TORAJA – Funeral Ceremony, Buffalo Sacrifice, Walking Dead…


The Toraja are an ethnic group indigenous to a mountainous region of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Their population is approximately 650,000, of which 450,000 still live in the regency of Tana Toraja (“Land of Toraja”). Most of the population is Christian, and others are Muslim or have local animist beliefs known as aluk (“the way”). The Indonesian government has recognized this animist belief as Aluk To Dolo (“Way of the Ancestors”).

The word toraja comes from the Bugis language’s to riaja, meaning “people of the uplands”. The Dutch colonial government named the people Toraja in 1909. Torajans are renowned for their elaborate funeral rites, burial sites carved into rocky cliffs, massive peaked-roof traditional houses known as tongkonan, and colorful wood carvings. Toraja funeral rites are important social events, usually attended by hundreds of people and lasting for several days.

Before the 20th century, Torajans lived in autonomous villages, where they practised animism and were relatively untouched by the outside world. In the early 1900s, Dutch missionaries first worked to convert Torajan highlanders to Christianity. When the Tana Toraja regency was further opened to the outside world in the 1970s, it became an icon of tourism in Indonesia: it was exploited by tourism developers and studied by anthropologists. By the 1990s, when tourism peaked, Toraja society had changed significantly, from an agrarian model — in which social life and customs were outgrowths of the Aluk To Dolo—to a largely Christian society.

Ethnic identity

The Torajan people had little notion of themselves as a distinct ethnic group before the 20th century. Before Dutch colonization and Christianization, Torajans, who lived in highland areas, identified with their villages and did not share a broad sense of identity. Although complexes of rituals created linkages between highland villages, there were variations in dialects, differences in social hierarchies, and an array of ritual practices in the Sulawesi highland region. “Toraja” (from the coastal languages’ to, meaning people; and riaja, uplands) was first used as a lowlander expression for highlanders. As a result, “Toraja” initially had more currency with outsiders—such as the Bugis and Makassarese, who constitute a majority of the lowland of Sulawesi—than with insiders. The Dutch missionaries’ presence in the highlands gave rise to the Toraja ethnic consciousness in the Sa’dan Toraja region, and this shared identity grew with the rise of tourism in the Tana Toraja Regency. Since then, South Sulawesi has four main ethnic groups—the Bugis (the majority, including shipbuilders and seafarers), the Makassarese (lowland traders and seafarers), the Mandarese (traders and fishermen), and the Toraja (highland rice cultivators).



From the 17th century, the Dutch established trade and political control on Sulawesi through the Dutch East Indies Company. Over two centuries, they ignored the mountainous area in the central Sulawesi, where Torajans lived, because access was difficult and it had little productive agricultural land. In the late 19th century, the Dutch became increasingly concerned about the spread of Islam in the south of Sulawesi, especially among the Makassarese and Bugis peoples. The Dutch saw the animist highlanders as potential Christians. In the 1920s, the Reformed Missionary Alliance of the Dutch Reformed Church began missionary work aided by the Dutch colonial government. In addition to introducing Christianity, the Dutch abolished slavery and imposed local taxes. A line was drawn around the Sa’dan area and called Tana Toraja (“the land of Toraja”). Tana Toraja was first a subdivision of the Luwu kingdom that had claimed the area. In 1946, the Dutch granted Tana Toraja a regentschap, and it was recognized in 1957 as one of the regencies of Indonesia.

Early Dutch missionaries faced strong opposition among Torajans, especially among the elite, because the abolition of their profitable slave trade had angered them. Some Torajans were forcibly relocated to the lowlands by the Dutch, where they could be more easily controlled. Taxes were kept high, undermining the wealth of the elites. Ultimately, the Dutch influence did not subdue Torajan culture, and only a few Torajans were converted. In 1950, only 10% of the population had converted to Christianity.

In the 1930s, Muslim lowlanders attacked the Torajans, resulting in widespread Christian conversion among those who sought to align themselves with the Dutch for political protection and to form a movement against the Bugis and Makassarese Muslims. Between 1951 and 1965 (following Indonesian independence), southern Sulawesi faced a turbulent period as the Darul Islam separatist movement fought for an Islamic state in Sulawesi. The 15 years of guerrilla warfare led to massive conversions to Christianity.

Alignment with the Indonesian government, however, did not guarantee safety for the Torajans. In 1965, a presidential decree required every Indonesian citizen to belong to one of five officially recognized religions: Islam, Christianity (Protestantism and Catholicism), Hinduism, or Buddhism. The Torajan religious belief (aluk) was not legally recognized, and the Torajans raised their voices against the law. To make aluk accord with the law, it had to be accepted as part of one of the official religions. In 1969, Aluk To Dolo (“the way of ancestors”) was legalized as a sect of Agama Hindu Dharma, the official name of Hinduism in Indonesia.

Family affiliation

Family is the primary social and political grouping in Torajan society. Each village is one extended family, the seat of which is the tongkonan, a traditional Torajan house. Each tongkonan has a name, which becomes the name of the village. The familial dons maintain village unity. Marriage between distant cousins (fourth cousins and beyond) is a common practice that strengthens kinship. Toraja society prohibits marriage between close cousins (up to and including the third cousin)—except for nobles, to prevent the dispersal of property. Kinship is actively reciprocal, meaning that the extended family helps each other farm, share buffalo rituals, and pay off debts.

Each person belongs to both the mother’s and the father’s families, the only bilateral family line in Indonesia. Children, therefore, inherit household affiliation from both mother and father, including land and even family debts. Children’s names are given on the basis of kinship, and are usually chosen after dead relatives. Names of aunts, uncles and cousins are commonly referred to in the names of mothers, fathers and siblings.

Before the start of the formal administration of Toraja villages by the Tana Toraja Regency, each Toraja village was autonomous. In a more complex situation, in which one Toraja family could not handle their problems alone, several villages formed a group; sometimes, villages would unite against other villages. Relationship between families was expressed through blood, marriage, and shared ancestral houses (tongkonan), practically signed by the exchange of buffalo and pigs on ritual occasions. Such exchanges not only built political and cultural ties between families but defined each person’s place in a social hierarchy: who poured palm wine, who wrapped a corpse and prepared offerings, where each person could or could not sit, what dishes should be used or avoided, and even what piece of meat constituted one’s share.

Class affiliation

In early Toraja society, family relationships were tied closely to social class. There were three strata: nobles, commoners, and slaves (slavery was abolished in 1909 by the Dutch East Indies government). Class was inherited through the mother. It was taboo, therefore, to marry “down” with a woman of lower class. On the other hand, marrying a woman of higher class could improve the status of the next generation. The nobility’s condescending attitude toward the commoners is still maintained today for reasons of family prestige.

Nobles, who were believed to be direct descendants of the descended person from heaven, lived in tongkonans, while commoners lived in less lavish houses (bamboo shacks called banua). Slaves lived in small huts, which had to be built around their owner’s tongkonan. Commoners might marry anyone, but nobles preferred to marry in-family to maintain their status. Sometimes nobles married Bugis or Makassarese nobles. Commoners and slaves were prohibited from having death feasts. Despite close kinship and status inheritance, there was some social mobility, as marriage or change in wealth could affect an individuals status. Wealth was counted by the ownership of water buffaloes.

Slaves in Toraja society were family property. Sometimes Torajans decided to become slaves when they incurred a debt, pledging to work as payment. Slaves could be taken during wars, and slave trading was common. Slaves could buy their freedom, but their children still inherited slave status. Slaves were prohibited from wearing bronze or gold, carving their houses, eating from the same dishes as their owners, or having sex with free women—a crime punishable by death.

Religious affiliation

Toraja’s indigenous belief system is polytheistic animism, called aluk, or “the way” (sometimes translated as “the law”). 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, according to aluk, 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. Animals live in the underworld, which is represented by rectangular space enclosed by pillars, the earth is for mankind, and the heaven world is located above, covered with a saddle-shaped roof. Other Toraja gods include Pong Banggai di Rante (god of Earth), Indo’ Ongon-Ongon (a goddess who can cause earthquakes), Pong Lalondong (god of death), and Indo’ Belo Tumbang (goddess of medicine); there are many more.

The earthly authority, whose words and actions should be cleaved to both in life (agriculture) and death (funerals), is called to minaa (an aluk priest). Aluk is not just a belief system; it is a combination of law, religion, and habit. Aluk governs social life, agricultural practices, and ancestral rituals. The details of aluk may vary from one village to another. One common law is the requirement that death and life rituals be separated. Torajans believe that performing death rituals might ruin their corpses if combined with life rituals. The two rituals are equally important. During the time of the Dutch missionaries, Christian Torajans were prohibited from attending or performing life rituals, but were allowed to perform death rituals. Consequently, Toraja’s death rituals are still practised today, while life rituals have diminished.



Tongkonan are the traditional Torajan ancestral houses. They stand high on wooden piles, topped with a layered split-bamboo roof shaped in a sweeping curved arc, and they are incised with red, black, and yellow detailed wood carvings on the exterior walls. The word “tongkonan” comes from the Torajan tongkon (“to sit”).

Tongkonan are the center of Torajan social life. The rituals associated with the tongkonan are important expressions of Torajan spiritual life, and therefore all family members are impelled to participate, because symbolically the tongkonan represents links to their ancestors and to living and future kin. According to Torajan myth, the first tongkonan was built in heaven on four poles, with a roof made of Indian cloth. When the first Torajan ancestor descended to earth, he imitated the house and held a large ceremony.

The construction of a tongkonan is laborious work and is usually done with the help of the extended family. There are three types of tongkonan. The tongkonan layuk is the house of the highest authority, used as the “center of government”. The tongkonan pekamberan belongs to the family members who have some authority in local traditions. Ordinary family members reside in the tongkonan batu. The exclusivity to the nobility of the tongkonan is diminishing as many Torajan commoners find lucrative employment in other parts of Indonesia. As they send back money to their families, they enable the construction of larger tongkonan.


Funeral rites


In Toraja society, the funeral ritual is the most elaborate and expensive event. The richer and more powerful the individual, the more expensive is the funeral. In the aluk religion, only nobles have the right to have an extensive death feast. The death feast of a nobleman is usually attended by thousands and lasts for several days. A ceremonial site, called rante, is usually prepared in a large, grassy field where shelters for audiences, rice barns, and other ceremonial funeral structures are specially made by the deceased family. Flute music, funeral chants, songs and poems, and crying and wailing are traditional Toraja expressions of grief with the exceptions of funerals for young children, and poor, low-status adults.

The ceremony is often held weeks, months, or years after the death so that the deceased’s family can raise the significant funds needed to cover funeral expenses. Torajans traditionally believe that death is not a sudden, abrupt event, but a gradual process toward Puya (the land of souls, or afterlife). During the waiting period, the body of the deceased is wrapped in several layers of cloth and kept under the tongkonan. The soul of the deceased is thought to linger around the village until the funeral ceremony is completed, after which it begins its journey to Puya.

Another component of the ritual is the slaughter of water buffalo. The more powerful the person who died, the more buffalo are slaughtered at the death feast. Buffalo carcasses, including their heads, are usually lined up on a field waiting for their owner, who is in the “sleeping stage”. Torajans believe that the deceased will need the buffalo to make the journey and that they will be quicker to arrive at Puya if they have many buffalo. Slaughtering tens of water buffalo and hundred of pigs using a machete is the climax of the elaborate death feast, with dancing and music and young boys who catch spurting blood in long bamboo tubes. Some of the slaughtered animals are given by guests as “gifts”, which are carefully noted because they will be considered debts of the deceased’s family. However, a cockfight, known as bulangan londong, is an integral part of the ceremony. As with the sacrifice of the buffalo and the pigs, the cockfight is considered sacred because it involves the spilling of blood on the earth. In particular, the tradition requires the sacrifice of at least three chickens. However, it is common for at least 25 pairs of chickens to be set against each other in the context of the ceremony.

There are three methods of burial: the coffin may be laid in a cave or in a carved stone grave, or hung on a cliff. It contains any possessions that the deceased will need in the afterlife. The wealthy are often buried in a stone grave carved out of a rocky cliff. The grave is usually expensive and takes a few months to complete. In some areas, a stone cave may be found that is large enough to accommodate a whole family. A wood-carved effigy, called Tau tau, is usually placed in the cave looking out over the land. The coffin of a baby or child may be hung from ropes on a cliff face or from a tree. This hanging grave usually lasts for years, until the ropes rot and the coffin falls to the ground.

In the ritual called Ma’Nene, that takes place each year in August, the bodies of the deceased are exhumed to be washed, groomed and dressed in new clothes. The mummies are then walked around the village.

In Torajan life, death occupies a central place. Funeral ceremonies are the most important of all : it might take months or even years before the family of the deceased can gather enough funds to cover the funeral expenses. At this occasion, hundreds of pigs and water buffalos are sacrified by the family and guests ;  Torajans believe that the deceased will need the buffalos to make the journey and that they will be quicker to arrive at Puya (land of souls) if they are accompanied by many animals. Ceremonies are usually attended by hundreds of people and may last for several days. Some locals told us that nowadays this tradition is shifting to becoming a platform for families to demonstrate their wealth by killing even more buffalos.

When the rite is completed the body will be buried : the coffin may be laid in a cave or in a carved stone grave, or hung on a cliff. It contains any possessions that the deceased may need in the afterlive. A wood-carved effigy, called Tau tau, is usually hanged above the coffin and watches over it. In some villages, babies are buried in little coffins that are inserted in the trunk of trees.

Before the 20th century Torajan people still lived in an untouched environment and had relatively few contacts with the outside world. Then Dutch missionaries brought Christianism in the early 1900s – a religion that, beside islam, is still worshiped by many Torajans – and in the last decades tourism developed in the region, significantly transforming social life and local customs.


The two-souled people

Today, only few Toraja people follow the ancestral animist beliefs. For them, the world has three levels. The sky is the upper level, ruled by the supreme god Puang Matua, the creator of the people, animals and plants. The land is the intermediary level. The underground is the domain of the spirits, darkness and death.

Two other spheres influence the domain of the people. One is located in the southwest, being populated by the spirits of the ancestors, and the other in the northeast, belonging to the already deified ancestors.

Today, only few Toraja people follow the ancestral animist beliefs. For them, the world has three levels. The sky is the upper level, ruled by the supreme god Puang Matua, the creator of the people, animals and plants. The land is the intermediary level. The underground is the domain of the spirits, darkness and death.

Two other spheres influence the domain of the people. One is located in the southwest, being populated by the spirits of the ancestors, and the other in the northeast, belonging to the already deified ancestor

The next funerary ceremony takes place 9 days after the first one, or later – several months or several years (up to 20!), the deadline for the relatives to save the funds necessary for the festivity. The dead remains all this time inside the house, his body has not touched the tomb, and his soul is still searching for its way…

The same rites are restarted. The festivity amplifies. The dead is put out of the house in a coffin that must not touch the ground, being carried on a hearse resembling a Toraja house. He is carried through the fields and rice paddies, in the sounds of the gong, in the vast field of Ma’Palolo. A long line of mourning people follow him. The buffaloes and the other animals to be sacrificed finish the cortege.

The coffin is placed among the menhirs, in a previously prepared platform. Around the sacred field, a village of huts has been built, for hosting the hundreds of guests. Buffaloes and pigs are sacrificed again, and the meat is shared between the guests. At the shadow of the trees, people eat and drink palm wine. Prays are recited. Ma’maraka is sung by vocalists; their words attempt to comfort the family, expressing, at the same time, the support of the community.

It takes place in the day called “towards the tomb”. The dead will leave the field of menhirs. The coffin, located on the hearse, is carried on the shoulders of the men. After years of wandering, this is the last journey. The procession, accompanied by singing, reaches the funerary promenade. It is a large calcareous rock, in which liangs, the sepulchers of the families, are carved. A large ladder made of a tall bamboo stem with notches, will allow the ascend of the coffin to the liang. It is a difficult action, which requires skill and maxim effort. People go home. 30 days later, the relatives renounce to the mourning clothes. The soul of the dead has reached the kingdom of the spirits, watching for the wellbeing of the relatives and friends.

The Buffalo Sacrifice

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It is interesting to reflect on the significance of funerals in this traditional society. In many ways, perhaps in most ways, people of traditional society seem closer to te processes of life and death than those of their modern relatives. Thus, while they treat birth with unrestrained joy, they are not afraid to face death, either. In the world view of Torajans, death is not regarded as the opposite of life. Rather, birth and death are regarded as major mile stones within a person’s life. Amongst the people of  Tana Toraja, this world view forms the basis of the Alluk Todolo tradition. It is this tradition which is the inspiration for the long, joyful funeral celebrations characteristic of these people.

A funeral here is not an occasion for sorrow. Rather, it is a celebration in which the entire family of the deceased, and all the members of his village, take part. specifically, a funeral reinforces the eternal bond between the living and the dead of a single family. In the society of Tana Toraja, it is the funeral, not the wedding, which marks a family’s status. In Tana Toraja, the funeral ceremony is known as Rambu Soloq. The most important part of this ceremony involves the sacrifice of buffalo. These animals die in order to accompanying the spirit of their master on his journey to the land of the dead. Before being sacrificed according to a strictly defined procedure, in which the neck of the ox is cut with a sharp blade and the animal allowed to bleed to death, the animals take part in trials of strength known as tedong silaga. This procedure is known as tinggoro.

While the sacrifice of the other buffalo is also acceptable, traditional Torajan belief states that offerings of albino buffalo with a certain type of spotted skin (tedong bonga) are preferable. Buffalo with these characteristic markings on their hide are rare, constituting a mere eight percent of the total population. Therefore, it is not surprising that these animals can command a price between 15-30 million rupiah, depending on the perceived beauty of the animal. Attempts to breed these animals have met with very limited success. Even if both parents have the desired markings, there is no guarantee that the offspring will be similarly blessed. An attempt in Bandung, West Java, to breed buffalo that consistently give birth to these animals failed completely.


The rarity of the animals is compounded by the increasing number of rich Torajans, all of whom desire prestigious funerals involving these animals. It is by no means uncommon for more than 300 animals-a good many of them are spotted albino buffalo-to be sacrificed in a single ceremony. Considering that the ceremony of a wealthy or high-status person often lasts as long as eight days and involves more than 15,000 people, all of whom have to be fed, this number is hardly surprising.The funeral is used by the people of Toraja to establish the status of the deceased. In the Torajan belief system, people lead their lives in preparation for their death.

During their lives, people work hard to accumulate wealth. When they die, they take this wealth with them beyond their grave.All members of the deceased family are expected to contribute to the costs of the expensive ceremonies. Many people go deeply into debt in order to hold a funeral ceremony. It is not uncommon for a young man, afraid of being burdened by debt, to postpone or cancel his marriage if the grandmother or grandfather of the girl he loves is old enough to die soon.

Walking Dead


In times past, when the villages of Tana Toraja were still extremely isolated and difficult to visit, it is said that certain people had the power to make a dead man walk to his village in order to be present at his own funeral. In this way, relatives of the deceased were spared the necessity of having to carry his corpse. One particular area, Mamasa ? West Toraja, was particularly well-known for this practice. The people of this area are not strictly speaking of the same ethnic group as the people of Tana Toraja. However, outsiders often refer to them as Toraja Mamasa. In many ways, the cultures of the two groups are similar, although they each have their own distingushing characteristics. In particular, the style of wood carving of the two groups is different.

According to the belief system of the people of Mamasa, the spirit of a dead person must return to his village of origin. It is essential that he meet with his relatives, so that they can guide him on his journey into the after-life after the ceremonies have been completed. In the past, people of this area were frightened to journey far, in case they died while they were away and were unable to return to their village. If someone died while on a journey, and unless he has a strong magic power, it would be necessary to procure the services of an expert, to guide the dead person back to the village.


This is not intended metaphorically-the dead person would be made to walk from wherever he had journeyed back home, no matter how far away that was. The corpse would walk stiffly, without any expression on his face, in the manner of a robot. If anyone addressed the dead man directly, he would fall down senseless, unable to continue his journey. Therefore, those accompanying the deceased on the macabre procession had to warn people they met on their path not to talk directly to the dead man. The attendants usually sought out quiet paths where the procession was less likely to meet with strangers. These days, the practice of walking the dead back to their place of origin has fallen out of currency.

Good roads now connect the villages of Tana Toraja, and people tend to rely on more conventional means of transportation for bringing bodies back home. The ability to bring the dead back to life has not been entirely forgotten, however. Sometimes, even now, the deceased is made to continue breathing and seems alive until all his relatives are gathered around him.More commonly, the skill is practiced on animals. At a funeral ceremony, when a buffalo has been sacrificed and its head separated from its body, the body is made to get up and walk for as long as ten minutes. A demonstration of this sort proves to the audience that the ability to bring the dead back to life has not entirely passed from the community.

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Type of Graves of Torajans


When a person dies, the body is not directly buried, but preserved by using formalin (in the past, people used certain leaves). After that, the corpse is put on the top of the house. The dead person is considered to have headache, and people still give him/her food and drink. The dead person is kept in his/her house until 2 to 5 years, it depends when is his/her family able to carry on a funeral ceremony for him/her.There are several kinds of graves:

The family asks “to pande batu” (carving expert) to make a hole (about 3 m long and 1 m high) on stone wall. The corpse is wrapped with sarung (traditional cloth) and put inside a coffin, then the coffin is placed inside the hole. Nobles of Toraja always make “tau-tau” (a human-like statue) for dead people. Tau-tau is made similar as the dead person, including the body, appearance, clothes, and necklace. To make a statue, people have to contact “to minah” (tradition keeper, a person respected as an elderly one). Besides, they also have to check the date (time). Tao-tao for a man wears pants, and the one for a woman wears a long skirt. A person who is skillful in making tao-tao is called “to pande tao-tao”. Tau-tau is still an animism belief. Common people do not make tau-tau, and after 2 – days the corpse is put into a coffin called “tongkonan”. A single hole of Batu Lemo grave can be put 3-5 corpses because the size of preserved corpses can shrink to ½ m. If the hole is already full, then people need to make new a hole which are near the previous hole.


The deceased person is put into a huge coffin which can contain 2-5 corpses. After that, the coffin is placed inside a cave. In Marante there can be found many human skulls and bones.

It is a modern grave of Christian Torajan. The shape of the grave is a house, and it is said as the second home after a person dies. The house can contain 20-25 corpses. The corpses are placed with their coffins. The grave is also called “banua tang marambu” (house which no longer has smoke).One grave is for one family.

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13 responses to “TORAJA – Funeral Ceremony, Buffalo Sacrifice, Walking Dead…

  1. Hi,
    i always happy when someone wrote something about Toraja because I’m Torajan and this describes it well, both pictures and words. Love this 😀 😀 😀


  2. i am happy if you like it Yuna 🙂 of course, Toraja, as Indonesia at all, is unique, i love this country, and love being here… i am observing hundreds of outstanding cultures in this dream land 🙂 anyway thank you very much Yuna 😀


  3. Pingback: My Daily Post: House of Toraja | I Spy with My Little Eyes

  4. Wow, the amount of information you’ve detailed here is incredible. That buffalo sacrifice was gross and so horrid. I’ve heard some pigs being beaten, in order to get them killed for a fiesta grilling, which I thought was terrible animal treatment. I’m not a really gung-ho pro-animal person, but the way that buffalo was just sliced in the neck – aye! Very creepy, but interesting about the walking dead. Yipes! Hope you had been able to sleep well the night you took those photos, cuz I sure couldn’t have.


  5. Pingback: Tana Toraja: Funerals in the Jungle | backpackerlee

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