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Carved In Stone: The Caves and Graves of Toraja

New year, new blog design (let me know what you think), new post. So why not start off with some death? But, in all seriousness, for me, the caves and graves of Tana Toraja were some of the most fascinating aspects of local tradition and culture. During our trip to Toraja, Chloe and I visited several grave sights and we attended two funerals. One of the things we immediately noticed were the effigies present at both burial caves and funerals. The effigies are known as tau tau in bahasa Toraya, the local language. Our guide, Pak Agust, took us to Tampangallo, a famous burial cave constructed in a natural cave, after the funeral. Today, carvers create new spots for graves in rocks throughout the regency.

Tau Tau

Selamat Datang

While there, Pak Agust explained that wealthy Torajans have tau taus made. They protect the grave and remind people of the deceased. Then Pak Agust smiled slyly and told us something he knew we would be unhappy hearing. Many tau tau are stolen from graves, taken to Bali and then sold. And guess the nationality of many of the buyers? American. I hope I never find myself face to face with a tau tau in some American’s home. The tau tau pictured below are from the famous burial caves in Londa:

Modern Tau Tau

On our first day in Toraja we motorbiked over to the village of Ke’te Kesu. There we attended the final day of a funeral. It was the funeral of a woman who was married to a well-known local politician so there were many people in attendance and many floral arrangements sent from all over Indonesia. The tau tau of the woman was very realistic, a newer trend according to Pak Agust.

Tau Tau, Coffin

When Chloe and I arrived in Londa, we hired a 13-year-old guide, Padli, to take us into the caves with his lantern. I asked Padli if he was on vacation, but his hesitation made me think he may not be in school, a sad reality we later discussed with Pak Agust. While in the cave we saw coffins and offerings. Torajans believe you can take possessions with you into the afterlife, so on top of coffins many people had left cigarettes. Padli told us the wealthier you were, the higher up you were buried. He also told us he had family buried in the caves and so do most of the guides who carry gas lanterns that create a low humming sound in the dark caves.

Light, Guide

The caves at Londa feel like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Where do the skulls come from? Well, Torajans who are too poor to afford elaborate funerals, simply bury their relatives. For wealthier Torajans, coffins decay over time and unless the family is still around and willing to go through another ceremony, the skulls are left in the caves.

Londah Skulls



It seems that tau tau are lurking everywhere:


As we left Tampangallo, we were surrounded by lush rice fields and we drove by men constructing a tongkonan, the boat-like traditional Torajan homes.


On our last day in Tana Toraja, Pak Agust called us to wish us a safe and happy trip back to Jakarta. The trip to Tana Toraja was one of the most culturally interesting during my time in Indonesia.

Pak Agust and Us

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very interesting post! The place reminds me of burial places like Pompeii and Sagada. :)

    January 6, 2013
    • I’ve never been to Pompeii or Sagada, but they sound fascinating and I would love to get there someday. Thanks for reading!

      January 6, 2013
  2. Cool pictures! Especially the creepy ones. :) If I lived in that kind of culture I think I would be very tempted to fake my death just to see what my effigy would look like.

    January 6, 2013
    • Ha, I also wondered how I would look! Thanks for reading.

      January 6, 2013
  3. I might be going to Tana Toraja next year, fingers crossed. I like the new look of your blog, Lydia. A fresher look for a new year. :)

    January 6, 2013
    • Thanks, Bama! I hope you get to go, I’d love to read your posts and hear your thoughts on Toraja. If you need a guide, I recommend Pak Agust (his contact information is, M: 6285 255 570 938)

      January 6, 2013
      • Great! Thanks for the info! I’ll make sure to save his number.

        January 6, 2013
  4. Reminds me of the hanging coffins in china. Lol the tau tau inside the chaple? looks creepy

    January 6, 2013
    • I noticed it out of the corner of my eye and it freaked me out a bit.

      January 6, 2013
  5. jonathanochart #

    Absolutely stunning photos! The skulls definitely make it seem like a ghostly place…it’s interesting to see how different cultures bury and “protect” the deceased. Thanks so much for sharing!

    Jonathan I

    January 6, 2013
    • Thanks for the kind words and for reading.

      January 6, 2013
  6. Thank you so much for featuring my country to the world.

    Best wishes,

    January 6, 2013
    • Thanks for reading, Mei. Many more posts about Indonesia to come.

      January 6, 2013
  7. Irene Kostrubiak #

    Love your new blog design! No tau taus for me – just a cozy vase by a fireplace!

    January 6, 2013
  8. daria szot #

    Love your new design. Tau taus a no-no. I much prefer the umbrella’s or parisols along with a jazz band singing “when the saints go marching in” . yeah New Orleans. Pompeii was beautiful and almost unreal.

    January 6, 2013
    • Thanks for reading Teta Darka. I like the New Orleans theme, it’s a city I’ve wanted to visit for a long time.

      January 7, 2013
  9. these photos are amazing … i love toraja . wish that I can always be there on holiday

    November 12, 2013

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