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Click for larger view.While Bali is famous for its rituals and traditions, it's by no means the only area of Indonesia with a fascinating culture.

High in the mountains of Sulawesi is an area called Tana Toraja, which translates as "Toraja Land." Though the vast majority of Sulawesians are Muslim, more than three quarters of Torajans consider themselves to be Protestants. But, with a traditional belief system that's strongly rooted in animism, and with death being a major focus of their lives, the result is an unusual blend of Protestantism, animism and culture of death.

Reaching Toraja isn't an easy feat. Because of road conditions, the drive from the town of Makassar, in southern Sulawesi, takes about nine hours. It's a long, but wonderfully scenic trip, that starts off in an area of Buginese houses and views of the sea, before climbing high into the mountains via a winding road that overlooks lush mountain slopes, rivers and rich farmlands. The villages of Toraja feature colorful markets and tiny picturesque churches. But, the spectacular scenery is just a bonus; it's the death-oriented rituals and cliff graves that attract visitors.

In Torajan culture, death is such an important part of life that Torajans spend their lives saving money for lavish funerals. Often, family members spend years working in Makassar, or other cities outside Toraja, just so they can save money for the ceremony that will take place when a family member dies.

When a person dies, he or she is called "tomasaki ulunna," which translates as someone who has a headache. The deceased family member is considered to be sick, rather than dead. The individual is laid out, as if asleep, with his or her head facing west. (Though considered to only be sick, the deceased are embalmed using natural materials, which in recent years have been augmented with formalin.)

During this "sick" period, the deceased person is treated as if still living, with meals being placed in front of him or her, three times each day, and with family members sleeping in the same room as the deceased. This period can last months or even years, while the family continues to save money for the upcoming death ritual. Only when the ritual begins, is the dead person considered to be "tomate," or truly dead.

Torajan death rituals are often lavish. The bigger the ceremony, the better chance that the deceased will find his or her way to heaven. For wealthy families the death ritual is a symbol of prestige, with the ceremony lasting several days. The focus of the death ritual is the slaughter of pigs and buffalos. Torajans believe that the buffalo is a holy animal who provides transportation to heaven.

When Torajans are finally buried, they're not buried in the ground. They're buried in cliff graves. An effigy of the deceased is placed in front of the grave. When babies die, they're buried in tree trunks, but without effegies.

If you're looking to expand your travels to areas beyond Bali, and if you have even a passing interest in anthropology and truly unique cultural experiences, we highly recommend spending a couple days in Tana Toraja. And, if you like a mix of culture with other activities, Toraja also offers opportunities for river rafting and trekking excursions.

Diane Embree
April 3, 2011

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