Ok the title is a slight kickback to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but if you ever wanted to feel a little like Indiana Jones, then the burial sites of Tana Toraja in Sulawesi are one of the places to do it.


The whole area in Tana Toraja is covered with graves carved into the side of cliffs and boulders. Not only are there graves inside the rock, there are also hanging graves, perched out on wooden poles, some often broken with skulls and bones showing.


But the most amazing and somewhat freaky is the open caves, each filled with skulls, bones, and coffins. Entering inside can feel somewhat creepy, but those die hard Indiana Jones fans would get a great kick out of it!



Some of the caves are not so deep and the sunlight gets in, but some go deeper into the cliff, and without a torch would be pitch black. The thought of scrambling around in the dark with coffins overhead, and skulls and bones everywhere could freak you out a bit! Add to that all the big spiders and cobwebs inside.



On top of all that, many of the people buried within have statues made of there likeness cut out of wood. These stand at the front to the caves and the cliff graves, situated up on the cliff. There eyes sometimes seem to be staring right at you. Could send a slight shiver down the spine.


The statues can also be found within the caves themselves sometimes.

tana toraja cave burials

Hanging coffins inside cave with statues behind.

Another interesting way the people of Tana Toraja had in burials, is the way they buried some of the babies in the past. The dead babies were places inside a hole in a specific tree and covered with a small door. As the tree grew, the brittle baby bones would crush up into the tree and form a part of it. Thus the baby became a part of a new life.


The people in Tana Toraja have a fascinating culture and traditions.

The Buffalo Sacrifice

The funeral rites are some of the most spectacular, but also gruesome you could ever imagine to see. Some of the images here may be unsettling to see.


When someone dies in Tana Toraja, the person is wrapped in cloth and kept inside a coffin in the house, until the family can afford a funeral. This can take a long time, even over a year to happen. Funerals are expensive affairs, and the higher the status of the person who died, the more expensive and elaborate the funeral.


It is custom on the day of the funeral, a day called the death  feast, to slaughter buffalo and pigs. The amount of the slaughter will again depend on the person who died. A person of high status can have upwards of 100 buffalo slaughtered and countless pigs, whereas someone of low status would have only a few buffalo and pigs killed.

slaughtered pigs in tana toraja

Slaughtered pigs.

The buffalo will be brought onto a ceremonial  field, normally grassy and surrounded by structures for people to sit. Here they will be slaughtered one at a time. It can be very disturbing to watch for some people. They will be cut with a machete to the throat (the picture at the start of the post) and left to bleed out.


There is a reason the buffalo are slaughtered. The severed heads and corpses will be lined up on a field, where it is believed the deceased will use them on their journey to puya, or ‘land of the souls’. The more buffalo killed, the quicker the journey.


The meat from the buffalo and pigs are distributed to all people from the villages who came to the funeral. The meat is not wasted.


Women in traditional dress will sing and dance on the day of the funeral, and the night before men from the nearby villages will come together and form a circle and sing songs about the dead persons life. Watching the men sing and chant is mesmerising and beautiful. They can be up late into the night doing this.

If you ever visit Tana Toraja, which you should if given the chance because it is an amazing place for many other reasons than the funeral ceremonies (more of that in future posts), you could always miss the part of the slaughter, and still get a good experience of what it is like to see a funeral.


Tradition is strong and hard to break. Maybe there can be a way to keep the traditional slaughter, but in a more humane way of killing the animals so they die faster.




Jonny Duncan is a travel blogger and freelance photographer. He specialises in adventure and budget travel with over 20 years of experience. He started blogging in 2013 to give advice for other travellers. He has lived in Japan, Amsterdam, Kiev, and more.

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