The living dead – Sulawesi, Indonesia

Imagine keeping your dead relative in your house for a couple of years and treating him as if he were just sleeping. You would give him food, alcohol and his daily cigarettes. Well, that is exactly what the culture in Sulawesi, Indonesia believe in. Keep reading to find out more about my two and a half week journey where I experience and visit a 10 day funeral, boat shaped houses and water buffalo markets!

My journey began on the 03. 07. 2015 in Makassar, a trade city in eastern Sulawesi. This was nice as we did a small city tour to get a feel for what is expecting us and the environment and people of Sulawesi. But this was just the beginning. I definitely did not know what my parents had planned for this holiday. I can tell you now that this was not the typical tourist place to be.

We carried on, on the 05.07.15 and drove for 12 hours up to Mamasa in West Sulawesi. This was the first time we got to see the unique, traditional houses of Sulawesi. We were even invited by a couple into their Mamasa house for a cup of tea and cookies. These houses are very spectacular, as they are covered with carved in shapes, meaningful patterns and sacred colors (black, white and red), each representing a different symbol or animal.

Traditional Mamasa house
Rice storage

In Mamasa, you can also view fascinating landscape with beautiful, rich, green, juicy rice fields, covering many acres. To see these, we decide to go on a hike. On the way we experienced something that really showed how unexplored Sulawesi is, by tourists. We came across some construction site workers that started to stare and talk about us. Our tour guide asked them why and later explained that they had never seen tourist before, in their whole lives. They wanted to take a picture of us as it was something new and special to them. They even thought that we were Dutch as it was the Dutch that used to own Sulawesi in the 1940’s. But this was not the last time we got to experience how unique Sulawesi is.

The next day, we went to visit a cemetery. But this was a bit different than the ones we were used to. They did not burry the bones underneath the ground. Instead they placed the bones and skulls into wooden figures shaped as water buffalo’s. Our tour guide explained to us, that water buffaloes are holy in Sulawesi as they are a symbol of wealth and are very expensive. This was the first, but not last, time we were exposed to real human bones, which at the time, was hard to believe. Before we left, my dad decided to sign a guest book and we were shocked. The last time, a European tourist was present, was a year ago.



On the 8th, our journey continued as we traveled from Mamasa to Tana Toraja. This is the part of Sulawesi where the death cult is very alive, and where we experienced the most. The first event we attended was something I will never forget. We went to a funeral in Lemo.

p1090200In Lemo, the Toraja folk believe in the life after death. The death of a relative is not seen as a sad event; instead it is celebrated as the next stage of life. The soul of the dead relative will eventually rise up to the next platform named Puya, where they will be rewarded for their achievements in life and treated with goods. So that the relative manages to get into Puya, a festival (funeral) is performed where the family builds a small village to celebrate this event over the span of 7-10 days.

The past away relative lays in the top of this house

The funeral that we visited was from the 04- 13, lasting 10 days, meaning that this was a very rich family. Hundreds of villagers, relatives, friends, even from other countries, come with presents to celebrate this event. According to how close the guests are with the family, and how much money own, they would bring pigs and water buffaloes as presents, that would later get killed for the guests to feast on. These presents would get noted in a book, to show who brought what and how expensive their present was. This is so that if someone of their family dies, the other family can give the same value of presents back. Water buffaloes are the most valuable. These get killed on each day of the funeral according to a special ritual, as they believe that the passed away relative rides up to Puya with the buffalo.

The water buffalo being sacrificed
Traditional dance performed for the dead

But as these funerals can get very expensive, the family has to first save money for it, for a couple of years. To do so, they would mummify the dead and keep them, embalmed, in their house for the necessary time needed. The past away relative is not seen as dead though, he is solemnly “asleep” or “sick”. That is why he still gets his beverages everyday such as food, alcohol and his daily cigarettes. This is because they believe that his soul is still upon them, and he will only be able to get into Puya, after the funeral. The richer the man or woman was; the more money was spent for his or her funeral.

Women wearing the traditional clothing and bringing goods

Another specialty of the Tana Turajas are their typical Turaja houses they live in. These houses are called Tongkonan and usually have another smaller version in front of them where they store their rice. These are so special because of their shape. One theory states that these are shaped as boats, as at the beginning when the Tana Toraja folk arrived in Sulawesi, they came with boats. Another theory states that the houses are shaped like a buffalo’s horns. Either way, they are very enchanting.

These houses are different from the Mamasa houses, as they are not only covered with carvings, but also with the skulls of water buffalos. You can notice that they hang the horns on the pillar in front of their houses, to elaborately show their status and wealth. The more they own, the wealthier they are.

p1090548The thing that the Tana Toraja are most known for though, are their cave graves. These are incredibly impressive and are a must see when visiting Sulawesi. As the name says, these are chambers which are hand built into a limestone wall. Due to a legend, Londa (the location) is where a past leader of Sulawesi is buried. That is why this place is seen as holy and it is here where the noble family’s chambers lye. The higher the dead get placed in the wall, the higher their status was. This can reach the heights of 50 meters!

p1090161Guarding the noble, are the so called “Tao Tao” statuses. These are figures are a copy/represent and protect the royal dead. They are made to look like the dead themselves and even wear the clothes from the past away owners, which get replaced every year! These chambers are usually family chambers and contain all the valuables from the dead, including jewelry and ornaments.



Each statue represents a different person

Everyone else gets “buried” and then placed in their water buffalo coffins, which get hung on a wall as well. As these were really old already, many of them have fallen of the wall so bones were lying everywhere!


p1090148The last thing we did in Toraja was visit one of the most incredible markets I have ever seen! This was a market in Rantepau in Bolu and was filled with colors and smells of fruit, vegetables, meat, spices and everything you can imagine to do with food.



p1090460But what really makes this market special was the huge fee market where live water buffaloes and pigs were sold!



On the 11th we traveled from Toraja to Sengkang. This took approximately 5 hours. Even if we only stayed here for 1 night this was one of the prettiest places we went to as we decided to go on a boat tour on the Tempesee.

p1090683This was the residence of the swimming houses of Sulawesi. The boat tour was very relaxing with the mixture of the cool breeze, soothing landscape and the breath taking sunset! We even got to visit one of the swimming houses, where they gave us tea and honey coated bananas. It was incredible!


On the 12th we drove 7 hours from Senkang to Bira to the village of the Bugis, the fishers, and an amazing beach.


And although this is the end of the first part of our journey, it didn’t end here. On the 13th we drove from Bira back to Makassar to Manado. Here we went to the airport to fly to the Bunaken National park to go diving. We stayed here 6 nights and enjoyed every one of them! This was the first time I went diving in the ocean after I got my divers license and it was incredible! We stayed on a beautiful island, with really friendly hosts and dive instructors, and with bath tub warm ocean water to swim in. Diving there was as if you were in the world’s biggest aquarium, with fish surrounding you wherever you are, to seeing things like baby sharks, seahorses, lion fish, rays, poisonous snails but the most incredible being the many turtles so close you could touch them! This is one of the best dive and snorkel spots in the world.

Hope you enjoyed reading this and stay tuned for more posts. I would appreciate it a lot if you left a comment. Thank you!


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