The mummies of the Toraja people, Sulawesi: when death goes “beyond death”

Sulawesi, also known as Celebes, is part of the Greater Sunda Islands and is located between Borneo and the Moluccas. Uncontaminated seabeds, forests, endemic flora and fauna and the soul of the island: Tana Toraja.

People of the highlands

The highlands of Sulawesi are in fact inhabited by the Toraja, “people of the highlands”. They are farmers and breeders strongly linked to animist traditions and rituals. This people remained isolated for centuries until 1920, when missionaries landed in southern Sulawesi to convert the animist tribes to Christianity. Tana Toraja is a rural area with cultivation of rice, cocoa, cloves and coffee.

According to a legend, the Toraja came from Cambodia. During a storm, they were shipwrecked in Indonesia and, unable to go back, they used boats as roofs for their new homes. Even now houses retain this bizarre feature.

They are on wooden poles to defend themselves from rodents and snakes and there are three levels. The bamboo roof is designed to withstand rain and wind in the monsoon season.

The house is a place where the family can gather both physically and spiritually. The external walls are decorated with sculptures and paintings, geometric designs and are built next to each other.

The colors used have a spiritual connotation:

  • red is the color of blood and symbolizes human life;
  • white is the color of flesh and bones and symbolizes purity;
  • yellow represents God’s blessing and power;
  • black symbolizes death and darkness.

Toraja people and the cult of ancestors

The isolation in which Toraja people lived contributed to preserving ancient animist traditions such as the veneration of ancestors and the cult of Aluk Ta Dolo, “the way of the ancestors”. This cult divides the universe into three worlds: an underground or dead world, a superior world and a terrestrial world.

Death is a gradual process: the person first falls asleep and dies completely only when the funeral takes place. In fact, the relatives consider the deceased “makula”, a sick person. The funeral can also take place months or even years after death, the time necessary to have enough money to celebrate it.

They use formaline to preserve mummies, which remain in homes as living presences, venerated with food and cigarettes.


The complex funeral rite allows the soul to reach the Puya, the upper world, where it continues to live its old life thanks to the gifts offered during the ceremony. The souls that do not reach the Puya because the family cannot pay for the funeral, become evil spirits called Bumblebees.

Once a year the “Rambu Solo” takes place, a funeral ceremony that lasts from 2 days to 2 weeks, during which songs, dances, cockfights and animal sacrifices alternate. The funeral begins when the body is out of the house and its spirit turns into a black shadow.

At the moment of animal sacrifice, (of a buffalo and a pig) the shadow flies towards the kingdom of Puya.
They place the body in a coffin and then in the family tomb on an inaccessible cliff, with a balcony carved into the rock. There you can find wooden statuettes representing the deceased, called Tau Tau.
The statuettes have their faces turned towards the village, to watch over it and their loved ones.

There’s a special treatment for the dead children. They place the very small ones inside the trunks of living trees. A single trunk can accommodate up to ten children and the tree can continue to live by guarding its remains.

Every year, between July and August, there’s the Ma Nene, a ceremony during which people bring back the coffins to the village. On this occasion the mummies are changed clothes, combed, offered food, alcohol and cigarettes and carried in procession.

Ma Nene, Wikipedia

Places you can’t miss if you want to know more about Tana Toraja

At Kete Kesu you will find traditional houses and a 700-year-old burial area located on the village hill, Bukit Buntu Kesu, where human skulls and bones abound, piled up in canoe-shaped jars.

The village of Londa hosts two funerary sites: one dug into the cliff, the other dug into a cave.
To find the tombs you need to go down a lot of stairs with bones scattered everywhere.

One of the most surprising burial sites in Tana Toraja is in Lemo. About 75 niches are dug into the rock: some are tombs, others preserve the tau tau.

Would you be curious to learn more about this ancestral people?!

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