The Toraja live in highlands and mountainous areas of South Sulawesi and Central Sulawesi. Also known as the Sa’dan Toraja, South Toraja, Tae’ Toraja, Toraa, Toraya, they are well know for their elaborate funeral rituals and cliff side graves and totems. Even though many are Christians they keep alive their old customs. The Toraja are broken down into subgroups. The Toraja group most associated with the group’s unusual custom is the Sa’dan Toraja who are named afer the Sada River, a major river in the area, and live around the towns of Rantepao and Makale. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Residing in an area called Tana Toraja, which is sometimes refereed to as the "Land of Heavenly Kings,” , the Toraja cling to ancient tribal traditions and mix them with Protestant Christianity. According to their traditional animist beliefs they believe their ancestors descended from heaven to a mountain top twenty generations ago. Their grand burial ceremonies involve great week-long feasts with buffalos sacrifices, after which the remains of the deceased are placed into a coffin and carried to a hollowed out cliff side cave by a frenzied procession. The opening of the cave is guarded by life-like statues that stand on a "balcony."

An estimated 450,000 people live in Tana Toraja, Toraja — in Sulawesi Selatan, Sulawesi Barat, and Sulawesi Tengah provinces — and 200,000 others have left the region. The Toraja have been successful in gaining national and international attention. This group became prominent in the 1980s, largely because of the tourist industry, which was attracted to the region because of the picturesque villages and the group’s spectacular mortuary rites involving the slaughter of water buffalo. Inhabiting the wet, rugged mountains of the interior of southern Sulawesi, the Toraja grow rice for subsistence and coffee for cash. Traditionally, they lived in fortified hilltop villages with from two to 40 houses featuring large, dramatically sweeping roofs resembling buffalo horns. Until the late 1960s, many of these villages were politically and economically self-sufficient. This autonomy developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries partly as protection against the depredations of the slave trade and partly as a result of intervillage feuding associated with headhunting. [Source: Library of Congress *]

See Separate Article on Toraja Funerals


Toradja is a term used to describe the people who live in the central highlands of Sulawesi. The word “Toradja” means men of the mountain and has traditionally been used as a way of differentiated them from lowland people. A number of culturally similar groups fall within this grouping are they are subdivided into Western Toradja, Eastern Toradja and Southern Toradja groups. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Toradja have been the subject of intense anthropological study because of their head-hunting customs, elaborate funerals, cave burials and carved stone statues. Western Toradja groups include the Mountain Toradja, Pipkoro Toradja, Palu and Parigi. Eastern Toradja groups include the Poso-Toddjo groups, Poso lake groups, Palende, Lampu, Wana and Ampana.. The Southern Toradja groups are generally referred to as Toraja. There are more than a 500,000 Toradja. ~

Toraja History

The Toraja are ethnically different from the people in Sulawesi. Anthropologists believe Torajans are descended from voyagers who sailed from southern China as early as 3,000 B.C. They had no writing system of their own so most of what is known about them is from Buginese and Makassarese sources. They call their homeland Tana Torajada, Enrekang, Luwu, Poleweli and Mamasa. Toraja is a Bugi word that means unsophisticated and roughly means “hillbilly.”

For centuries the Toraja lived in a state of semi-independent and autonomous mountain villages in southern Sulawesi, occasionally getting into turf battles and headhunting raids with each other or with the Bugis in the south. Slaves and coffee were traded with Muslim lowlanders in return for guns, salt and textiles. Headhunting was never carried out on a large scale. It was primarily a test of manhood and was carried out mostly for the funerals of great chiefs to provide them with slaves for the afterlife. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Toraja independence ended in 1906, when they fought a war with the Dutch, who wanted to take complete control of Sulawesi. The Toraja fought the Dutch for two years. The last members of the Toraja resistance were defeated in the mountains around northwest of Ranepao. Defeat by the Dutch also brought a degree of unification among the Toraja which had not existed before. ~

Missionaries from the Calvinist reformed Church arrived in 1913 and set in motion mass conversions and dramatic social changes. The Toraja hunted heads until the 1920s and they were noted for the ability to raise the dead and make headless corpses walk. The Japanese were supposedly afraid of Toraja magic and afraid to enter their territory. According to one story a group of Japanese soldiers machine gunned down some Toraja resistance fighters who supposedly rose from the dead and their mutilated corpses walked back to their burial grounds. [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York]

With the oil boom in the 1960s and 1970s, there was massive out-migration among young upland Sulawesi men looking for jobs in northeastern Kalimantan. During this period, many of these youths became Christians. Although proselytization began among Toraja in the nineteenth century, mass conversions were provoked after the abortive 1965 coup and mass labor migrations in the 1970s and 1980s, a move that implied a rejection of many Toraja beliefs and practices. But when these migrants returned to their villages as wealthy men, they often wanted to hold large status displays in the form of funerals, causing what anthropologist Toby Alice Volkman has called “ritual inflation” as well as intense debates about the authenticity of their conversion to Christianity. Because of the successful efforts of highly placed Toraja officials in the central government, Toraja feasting practices have been granted official status, loosely described as agama Hindu. [Source: Library of Congress]

Toraja Religion

More than 80 percent of Toraja are Christians. Another eight percent are Muslims, and they live mainly in south of Tana Toraja. Only about 10 percent practice their traditional religion, Aluk Todolo (“Ways on the Ancestors”) although it is incorporated onto the belief systems of Christians and Muslims. Many Toraja still associate illnesses with curses and bad spirits and winds in the body. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Traditional beliefs often varied a great deal between Toraja groups. A lack of a written language and physical barriers such as mountains and dense forests resulted in many differences in different groups, Some groups emphasized certain gods, for example, that were ignored by others. Because of the worship of different gods, the Toraja religion was classified as a form of Hinduism by the Indonesian government. Puang Matua is the closest thing the Toraja have to a supreme God and he was grafted onto the Christian god. ~

Aluk Todolo blends ancestor worship and animism and is presided over by special priests. The sacred litany for Aluk Todolo begins: "Incline your ear to me, hear what flows from my mouth, For cupped in my hand, I hold the golden breasts of substitute for the ladder to heaven." The old religion is on the decline. Most of its followers are elderly Toraja. Many younger people are Christians. Many believe that Aluk Todolo may be lost within a couple of generations. ~

The Toraja believe their ancestors descended to earth from heaven to a mountain top many generations ago. They tell visitors, "Before the dawn of human memory our ancestors descended from the Pleiades in a starship." Their houses, they say, are built to resemble the spaceships that brought them to earth. Ritual sacrifices are made to ancestors who, in turn are expected to protect and provide blessings. [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York]

Toraja Universe and Afterlife

The Toraja universe is divided into three parts, each with its own cardinal direction and rites: 1) the underworld, in the southwest, the home of the dead; 2) earth; and 3) the upperworld, to the northeast, the home of deified ancestors. Each is presided over by its own set of gods. Those found on earth sometimes live in particular trees, mountains and other natural objects. There is a fear of werewolves, spirits that fly at night and spirits that eat the stomachs of sleeping people. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Toraja regard life and death as a continuum and conduct a number of “daluk rampe matallo” (life rituals) and “aluk rampe matampu” (death rituals). The former are sometimes associated with agriculture and fertility rituals with sexual overtones and are also called smoke-rising rites . The latter is visible everywhere, in their graves and funerals, and are called smoke-descending rites.

According to tradition, the Toraja believe that the dead should be properly sent off to a land called Puya somewhere in the southwest and given enough attention to send them to the upperworld, where defied ancestors live. Most people never make it beyond Puya, where the dead exist a state of being not unlike the life on earth. Those that get lost on the way to Puya and don’t make it may come back and haunt the living so great care s taken to make sure this doesn’t happen.

Death is something that is always on the mind of Toraja but it something that is viewed as journey one prepares for rather tragedy. Toraja parents make every effort to make sure their infants feet don't touch the ground, with the understanding that if the child died young it would ascend to heaven faster.

Toraja Society

Toraja society has traditionally been stratified according to age, descent, wealth and occupation and was divided into three classes: the aristocracy, commoners and slaves. Women were prohibited from marrying below their class and using utensils used by slaves, who were considered polluting to people of other classes who touched them. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Slavery is technically illegal but the custom has persisted and is a sensitive topic. Slaves have traditionally been acquired through inheritance. Although they were referred to as "chicken droppings," slaves still had "free souls," and if they played their cards right they could end up richer than their masters. In the old days, young noblemen usually were matched with a slave their own age who attended school and in some cases university with his master. ♢

The Tana Toraja Regency is governed by an official appointed by the Indonesian government and advised by a council of local Toraja representatives. The regency is divided into districts which are made up of of several villages. The Indonesian government provides schools, police, road maintenance, health facilities, post offices and other basic services. Leaders are greatly respected and are chosen on the basis of intelligence, courage, charisma, health and descent. Shaming and gossip are common methods of social control. Disputes are often mediated by kinship house leaders. If that doesn’t work state institutions are sought out. ~

Wealth is greatly admired. The water buffalo is the symbol of Toraja wealth, strength, fertility and prosperity. Buffalo with black and brown spots are worth twenty times more than normal grey ones. At funeral ceremonies when many people are buried hundreds of buffalos are sometimes killed. ♂

Toraja Family and Village Groups

The Toraja have strong emotional, economic, and political ties to a number of different kinds of corporate groups. The most basic tie is that of the rarabuku, which might be translated as “family.” Toraja view this grouping as encompassing relations of “blood and bone,” that is, relations between parents and children—the nuclear family. Since Toraja reckon kinship bilaterally, through both mother and father, the possibilities for extending the concept of rarabuku in sev eral different directions are many. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Toraja kinship is organized around “tongkonan” (kindred houses), which contrasts with the banua (ordinary house). The tongkonan is a group of people who reckon descent from an original ancestor. The physical structures belonging to the tongkonan are periodically renewed by replacing their distinctively shaped roofs. This ritual is attended by members of the social group and accompanied by trancelike dances in which the spirits are asked to visit. A third important kind of affiliation is the saroan, or village work group, originally probably an agricultural work group based in a particular hamlet. Beginning as a medium for labor and credit exchange, the saroan has since evolved into a unit of cooperation in ritual activities as well. When sacrifices and funerals take place, groups of saroan exchange meat and other foods. *

The flexibility of these affiliations is partly responsible for the intensity of the mortuary performances. Because there is some ambiguity about one’s affiliation (that is, one’s claims to descent are not only based on blood relationships but also on social recognition of the relationship through public acts), Toraja may attempt to demonstrate the importance of a relationship through elaborate contributions to a funeral, which provides an opportunity not only to show devotion to a deceased parent but also to claim a share of that parent’s land. The amount of land an individual inherits from the deceased might depend on the number of buffalo sacrificed at that person’s funeral. Sometimes people even pawn land to get buffalo to kill at a funeral so that they can claim the land of the deceased. Thus, feasting at funerals is highly competitive. *

Toraja Families, Marriage and Sex

Most households are nuclear families, with cousins, aunts, uncles and grandchildren being regular overnight visitors. Household members are expected to do their share of family chores. Emphasis is placed on hard work, respect for elders. Family needs are placed in front of individual needs. Surviving children and grandchildren inherit property but need to sacrifice a water buffalo at the funeral to claim their inheritance rights. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Men and children usually take care of the water buffalo while women feed pigs. Both men and women fish and work in the fields. Women take care of most the child rearing and household duties but men help with the cooking and caring of babies. Children are raised by both parents and siblings. Adoption among friends and relatives is common, with children often moving back and forth between the homes of the adoptive parents and biological parents. Toraja children refer to all men and women as "father" and "mother." There is no such thing as a "bastard" or a "broken home." Toraja children sometimes tie a string around a bee and keep it as a pet.~

Marriage in most cases is monogamous and although some wealthy families practice polygamy. In the past most marriage were arranged. These day many are love matches. Marriages between first and second cousins are taboo although some wealthy families pay a fine to get around this prohibition so they can keep wealth in the family. Marriage tends to last for a long time although it may be dissolved at any time when either party wishes it. Divorce payments are arranged through Toraja versions of pre- nuptial agreements.

The Toraja begin having sex at an early age and most young Toraja men and women have several partners before they get married. According to Toraja tradition any girl who is in the mood for love can take a walk in a rice paddy alone and scream loudly until a suitor arrives and wrestles her to the ground. Some children are given nicknames which elude to their sexual prowess: ""tall bamboo," "granite penis," or "twelve times" for boys and "slippery eel" or "downy bird nest" for girls. ♢

Toraja Food and Clothes

During ceremonies Toraja men sometimes have a kris (traditional dagger) tucked in the back of their sarong. Women wear colored dressed with beaded decorations hanging from their waist and shoulders.

Rice and other food have traditionally been cooked inside a tube of bamboo that is placed in a fire. “Papiong” is a dish made from meat, vegetables, and coconut cooked in a bamboo tube. “Parmerasan” (buffalo meat cooked in a black sauce) is another favorite. Carp and eels raised in fish ponds in rice fields are eaten as are sea fish that are brought from the coast on the backs of motorcycles. Some Toraja eat dog. Common Toraja sweets include “kacang goreng” (peanuts and treacle wrapped in corn leaves); “kue baje” (sticky rice and palm sugar), and “kue deepa” (rice flour cakes).

The alcoholic drink of choice for the Toraja is “balok”, fermented sugar palm juice also known as tuak or toddy. The juice is sold to distributors in five foot tubes of bamboo. Vendors sell it in thin short tubes. When a palm tree produces fruit the stem is pierced . A receptacle catches the sap as it flows out. The sap ferments naturally and produces wine. Balok comes in various strengths and different colors (dark red is achieved by adding bark). The wine has to be consumed quickly. It generally isn’t any good after one day.

Toraja Houses and Villages

The Toraja have traditionally lived in isolated mountaintop settlements presumably for defensive purposes but under the Dutch they were encouraged to move into the valleys to make administering them easier. Toraja villages are awesome sights. They are made of clusters of huge four-story-high bamboo rice granaries, plaited bamboo houses and kindred houses. The granaries are organized in rows across from the houses and look like a row of arks ready for the next flood. They are constructed of wood and have deck are where people socialize and receive guests and often have elaborate stylized motifs. Outside the village are rice fields and gardens. Many villages also contain Buginese-style houses elevated on stilts and modern cement houses and have a church and school somewhere in the vicinity.

Traditional kindred houses are called “tongkonan”. Comprised of wood fastened together without nails, they are constructed upon square wood piles and have a rectangular floor plan. The roof is turned upwards at both ends. It was traditionally made of sago-palms but today are increasingly made with corrugated metal. The bamboo floor can support 30 people or more, sleeping together without mattresses. Suspended cotton sarongs are the only things that divide up the families. Many of the houses are outfit with small holes for spitting betelnut juice and blowing out strings of snot.

Some say traditional Toraja houses represent buffalo heads and horns, other suggest suggests they represent the ships the Toraja use to come to Sulawesi. Other still say they are "space arcs" from another planet. Toraja houses are oriented towards the north, because their ancestors are thought to have come from there, and are shaped like boats to symbolize the boats they arrived in. They have a small plaza for ritual purposes and often decorated in elaborate motifs, with the number of motifs representing the wealth and prestige of the occupant. The Toraja decorate their houses with images of buffalos and cocks. The buffalos are a symbols of prestige and the cocks are messengers to the afterlife.

Traditional Toraja houses are supposed to be possessed only by upper-class families. They are not simply dwellings; they are visual symbols of descent. Each one has a unique name related to male and female descendant of two founding ancestors. Families trace their genealogy through particular houses and an extended relationship is noted when Toraja say to each their that, 'our houses meet.'"

Traditional Toraja houses continue to be built and lived in and are not just built for tourists. In many case though the owners of “tongkonan” live in modern style homes and keep their traditional homes for ceremonies. Many people live in wooden bungalows perched on stilts. Construction of a tongkonan is initiated with the sacrifice of buffalo, pig or chicken and its completion is celebrated with a large feast with more sacrifices. The Tongkona always face a line of rice barns. There are also platforms for sitting and meetings. Certain places are reserved for people of high status.

Toraja Arts and Sports

“Sisemba” is a form of kick boxing practiced by the Toraja in which contestants are not allowed to use their hands and a winner is crowned after his opponent gives up. It has traditionally been used to train young men to be strong. Sometime mass sisembas with 200 boxers are organized during festivals. “Sibamba” is a combatant sport in which participants go after each other with truncheons and water-buffalo-hide shields.

Toraja fighting cocks have a single sharp five-inch-long spur, dictating a different style than that used in regular cockfights. Losers have their spur leg chopped off with a machete and any bird that runs away is a loser. Winners are pampered and shown off in the community. Bullfights are between male water buffalo who are agitated by chilies stuck up their butts. The animals lock horns with the loser giving up and backing off.

Traditional arts include tau tau wooden effigies (see Toraja Funerals), textiles, bamboo containers and flutes adorned with the same geometric motifs found on kindred houses. Traditional musical instruments include bamboo flutes, drums, Jew’s harp, two-stringed lutes and gongs. Dances, including ones about fishing and fighting, have traditionally had a ritual context but are now often performed for tourists.

Toraja Economics

Most Toraja are subsistence farmers. Rice is the primary crop. It is usually grown in terraced paddies and planted and harvested by hand, with water buffalos used as plow animals. Maize, chilies, beans, yams and potatoes are grown for consumption. Snails. eels and small fish are gathered from the paddies. Coffee, cocoa and cloves are grown as cash crops. Domestic animals include pigs and chickens and water buffalo.

Water buffalo have traditionally been a sign of wealth and are raised for war and sacrifices. Pigs and chicken are also killed for ritual purposes but buffalos carry the most prestige. The wealthy are defined by how many buffalos they own. Land can be purchased with buffalos.

Some Toraja supplement their incomes by making wood carvings for tourist or for rituals. Other crafts include knife forging, pottery making and hat plaiting. Village markets are held on six-day cycles. Women usually sell fruit and vegetables. Men sell livestock and palm wine and metal goods. Most villages have a few tiny stores that sell things like cigarettes, soap, instant noodles and sweets.

Because of the difficulty and expense in caving new rice terraces from the mountains, rice fields are greatly valued. Most court cases in Toraja areas involve land disputes. The shortage of land has driven many Toraja to the cities and far away provinces in search of work.

Toraja coffee is justifiably famous. Rich arabicas are grown in the misty mountains and fetch very high prices. Arabicas are grown mainly for export. Locally, coffee is sometimes roasted with ginger, coconut an even garlic as a flavoring. In coffee-growing areas there are quite few satellite dishes in villages.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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