The Cliff Face Tombs of Indonesia’s Toraja Tribe

TorajaPhoto: Peter Ruckstuhl

High up on limestone cliffs you will find an eerie prospect – the guardians of the dead looking out at you. Coffins hanging from ropes, and bones on the ground where the ropes have fallen and the coffins splintered, are other common sights. The Torajan people have some macabre burial and funeral rites, yet they are all geared to sending off the deceased to a long and rich afterlife. The Torajans live in Indonesia, deep in the hills where they can find the cliffs and boulders that are integral to their burial sites.

TorajaPhoto: Dominique Kirsner

The funeral is the biggest and most festive event in Torajan culture; the higher the deceased’s rank, the more elaborate the festivities. In fact, the Aluk religion they practice only allows the most noble to have a long, drawn-out death feast attended by thousands at a ceremonial site. The ceremonial slaughter of buffalo and pigs accompany the feasting at the site used for the burial rituals. Again, the most noble get the most carcasses, which are lined up in a field waiting for their ‘owner’ – as it is believed the deceased must have the buffalo for his long journey to the afterlife. Children run around catching spurting blood in bamboo tubes during the slaughter.

TorajaPhoto: Blake Hodges

The ceremony and burial may not take place immediately, either. It can take place years later, during which time the body is kept wrapped in clothes underneath the ‘tongkonan’, or house. There are three methods of burial in the Torajan culture, with the nobles having the most extravagant resting places.

TorajaPhoto: Howard Koons

In a limestone cliff, high up – as high as 50 meters – caves are used or are hollowed out of the cliff face along with the galleries for the Tau Tau, or wooden people, that look out over the land. The coffins are placed inside the cave with the Tau Tau effigies at the front. The higher the burial cave, the more noble was the deceased. Commoners and poor people were buried in caves and crevices at the bottom of the cliff in some areas of Torajan land.

TorajaPhoto: Rita Willaert

A second form of ‘burial’ involves hanging the coffins from the cliff face by ropes. The coffins stay there until the ropes rot and they fall to the ground. The coffins contain what the deceased will need for his journey into the afterlife. It is slightly different for children and infants: they are often placed in their coffin which is hung inside a tree, with grave markers like door shutters. A third method of burial is to carve a grave from a giant boulder, of which there are many in the area.

TorajaPhoto: Howard Koons

Many Torajan villages and burial sites have been designated as “tourist objects” by the Indonesian government but that hasn’t changed their way of life too much. It is important to help cultures keep their traditions alive rather than have them lost to history – ancient memories all to soon. Thus, even though some Torajans object to this government practice, it does seem to have an important function. What’s more, the people live on the money tourism provides them, despite a certain amount of opposition to outside interference.

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