recommended.
The mountainsOn the way to Tana Toraja from Makassar the road starts to wind upwards through the Enrekang region. A popular place to stop for coffee is at one of the roadside cafes overlooking Gunung Bambapuang, also known as Lady Mountain or Erotik Mountain, because it is meant to look like a lady’s genital region. Whether or not your imagination leans in that direction, the view is pretty speccy.
|Lady Mountain, Enrekang (photo by Yuto Fukui/Panoramio)|
|Man and lady, Enrekang (photo by Wayne)|
From here on, the mountains provide backdrops to almost every vista. I can’t help feeling that there is an untapped potential for hang gliding in this part of Sulawesi. (Stay tuned for Steve’s Sulawesi Hang Gliding Tours!)
The housesOne of the first signs that you are entering Tana Toraja is the appearance of the remarkable traditional Torajan houses, with their wildly upswept roofs and carved and painted wall panels. These start appearing along the side of the road, accompanied by smaller versions, which our driver explained were rice barns. At first we thought these houses were some kind of tourist accommodation – how could they just be someone’s normal home? But no, we were reassured, they’re ordinary Torajan houses and people do just live in them.
|Our first sighting of Torajan houses (tongkonans), these ones with corrugated iron roofs|
|Houses (left) and rice barns (right) with traditional thatched roofs + greenery; modern homes down the back|
As we found out later, it’s actually a little more complicated than that. The traditional houses, called tongkonan, are culturally important family properties that are passed down through the generations. So every family has one, and some belong to extended family groups, like a beach house at Dromana. The upswept roofs possibly represent the Torajans’ previous lives as seafaring people, before they took to the mountains, but on the other hand, maybe not. Apparently, though, the curve of the roofs has become more exaggerated over time, as a particularly Torajan fashion statement.
The carved panels on the outside represent important motifs in Torajan culture, including the rooster, the buffalo and the sun. As in any culture, the bigger the tongkonan and the more elaborate the carvings, the more prestige the family has.
|Painted carving on the side of a tongkonan, Tana Toraja|
On the inside, though, tongkonans are pretty basic and have only a few small ‘portholes’ for light and ventilation. As a result, many people are building more conventional-style homes to live in, a bit like Queenslanders, keeping the tongkonan for family ceremonies.
|Inside a traditional tongkonan|
There were also a few hybrids – conventional houses (rumah) with tongkonan roofs stuck on the side. I christened this style the rukonan©, which caused much mirth as I repeated it every time we saw one!
In Rantepao we stayed at the charming old-world Toraja Heritage Hotel, located on a ridge above the town. The more expensive rooms and suites are housed in pseudo-tongkonans, traditional on the outside, but modified on the inside for modern living. Being cheapos, we stayed in the equally comfortable rooms located in the conventional wing.
|Inside a pretend tongkonan; a suite at the Toraja Heritage Hotel|
Awas, kepala jatuh!*Probably the most visited obyek wisata (tourist object) in Tana Toraja is the village of Kété Kesú, a few kilometres out of Rantepao. Here you can walk through a ‘traditional’ village, go inside a tongkonan, and also visit one of the oldest hanging grave sites in the region. While people do still live here, most live in newer houses out the back, leaving the original village feeling a bit like a Torajan theme park. Locals rely heavily on income from tourists rather than farming.
The awesome part is beyond the village, where a path leads you up the side of a cliff that has been used for hundreds of years as a burial site. Hanging graves were constructed by recessing beams into the cliff and placing coffins on them, cantilevered out from the rock face. Over time, of course, beams and coffins have rotted away and fallen, so that now there are crazy jumbles of bones, skulls and coffins here and there. At the top, coffins are also crammed into a cave.
Visiting Kété Kesú for the first time did make me wonder how, in a place where what happens to the dead is so important, human remains could be left lying around for tourists like us to pose with. The only answers that made any sense where that (a) the bones are so old that no one knows whose ancestors they are, and (b) if they tidied them up, it might make the place less appealing to the ghoulish fascination of tourists.
|The hanging graves at Kété Kesú|
|Who's who at Kété Kesú? (photo by Wayne)|
* In Indonesian, the words for coconut (kelapa) and head (kepala) are very similar. Confusion between the two words is a well-worn source of jokes in Indonesian classes. Falling coconuts can be a danger in many parts of Indonesia, with appropriate warnings: ‘Awas, kelapa jatuh!’ (‘Watch out, falling coconuts!’), but here in Kété Kesú they need a different warning sign: ‘Awas, kepala jatuh!’.
Postscript: As you might expect, not everyone has been happy about the touristification of Tana Toraja, particularly the process of selecting the official obyek wisata. For the keen scholar, you can find out more here:
Cultural Commoditization in Tana Toraja, Indonesia, Cultural Survival website
Art As Politics: Re-crafting Identities, Tourism, And Power in Tana Toraja, by Kathleen M. Adams (see especially the section ‘Zoning and the Touristic Homogenization of Elite Sites’). You can read a fair bit of this for free on books.google.com.
See Part 2: Two funerals, no weddings
© 2014 Steve Dobney