PC: Dr. Paul Koudounaris

Did I scare you?

That mummy is from Toraja, Indonesia, aka The Land of Heavenly Kings.


If you look on the above map, Toraja is in the southern middle-ish part of Sulawesi.

As far as I know, every year AFS students have a mid-year trip. This year, it was to Toraja in mid-May.

We met first in Makassar (the bottom left portion of Sulawesi).

The AFS group!

The AFS group!

We all piled in a bus after dinner and started our overnight bus trip to Toraja.

We arrived about the same time as the sun did. This was what greeted me:


Snap, Toraja. It’s too early to be flipping gorgeous.

After arriving, we settled into our hotel before tourist-ing.

Now, before I get into that, I would like to give a word of caution to everyone reading this.

This post will have skeletons.

At the end of this post (and after a warning), there will be sacrificing and blood and a flipping awesome photo involving the two aforementioned things.

If you are offended by these things, don’t have the stomach for them, etc etc,

don’t read this post. 

Unless, of course, you’re fine with skeletons, then you can just stop when I tell you to and not see the sacrificial stuff.

And unless, of course, you think all the aforementioned stuff is as cool as I do.


The first place we went was to a Torajan village. This was pretty much my introduction to Torajan architecture.

Toraja land.

Torajan houses are shaped like boats because the Torajans believe that their ancestors came in boats and made houses out of the same boats. The houses always face north to south. The reason for this is because the ancestors came from the north and heaven is believed to be in the south.

On houses, there were often decorations like this:


A fake water buffalo head and water buffalo horns.

The white water buffalo is revered and very expensive. Each pair of horns corresponds with how many water buffalos were sacrificed for the person who died. The water buffalos are very expensive, so the more that were sacrificed, the richer and higher up the people were.

All Torajans have a class. They are born into this class and cannot change it. It is very possible to be in the lowest class and stinking rich, and it is possible to be in the highest class and very poor. We’ll talk about this more later.

They had some cool art on the houses.


In my opinion, chickens make a great decoration. Chicken art for everyone!

Behind the village was a limestone cliff. On this cliff were a lot of coffins.

the face of the cliff

Many of them were very old, and as such, broken.

Coffins and skulls.

I don’t know that I’ve ever actually seen human skeletons and bones in real life. Seeing them up close was really quite exciting for me.

Looking in.

And anyone who knows me knows how much I love anatomy, so that was a bonus. My poor fellow AFSers suffered through me pointing out sutures and foramen on the skulls and showing them ileums.


And I even found one skull that still had a mandible attached!

Still has a mandible.

So. Great.

We went into a cave in the cliff. The ground was a very super sticky mud. Well, this Super Sticky Mud broke my sandal, and I only brought one pair of shoes (what? Shoes are overrated).


There were some coffins in the back of the cave. In the front of the cave, there was this:

They bring the possessions of the dead person and put them by the grave.

Aka possessions of the dead person.

I was a bit intrigued by these possessions, because most of them I consider not worth anything. But then again, I wasn’t that person and I don’t know that person. Who am I to judge?

Before leaving, I took an obligatory village photo.

In a Torajan village.

On the way back to the bus, I saw something.


A water buffalo. In Indonesian it is a kebo. 

These are not animals you typically see in America, and I’ve only seen them once before (on Puncak).

So it was pretty cool.

(Psst. Want to hear a spoiler? Not the last water buffalo I saw).

After we went to the village, we went to another village and watched sacrifices. However, I will put that very cool experience at the very end of this post.

So, skipping over that, we went and ate lunch at the top of a mountain. The drive there was gorgeous.

The view from the window.

We also saw this very interesting boulder.

Graves in a rock

What are those holes?


They hollow out holes and place the coffins inside. It’s generally a whole family (as in extended family) to a rock if that is their preferred resting place.

The view was even better from the top of the mountain.



After lunch, we went to a monolith graveyard.


The monoliths themselves weren’t graves. Rather, they were just “hey Iqbal died so this is his monolith” sort of monoliths.

And a short walk away from the monoliths was a huge boulder.

A grave site.

A boulder a family, remember?

Each grave had a door.

Door to the tomb

Well, they were supposed to, at least. Thieves come and steal these doors. They then sell it to antique shops in different countries. The stolen doors are replaced with simple boards, or none at all.

An open grave.

It’s sad. Don’t steal, people.

On the other hand, it let me take a closer look at the bones in the open graves.


And that was it for day one.

The next day, we went to some other limestone cliffs.

Limestone cliffs.

If you look very closely, there is a white strip pretty close to the top eastern edge of the cliff. That’s a coffin. And that’s some dedication. The coffins are now being placed to prevent thievery.

More coffinz

Some of them, at least.

It was interesting seeing the newer coffins and the older ones in the same place.

We also saw some statues.

Statues of rich dead people

These are statues of the dead of the high class. The lower classes are not allowed to have a statue representation of them.

After the cliff, we went to Buntu Burake, aka


Buntu Burake.

“But wait. This statue is different from the one in Rio. In Rio, Jesus is much bigger and his arms are different.”


Maybe you’re right.

Or maybe I just want to pretend that I went to Brazil while I was simultaneously in Indonesia.

But to each his own.

Looking up.

I so ugry

After Rio, we went to BABY GRAVES.

baby graves

When I first heard about baby graves, I was told that they put dead babies in trees. In my mind’s eye, I imagined them climbing to the top of a tall tree and placing a baby corpse in the branches.

Hooray for baby corpses waving in the wind.

Anyway, that’s not how it was, thank goodness.

What they did was hollow out a hole near the bottom of the tree and put the baby in it. They finished it with a door.

Baby tomb door

As the tree grows, it takes the babies upwards. The tree is supposed to act as a new mother and feed/protect the babies. And as it takes the babies upwards it is taking them to heaven.

Baby grave tree

As the graves get older, the doors fall off and show that the tree has healed and closed around the baby.

Only babies that died 5 months and younger can be buried in this method.

It’s really quite sweet in my opinion.

After, we checked out a store that spun their own thread.

Making string.

I was having serious Sleeping Beauty thoughts. Looks a little different from the spinning wheel in Sleeping Beauty, though.

Handwoven string.

The next day, we bought souvenirs and then headed out of Toraja.

We finished up our mid-year orientation with a AFS Chapter Makassar party and a couple hours of sleep.

Right, now we’re going to talk about the biggest deal in Torajan culture:

The funeral.

Hopefully you understand by now that death in Toraja has great significance. After people die, they are kept around in the house for a couple of years. They are given food and treated like they are alive. Apparently their relatives are ok with the stink and rotting. Luckily for modern Torajans, formaldehyde is a thing.

After those few years, the dead are finally laid to rest in a grand ceremony.

Luckily for us, our stay coincided with a funeral, so we were invited.

We trekked through the jungle to another village where hundreds of people were gathered. They were all dressed in black + batik (traditional decorative cloth).

It was an interesting moment for me. I’d already spent 9 months in country and felt pretty conversational in Indonesian. I am to a point where I can listen and understand a good amount of what is being said.

But listening here? It wasn’t Indonesian.

It was the Torajan language.

Torajans can speak Indonesian, but they, like many tribes, have their own language.

They did speak with me in Indonesian, though. We talked about how normal this all was and how they didn’t care to watch the sacrifices.


What? Sacrifices?

Yes. There was sacrificing.

So if you are not ok seeing death and blood, stop reading.


Still there?

If you are, good for you.

As I was saying, I was talking about how they didn’t care to see the sacrificing, which was how I missed the cutting of the throat of the first water buffalo. I found out by seeing many of the AFSers look away or express horror/disgust in some sort of way. So I quickly got up and tried to get some photos and videos.

Moving him.

Moving the first bull.

It was fascinating.

Back in October, I watched the Muslim way of sacrificing. This is supposed to be the more humane way. They laid the goats and cows down and sawed at their throats.

In Toraja, though, it was different. Torajans are primarily Christian and Animistic (is that a word?), so halal killing is not a thing.

What they did is they snared one of the bull’s legs. Then they grabbed him by his nose ring and pulled his head up. And they swung the knife.

Going in for the kill.

Right before he cut (the red is a design on his shirt).


Boom! That’s a sharp knife!

Right after the bull had his neck cut, he staggered. And that’s where I got this awesome picture.



You can hold your applause. No really, it’s ok. Thank you, thank you.

And as he stumbled around, he dumped out more blood.


Caught on the snare.

And then stumbled on his still-alive-but-downed friend:

"No matter what bro know that we're in this together."

“No matter what bro know that we’re in this together.”

And then spurted blood all over his Friend’s face.

"Whoo there's another gush"

“Whoo there’s another gush”

And then decided to leave Friend alone and twitch on the ground beside him.

Clean up

Comparing the two methods of sacrificing, I would definitely say that the Torajan way is more interesting to watch. However, I think that they were alive for much longer than with the halal way. They twitched on the ground for 10+ minutes and flopped their heads around.

Which is more humane?

I’d say maybe halal, but the most halal way is not sacrificing at all.


We left after they were bringing in more water buffalos to be sacrificed.

Let’s talk about classes again. If you are in the low class, you are only allowed to sacrifice 2 water buffalos max. If you are the high class, you can do 20+. And you have to do a large amount. I don’t know about the middle class.

Anyway, water buffalos are pretty expensive, so it seems that the high class is obliged to be rich.

It was a really neat experience. I am grateful that they allowed us to be a part of it.

What interesting customs do you have in your area?



2 thoughts on “Toraja

  1. Balqis Fiscania says:

    Hello Ruth! I’m in love with your blog! Thanks for sharing your experience when you were in Indonesia, it open up my mind and let me know about foreign people’s thought about my country. I’m glad that you really enjoyed learning and knowing Indonesian culture.

    Oh and one more thing water buffalo = kebo or kerbau 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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