Tana Toraja – Tongkonan, Tau Tau and Tales of the Dead

Arriving in Tana Toraja was like landing on Earth hundreds of years ago. It had that remote, lost in time feel to it.  We had arrived on the cusp of dusk which melted swiftly into the approaching darkness – when the surrealism was all the more heightened and when for the first time our eyes fell on strange boat-shaped structures. Their shadows and shapes whizzed by us as we drove through the wild and rugged landscape. Ghost like images of farmers in darkened rice fields floated past us and for the first time an excitement resurfaced after the long, bone rattling journey from Makassar to the capital Rantepao.

Armed with our very charming guide Enos, we kicked off our tour the next morning, by visiting the ancestral homes of the Torajan people known as Tongkonan. These were the bizarre looking structures we had seen the night before. According to Torajan belief – The Creator Puang Matau, built the Tongkonan in heaven and when the first ancestor descended upon earth, he replicated the house in the image of how it stands today.

Symbolically built facing north – south, Tongkonan represent ancestral identity and are used as meeting places where communal issues and ideas are discussed. The most striking part of the Tongkonan were the buffalo horns hung vertically on the facades as a sign of status and ritual sacrifice. Beautifully decorated in red, black and yellow wood, the designs and motifs reflect prosperity and fertility. The dramatic curves of the eaves swept up to the sky, perhaps reminiscent of the prows of the ships that carried ancestors to the island long ago. They simply took our breath away and were unlike anything we had ever seen before!

Tongkonan – Sacrificial façade of buffalo horns represent the social status of the deceased and family
From the inside looking out
From the inside looking out
Christianity with a Torajan twist


Ten kilometres south of Rantepao lies Lemo – one of the best known burial sites in Tana Toraja.  Now this was where it all started getting weird but very exciting!

Set amongst stunning rice fields, we were greeted by a sheer rock face lined with balconies of tau tau – wooden effigies carved in the image of the deceased. Above and below these tau tau, rectangular graves were cut into the rock face. Some were closed, whilst others were open and revealed a glimpse of coffins or skeletal remains inside. Traditionally only the wealthy had tau tau made for them with graves of the well-heeled carved higher than those of less status. These particular graves were for descendants of a Toraja chief who once ruled the area hundreds of years ago.

It was one of those moments where all we could do was just stare back in disbelief and wonder. The whole place felt surreal and otherworldly.

Lemo Burial Site - Strangely beautiful
Lemo Burial Site – Strangely beautiful
Tau Tau watch over the dead
The All Seeing Eyes of the Tau Tau
Tau Tau - Watch over the dead
Tau Tau – Watch over the dead

Traditionally tau tau were simple carvings showing only the gender of the deceased. These days they are strikingly realistic to the point where you feel like they’re watching you!  Just in case you’re wondering, the tau tau in the picture below were carved for tourists and not of the deceased!

There there now. Everything's going to be just fine!
There there now – everything’s going to be just fine (though I’m not sure what the old man is doing)!
A bone protruding from a grave
A bone protruding from an open grave
Eerie rock graves
Eerie rock graves

Kete Kesu

Kete Kesu village
Kete Kesu village

Surrounded by enchanting rice fields, Kete Kesu is a quaint village renowned for its wood carvings (I picked up three) and traditional Tongkonan.  It’s the oldest village dating back to four hundred years. We walked around the Tongkonan which were set in rows facing each other complete with connecting rice barns.

Rows of rice barns
These kids loved having their picture taken
Children from Kete Kesu village
Skilled Craftsman makes wall hanging of Torajan Culture
Skilled Craftsman makes wall hanging of Torajan Culture

On the cliff face behind the village we came across an ancient burial site, estimated to be over seven hundred years old. It was an eerie yet awesome sight! Hanging coffins balanced precariously on suspended wooden beams and skeletal remains piled high into decaying wooden coffins.

Stairway to heaven?
Coffins suspended on wooden beams complete with spooky skull
Buffalo carved coffins
Intricately carved coffins

Notice the tau tau below has hands that are turned down instead of facing up and open. We were told this was due to Christian influence which historically has discouraged the making of tau tau. Though many Toraja were Christians and Muslims, it was interesting how these ancient death rituals and customs had managed to survive.


Enos explained that modern day burials were changing. Though some still chose to be buried in the rocks, many were now laid to rest in mini house like mausoleums. Conventional earth burials were also increasing.

A tomb in the shape of a Tongkonan and tau tau
A tomb with the tau tau images of the deceased
Skulls line the coffins
Skulls line the coffins
Human remains piled up in a cave
Human remains piled up in a cave – enough to send a shiver down your spine!

Experiencing these caves and coffins was like something out of an Indiana Jones movie! It was all there – rattling bones, coffins, cobwebs and dark, spooky caves!  It wasn’t so bad being there in the day, but come night time, I can imagine it would be seriously scary. Our guide Enos said he’d received a request once to take a bunch of tourists to a cave at night and wait whilst they lit candles and “meditated”!  What? Are you crazy? A grave yard is no place to “meditate” and why would you go at night? Suffice to say he quite rightly declined! Although he had visited these caves countless times in the line of his work, even Enos said he would be scared to come here at night – and he was a Torajan! I don’t know – some people have crazy ideas!