Tau Taus Guard Tombs in Torajaland

After the elaborate funeral celebration of the life of a family member, Torajan people believe the deceased must be buried between Earth and Heaven. So coffins are placed in rocks, cliffs, trees, or rock walls so the deceased will not be buried in the Earth. And a tau tau is carved to guard the tomb.DSC_0221

With items needed in the afterlife beside the body, the coffin is placed in a tomb in a rock cliff located in Lemo, Sulawesi, Indonesia, after weeks of chiseling out a big hole. Then the opening is closed with a wooden door and a tau tau placed above it.

The out-stretched hands offer protection, wealth, prosperity, and good health to family members.
The out-stretched hands of the tau taus offer protection, wealth, prosperity, and good health to family members.


Guarding over the tomb is the hand-carved wooden tau tau, an effigy or likeness of the person in the tomb standing on the adjacent balcony. Every August the ritual is held where the Torajan family takes the body from the tomb and washes, grooms and dresses it in new clothes.

And the effigies are dressed with new clothes and refurbished regularly. Coffins are repaired and replaced when needed, our Bestway Tours & Safaris guide told us.DSC_0464

In another burial rock cliff called Ke’te’Kese in Sulawesi, Indonesia, coffins of all shapes and sizes are hung from the side of the cliffs. These are called the Hanging Cliffs.DSC_0479The coffins are repaired and replaced after years of deterioration and many families collect the remains and place them with other family member’s remains in one family communal coffin. It is not unusual to see skulls on top of the grave at the Hanging Cliffs.DSC_0469

Guarding the tombs at the Hanging Cliffs
Tau tau guarding the tombs at the Hanging Cliffs


When babies die before they have started teething, they are buried in a large pine tree trunk, called the Baby TreeDSC_0268. The deceased baby is wrapped in a cloth and placed in hole dug out in a palm tree trunk. Palm fiber is placed over the hole to close the tomb. DSC_0274As the tree trunk grows, the baby’s remains become one with the tree. When many babies are buried in the same palm tree trunk, the tree dies.DSC_0088

The Torajans have one more place to bury their loved ones. Since the people live in a rocky hilly terrain in the mountains, rocks are used as tombs. Many of the rocks are huge boulders making it a perfect place for tombs. And a tau tau of the deceased person is placed over the coffin to watch over it.DSC_0052

The former King and Queen had their own tomb built. And they guard it to this day.
The former King and Queen had their own tomb built. And they guard it to this day. Notice the Queen has her arms out-stretched but her hands are down. She was the Queen.

After several years of preparing for the deceased’s funeral celebration, Torajan people then spend weeks preparing the burial tomb located between Heaven and Earth. This is followed with the ritual cleaning and dressing the body every August after burial in rocks, trees, rock walls or hanging from cliffs.

Photo Copy ©  2015 

A Torajan lady in her traditional headdress.
A Torajan lady in her traditional headdress.
Indonesia Travel

A Bon Voyage Celebration Like No Other

It was a family reunion, bon voyage party, and happy celebration of the life of a loved one all at the same time. And it is the most important, expensive and elaborate event in the life of a Tana Torajan who leaves this world.

The rante or ceremony site of the Torajan funeral around their Tongkonan houses.
The rante or ceremony site of the Torajan funeral around their Tongkonan houses.

Hundreds of family members, friends, tourists and anyone in the community are welcomed to this happy funeral occasion celebrated by sacrificing dozens of water buffalo and pigs “loaned” for the attendees to eat and take home as gift.

The colorful and carved coffin under the Tongkonan house.
The colorful and carved coffin under the Tongkonan house.

And each guest brings a gift to the event from cigarettes, alcohol, and rice, to water buffalo and pigs.

We brought cigarettes and gave them to the Hery in honor of his deceased father's Bato' Pakym celebration.
We brought cigarettes and gave them to Hery in honor of his deceased father’s Bato’ Pakym celebration. Our Bestway Tours and Safaris guide helped us purchase the Nikki Indonesian-made cigarettes for 102,000 rupiah, $10.20 USD.

This big funeral celebration by the Tana Torajan tribe in the mountainous south of Sulawesi Island in the Republic of Indonesia, is a very expensive affair taking years to create and can cost as much as one hundred thousand dollars depending on the wealth of the family.

DSC_0852When a family member dies, the body is embalmed and placed in a beautiful elaborately carved coffin in or under their tongkonan house for up to 5 years until the family can gather enough money to give the deceased a proper send off.

Until the funeral, the deceased is considered “sick” and is given 3 meals a day and regularly bathed and clothed as if alive. Not until the funeral celebration is the deceased considered deceased. The coffin, costing $600-$1200, is made of Uru wood and takes 2 weeks to make. Four colors can be used on a coffin, red signifying blood and bravery, black for simple life and sorrow, while for holiness and yellow for prosperity. The coffin at this funeral was red, white, black and yellow.

The family arrived at the celebration, first the women entered, followed by the men.
The family arrived at the celebration, first the women entering, followed by the men.

The family then begins constructing a rante or funeral set, from scratch around the family’s massive peaked boat-like houses called tongkonan or on a vacant field. Wood bleachers complete with roof are built around the main area so that hundreds of guests can observe and participate in the ceremonies. Traditional Torajan symbolic fabric is used to decorate and wrap each structure. But seats are not provided in these bleachers, leaving all guests to sit on the floor. A ceremonial tower is built at the site where the body is placed during the ceremonies.DSC_0868

After everything is built and enough money is collected, the funeral starts with a pastor conducting a service for the family and then the public ceremony begins. Most people smoke non-stop during the event and drink and eat snacks, buffalo and pig meat. DSC_0867Music, chants, songs and crying are the traditional signs of sorrow and grief displayed at this happy celebration.

The presentation of the deceased to the guests with the gong leading the way.
The presentation of the deceased to the guests with the gong leading the way.

The coffin is then removed from the tongkonan house and carried around and around the rante ceremonial site to the beat of a gong so all can bid farewell to the deceased for the last time in this world. Ten men carrying the coffin then must lift it up to the second floor of the lakkian tower via a “ladder” constructed just for that purpose. DSC_0904After considerable effort, the men get the deceased in his place of honor for the Rambu Solo funeral ceremony that is to follow.

If the deceased is wealthy, sacred water buffalo and cock fights are held in the rante and guests enjoy placing bets for their favorite animal. And singing and dancing follows. And 3 different trees are placed in the rante to honor the deceased. Then, a stake is hammered into the ground and a water buffalo is brought into the rante and tied to the stake. DSC_0915Its throat is cut, blood gushes out and the animal swings around and around and finally falls and dies on the ground that is covered with blood.

  DSC_0916Several men then began skinning the animal and cutting and distributing the different parts to the guests. And buffalo and pig meat is cooked for all to eat.DSC_0935

The goal of this funeral celebration is to be the best, most expensive and elaborate party ever held and it lasts for 3 days or for weeks depending on the status and wealth of the deceased. The number of water buffalo slaughtered at this status celebration can be in the hundreds for the Torajan are Christians with ancient animistic beliefs for funerals. The Torajan believe the decease’s soul and the soul of the water buffalo must accompany each other to heaven.

After being sacrificed, the many buffalo heads are placed in a line awaiting the deceased soul so that all can go to heaven together. It is called aluk or the way of the ancestors.

The many water buffalo horns mounted on this family's old tongkonan house show the family's wealth over the years.
The many water buffalo horns mounted on this family’s old tongkonan house show the family’s wealth over the years.

Spiritual life is very important to the Torajan because it connects their ancestors, current living and future generations. Buffalo horns are then placed on the front of the tongkonan houses to show wealth generation after generation. Since the tongkonan house is never sold, it serves as the family home forever.

Each family brings a water buffalo as a gift that is a “loan” or “debt” of the giving family and it is recorded by the government. Each buffalo costs about $5000 US Dollars and if the buffalo has spots all over, it costs about $7000. Then, the “loan or debt” is repaid by the deceased’s family at each of the families funerals that gifted a buffalo. The buffalo giving never ends and the debt is never paid off. And since so many funerals exist and so many water buffalo are being sacrificed, most water buffalo in Sulawesi now are imported.DSC_0811

So for centuries the way of the ancestors continues and hundreds come to an elaborate bon voyage party to help the deceased pass into the afterlife. And water buffalo giving and sacrificing will never end as it is the only way a deceased Tana Torajan in Sulawesi, Indonesia can pass from this world into another.

Photo Copy ©  2015