Local culture in Sulawesi

Most Sulawesians are either Muslim or Christian, but many people maintain their animist beliefs at the same time, which has led to the development of a unique and enthralling cultural identity. In the northern provinces of the island, the largest ethnic group is the Minahasan (Manado) people, who are predominantly Christian following the arrival of Dutch missionaries in the early 20th century. They are known for their spicy, exotic cuisine – fruit bats, forest rats, cats and dogs can be found on market stalls.
In the southern lowlands, the main ethnic grouping is the Bugis people – seafarers, traders and rice farmers that sometimes provide holidaymakers with cookery lessons or bamboo orchestra recitals in their stilt homes. And then there are the Torajan people, who live mostly in the picturesque highlands of Sulawesi and grow coffee, cacao and rice. Their funeral schedules are carefully monitored by guides ready to change up their itineraries if it looks as though their guests will get the chance to attend one of these fascinating ceremonies, filled with ancient rites and rituals. Depending on the social status and wealth of the deceased, these events can often last for days and be attended by hundreds of people, with foreign visitors more than welcome to join.

Tana Torajah, Land of the Heavenly Kings

Tana Torajah is the stronghold of Sulawesi’s most interesting traditions. The principal form of cultural expression here is Pa’ssura – wood carving – which is used to decorate ancestral homes known as tongkonan. These houses, with roofs shaped like upturned boats and sometimes with rice barns attached, are the centre of social life, representing links to ancestors as well as future kin, and all family members assist with construction. You may have the opportunity to visit a few villages among rice terraces and bamboo forest, even staying the night in a tongkonan and sampling some typical Torajan food and hospitality.

Torajan funerals

It’s probably a little unfair to say that Torajan culture is preoccupied with death, but the passage to the afterlife is certainly given a considerable amount of attention. When a person dies, their body may be kept for a long time, years even, while the family saves money to pay for a funeral, known as a tomate. These ceremonies can go on for days, and involve ritual dances, feasting and drinking, and the mass slaughter of water buffaloes which it is assumed will carry the deceased to the next realm. Cockfighting is another common feature of Torajan funerals, and so while visitors are more than welcome to attend, you should be aware that it can be a gruesome, bloody affair at times.

After the funeral, the dead need to be buried. If they were wealthy then their final resting place is likely to be in a cave in the cliff, which is often guarded by a tau-tau – a carved effigy in the likeness of the deceased, dressed in traditional garb, there to watch over them. Driving through Tana Torajah you’ll frequently spot these cliffside cemeteries. Hanging graves are another eerie sight, with bamboo coffins suspended by ropes, and sometimes people will also be buried in tree trunks, so that their souls can be ferried to the afterlife by the wind.
Torajan funerals take place year round, but mostly during July and August, the dry season, and usually at the start of the week. If your visit does happen to coincide with a funeral, your travel company will likely suggest attending for a day and it may turn out to be the most memorable of your holiday. August also sees the Ma’Nene ritual, when the dead are exhumed, washed, groomed and dressed in fresh clothes, before being paraded around the village by their family.

Funeral decorum

Kate from our travel specialists Selective Asia shares her insights on Torajan funerals:
To means ‘person/people’ and mate means ‘deceased’. Rambu solo is the name of the actual funeral ceremony, so a rambu solo is held for the tomate. Torajans celebrate death and the passing of the deceased to the spirit world. Funerals are vibrant affairs with the whole community getting involved and all are welcome. A local guide is recommended as they will be able to interpret the proceedings for you and be a familiar local face; depending on the size of the funeral they may also introduce you to the family of the deceased. It is expected that you bring a gift or offering such as a carton of cigarettes and your guide will let you know who to pass the offering to. Dressing smartly is appreciated and if offered drinks or snacks you should accept.”

“It seems strange to say but the highlight of the trip was attending a funeral in Toraja. The lavish ceremony, held over five days, is like nothing I have ever seen. There were hundreds attending the ceremony and dozens of buffalo and even more pigs slaughtered to feed the people.” – Simon Emery in a review of his Sulawesi cultural holiday

“(A highlight of the trip was) going to a traditional funeral of a very high status lady in Toraja. We only went on one day but it lasted seven days. All her relatives and members of her tribe were there - about 20,000 people. We were made most welcome by one of the ladies grandchildren who spoke very good English so we could enjoy the spectacle even more.” – Gerard Mulryan in a review of his Sulawesi cultural holiday
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Sulawesi or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Sulawesi coffee tours

From coffins to coffee, with another great way to immerse yourself in local Torajan communities. The Arabica coffee from this region is renowned for its crisp flavours and balanced taste and if you’re a caffeine aficionado yourself then you can opt for a tour that sees you spending a few days actually at work on a coffee plantation. You’ll try your hand at every stage of the process from bean to cup, and gain a deeper appreciation for the effort and skill that goes into perfecting your morning joe.
Kate from our travel specialists Selective Asia:
“To reach your homestay involves trekking through Toraja’s stunning rural landscapes and passing through remote villages. You are likely to be served Torajan specialties, such as pa'piong (chicken/pork or fish cooked with vegetables in bamboo. Lodging is simple (generally mattresses are provided in a private room) but the welcome is always warm and hospitable and your guide will be able to translate so that you can converse with your hosts.”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: http://veton.picq.fr] [Food: Frank Smith] [Places: Joe Bloggs]