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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Indonesia: The Torajan People

Tau-tau guarding a grave site at Lemo
Lemo has a particularly impressive collection of tau-tau guarding its graves

We arrived in Rantepao totally exhausted, and as is always the way when you're tired beyond comprehension, we discovered that we'd arrived on market day. As market day in Rantepao is only every six days, we just had to make the effort to go, so go we did, catching a bemo to Bolu where all manner of produce gathered dust on the ground under makeshift tents and the wilful gaze of the hawkers. It was hot and strenuous, but Rose saved the day by announcing that she had a mission: as she was going to go home in just a few weeks, she had to buy presents for her close family, and she had seen the perfect thing. Torajan boxes, stuffed with Arabica coffee beans, the best coffee in Indonesia, would make a wonderful gift, and we spent a few entertaining hours buying ten boxes and a big bag of coffee beans, haggling the price from ridiculous to almost acceptable, and discovering plenty about coffee merchants in the process.

Some beautiful handmade tau-tau for sale at Lemo
Just some of the beautiful handmade tau-tau you can find for sale at Lemo
A carved water buffalo head on a Torajan building
The water buffalo appears a lot in Torajan architecture and culture

Tongkonan Houses

A tongkonan house
A tongkonan house

The funerals might be the most famous events in Tana Toraja, but the most obvious cultural objects are the houses. The tongkonan, as the traditional houses are called, are distinctively ornate in a way that makes the layered paddy fields of central Sulawesi look totally unique; everywhere you look there are houses whose roofs curve up at opposite ends, not unlike a water buffalo's horns, or a huge, thatched banana. It is a beautiful sight, an architectural study in symmetry and precision that could teach modern builders a thing or two, especially when you consider that the wooden houses don't use nails: they are built so everything just slots together and holds together through rain and shine.

A water buffalo on the door to a Torajan grave
A water buffalo on a grave door