The Mysterious Cultures of Sulawesi

Indonesia is the world’s biggest archipelago, with over 17,000 islands. Each island has its own allure and its own story. Indonesia’s fourth largest island, Sulawesi, is no exception. The diversity of the cultures of Sulawesi is only matched by the diversity of wildlife. The marine parks are home to the most biodiverse reefs in the world, and the rainforests are home to unique creatures both large and small. Much of Sulawesi is relatively untouched and new to tourism, with tiny islands and hidden corners that are difficult to reach – a cruise by small ship is the perfect way to see them.

The island of Sulawesi is famous for remote regions where enigmatic ancient cultures still flourish. It is inhabited by rare species such as tiny primates known as Tarsiers, the Sulawesi hornbill, the Maleo and the Celebes Macaque. Visit the Bajau people, known as sea gypsies, in their stilt villages built over the water. Dive beneath the surface at the world-renowned reef locations of Bunaken and Lembeh. See the traditional Phinisi boats being built on the beach at Tana Beru, and encounter sun bears and orangutans in Kalimantan.


Tana Toraja: Death Rituals and Ancestor Worship

From the coastal city of Palopo, leaving the coast behind for the Sulawesi highlands, the road twists and turns ever-upwards to the highlands of Tana Toraja, passing through thatched-roof villages, skirting around terraced rice paddies and cutting a swathe through plantations.

Upon reaching Torajaland rugged granite cliffs give way to soaring saddleback rooflines that reach skywards like the bows of Indonesian sailing ships. The Tongkonen architectural style has interesting origins with ancestors who descended from the heavens in ships.  These striking traditional Tongkonan houses of Tana Toraja are central to ethnic Torajan people who remained isolated from the outside world until Dutch missionaries arrived in the 1920’s. From birth, through love and marriage to their final resting rites, these Tongkonen houses remain integral to familial and ancestral relationships.

As part of the ritual known as ma’nene, it is not uncommon for relatives to remain in the family home for many years after they die, with their bodies dressed, nurtured and even taken on outings. Until the funeral ritual is performed, it’s considered that the person is merely ‘sick’. Torajans believe the spirit of the dead lives on amongst the living, blessing the living and keeping watch over them.

Funerals are considered the most important event of a person’s life with the body prepared by relatives for its mythical journey to the stars. For the living, a funeral is a cause for celebration with dancing, singing and chanting culminating in an elaborate feast complete with animal sacrifices. Historically, Torajans practiced a form of animism where nature and ancestors are worshipped. Today, this belief system functions as a sort of common law which governs community, rituals and crop planting.

Fast Fact: Kete Kesu is a 400-year-old village which is akin to a living museum where travellers wander beneath burial cliffs where tombs are carved from boulders and infants were once entombed in trees.

Don’t Miss: Ancient hanging burial sites where eerily painted eyes peer out from the faces of timber Tau-tau effigies which keep watch over sacred sites.

Tana Beru Sulawesi

Tana Beru: where shipwrights ply their centuries-old trade on the beach

At the coastal village of Tana Beru on Sulawesi’s south coast, finely-crafted timber hulls of traditional phinisi boats line the palm-fringed beach. Their elegant bows poke through the coconut palm canopy in various stages of construction. The nearby village throbs to the steady ‘thunk’ of timber being struck by craftsmen whose skills have been passed down through generations of boat builders. Skilled craftsmen scamper across hulls and teetering upon bamboo scaffolding as these vessels emerge from the beach. Without the use of blueprints these ship builders follow memorised plans by master shipwrights who build vessels designed to travel far.

Accomplished Indonesian seafarers in their phinisi vessels have played an integral part in the spice trade since ancient times, travelling as far afield as northern Australia. Macassan traders from Sulawesi sailed fleets of beche-de-mer fishing vessels from Makassar to the Kimberley and Arnhem Land, developing relationships with Indigenous Australians over centuries which is depicted in coastal rock art galleries.

UNESCO recognises the cultural significance of the art of boatbuilding and navigation in South Sulawesi (alongside Indonesian batik and shadow-puppetry) as part of a millennia-long seafaring tradition by Bugis and Makassan mariners. Early phinisi vessels were engineless and featured a tall powerful topsail-ketch rig with unusual, permanently standing gaff booms. Today, phinisi are more likely to be engine-powered, but are still hand-built in the South Sulawesi style, and can be seen at harbours across Indonesia.

Fast Fact: Early phinisi trading ships were strictly sail-powered, carving an elegant swathe across the sea as sails billowed with the trade winds, but these days are more likely to be engine-powered.

Don’t Miss: Take the opportunity at Tana Beru to clamber into the timber hulls of these magnificent vessels and admire the elegant lines created by hand-hewed planks caulked with coconut husk fibre.

Ancient head-hunters of Kalimantan Sulawesi

Ancient head-hunters of Kalimantan

The Indigenous Dayak people of Borneo traditionally lived in longhouses along the banks of large rivers. The Dayak is used as a sort of generic term that does not differentiate ethnic or tribal allegiances, though Dayak people are mostly non-Muslim inland dwellers, as opposed to the largely Malay population of coastal areas of Borneo. Historically, complex religious practices of Dayak people involved local spirits, where tribal warfare was common, and headhunting was practiced up until the mid-20th century.

Dayak longhouses follow a design and structure little-changed for generations and were typically built from timber and are elevated on stilts. They may be hundreds of metres long and house many families, creating a village-like community within the longhouse with individual apartments leading off a central communal corridor.

Warriors who were once feared as head-hunters now throw open their doors to welcome travellers interested in learning about their customs and culture.

50km upstream from the mouth of the mighty Mahakam River lies Samarinda, the capital province of East Kalimantan.  A trading town with an intriguing history of Sultanates and Dayak tribes, Samarinda is a hub for regional wealth as well as ecological and cultural treasures.

Fast Fact: The centuries-old Dayak headhunting tradition was outlawed in the late 1800s but has occasionally resurfaced during times of tribal conflict.

Don’t Miss: Visit Pampang village to experience the culture and customs of the Dayak people and their traditional longhouses.

Pulau Togean Sulawesi

Pulau Togean: home to Bajau ‘sea gypsies’

The Bajau ‘sea gypsy’ people of Pulau Togean reside in their own private paradise, with their teetering stilt homes built upon the reef above a turquoise sea. Nomadic sea people, the Bajau of Sulawesi free dive into the depths to hunt for fish, crayfish and pearls, oftentimes staying underwater for minutes at a time.

Their longboats, known locally as lepa lepa, are rudimentary and crafted by hand using whatever tools and materials are to hand. With the sea as their backyard providing all the sustenance required to feed a floating village, days are measured around the rising sun and falling tide.

Traditional Bajau community life underpins a complex relationship with the ocean that connects a centuries-old spirituality with the currents and tides, the coral reefs and mangroves.

Fast Fact: Bajau people may have developed a DNA mutation with physical and genetic adaptions to help with holding their breath while freediving.

Don’t Miss: Visit an Indonesian village to meet the locals who are invariably friendly and welcoming to visitors.

Indonesia Map

Experience some of these fascinating customs and cultures with Coral Expeditions, Australia’s pioneering cruise line, on voyages through the Indonesian archipelago onboard expedition ship Coral Adventurer.

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