The Tau Tau: Curiosity, Sacrilege, and Cultural Exchange

A chance purchase takes us to the other side of the world.

The tau tau (photo by author)

The eyes catch me first. They are wide and worried, staring off into the distance, a woman looking for her children or watching for her husband’s boat on the horizon. Her mouth is a quiet line, betraying no emotion. Her naked breasts sag — an old woman. My husband, the ever-curious Dr. Z, explains: “It’s called a tau tau. From Indonesia. Got it at that new place on Monroe.”

It is in pieces on the floor. I hold the leg portion up while he joins the upper body, using a yellow pencil in place of a missing dowel. We lean her upright against the wall and Dr. Z attaches the forearms. She is three feet tall. I run my hands over the weathered fruitwood.

Z doesn’t know what a tau tau is any more than I do but we are both attracted to her spare beauty. Our learning begins.

It is the early 90s, so hopping on Google isn’t an option. The shop owner drops off a book that has a photo and a bit of explanation. Tau taus are dryly described as ancestor effigies, made in the rice-growing villages of Tana Toraja, on the island of Sulawesi. But the photo! It shows dozens of fully clothed tau taus lined up on high balconies set into the side of a cliff. They look down over a village. We see in their posture the same watchfulness that I see in the eyes of the tau tau that Z brought home. The image has such great power for us that suddenly our naked visitor seems very far from home.

What is her story? How and why has she found herself in upstate New York?

The passage of cultural artifacts into the hands of private or public collections is fraught with controversy, raising the specter of sacrilege and crime. Nations and tribes rage against the loss of their patrimony — even if it is their own people who sell off heirlooms or dig up relics for a quick buck. On the other hand, collectors and curators often claim to have preserved the artifacts from war, pollution, and the inability of poor countries to protect their heritage sites from vandals.

The system revolves around the ethics of the middlemen. Z knows nothing about the new shop owner in town. And by the time we know what questions to ask, the unprofitable shop is closed and the owner moved away.

But the tau tau, like an itinerant teacher, continues to pique our curiosity. We decide to go to Sulawesi.

In January 1997, we set out.

Sulawesi is part of the vast archipelago of Indonesia, roughly south of the Philippines and north of Bali, east of what used to be Borneo and west of what used to be New Guinea. It used to be Celebes and occupies that part of the ocean where they still make grand sailing ships by hand on the beaches, to transport lumber and rice among the remote islands. We finally arrive in the provincial capitol of Ujung Pandung (now Makassar). It is as far from anything familiar as I can think of.

The coastal areas of this island are occupied by ancient seafaring people, the Makassars and the Bugis, who are Moslems. In the interior is Tana Toraja, or Torajaland, where the people follow the ancient beliefs of Aluk To Dolo, the Way of the Ancestors.

The location of Tana Toraja, in Sulawesi, Indonesia (Google Maps)

We arrive from across the planet expecting a place as different as different can be and the first thing we hear is… American music. Our guide Yunus is a slim young man who speaks impeccable American English, even though he’s never left the island. He learned it from popular songs, and is mad for female vocalists: Barbra Streisand, Roberta Flack, Anne Murray, Celine Dion. He is serious about song as a teaching tool and wrote his college thesis on the subject.

There’s a certain disappointment in traveling to the ends of the earth and finding that Golden Oldies got there first. I want The Real Thing, The Genuine Article — the Other. But sometimes “other” is not so different from ourselves. We are moved and instructed by the tau tau, just as Yunus is moved and instructed by Barbra Streisand.

Isolated cultures should be allowed to preserve their old ways, but we also benefit by mixing it up and finding our common stories. Yunus tells us about a blood feud that occurred when one of his uncles — Makassarese — fell in love with a Bugis woman. So we tell him the story of Romeo and Juliet.

Our main objective in Sulawesi is Torajaland and learning more about the context of our tau tau. As luck would have it, a seven-day funeral for a noblewoman is just beginning in the village of Makale, so we jump in the car and head for the highlands amid a driving monsoon rain and strains of Roberta Flack killing me softly with her song.

We enter Makale in time to see some impromptu mock bullfights in a field — the buffaloes’ last chance to romp before being sacrificed in honor of the dearly departed. Their horns will be hung on the home of the bereaved family, not only as a sign of honor and status, but also as a debt to repay when the giver loses a loved one.

In Torajaland, funeral debts are expressed as buffalo horns attached to the front of homes, an expression of both prestige and obligation.

The town’s main street has been converted into an elaborate funeral ground, with seating and double-decker rows of draped booths where families and friends can rest and socialize. We stop for awhile at Booth 58, which has been reserved for one of Yunus’ cousins.

Funeral procession in Tana Toraja (photo by author)

We learn that the funeral not only forges everlasting links with ancestors in the Land of the Souls, but also establishes the social and economic ranking in the community. Anthropologist Robyn Thompson refers to them as “tournaments of value, competitive events where power is manifest and status contested… Wealth is measured… by the elaborateness of the funeral, the number and status of those attending, the quantity and quality of buffaloes sacrificed and by the public display of other heirloom objects.” In fact, actual inheritance of rice fields is determined by which of the eligible relatives sacrifices the most bulls. As prosperity and democratic values seep into the culture more commoners are investing in buffaloes and joining the upward mobility that the funeral-driven economy can offer.

The next day we stand along the street to watch a parade of guests — friends and relatives decked out in clan costumes— line up with their offerings, the ladies with symbolic food and household items, the men with pigs trussed up on poles and buffaloes led by nose rings. They walk up steps through a building to the sacrifice grounds, closed off to us. Now and then a man runs by with the bloody head of a fresh-killed bull.

We ask about the tau taus and Yunus shares what he knows.

Makale, Tana Toraja: Livestock being brought to the ceremonial sacrifice grounds (photo by author)

Because this is a seven-day funeral, a tau tau, commissioned in the image of the dead woman, is here somewhere as part of the ritual. Only the most elite, who can afford a seven-day funeral, employ a tau tau and its work would have started months ago, going something like this:

Grandma dies. It’s a big deal because she owns a lot of rice fields and is extremely wealthy. Her family has also contributed a lot of buffaloes to other Torajan funerals and it’s time to get paid back. But it’s going to take months to plan for such a big event. They can’t afford to have her declared dead yet so she is shrouded in many layers of cloth and laid out in the central room of the house. (Luckily for the family, the late twentieth century brought embalming to the ritual.) The loved one is referred to as sick and provided with symbolic bits of food and betel leaf, which lull her soul to sleep so that it doesn’t cause nightmares or illness among the family.

With grandma “sick,” her family figures out how many water buffaloes and pigs will have to be sacrificed during the funeral to ease her reluctant spirit into the Land of the Souls and to preserve the family’s wealth ranking in the community. With the scope of the funeral decided, they commission the tau tau. It is carved from the wood of a jackfruit tree, aged, rubbed with coconut oil, and finally smeared with the blood of a sacrificed pig. Wrapped in a white sarong and sleeping mat, the tau tau is laid down next to the cadaver.

The tau tau is grandma’s visible soul.

When the funeral begins, a fire-lighting ceremony is held and the family finally acknowledges her death. The tau tau is awakened and stood upright. With that, the soul of the noblewoman is activated and free to roam around the funeral grounds checking things out.

We’re told that the cadaver, the soul, and the tau tau will be together throughout the seven days. If there are processions, the tau tau may be carried by the woodcarver who made her. He may manipulate her arms and move her head from side to side, like a puppet, to show her vitality and her pleasure at the enormous sacrifices being made.

If grandma’s soul is happy with the funeral and adequately cleansed by the sacrifices, she will slowly move “south” to the Land of the Souls. If not, instead of assuming her role as revered ancestor bringing good fortune to her family, she will become a restless and angry ghost.

We slip away from Makale to begin our exploration of Torajan gravesites.

Although rich Torajans now build themselves poured concrete mausoleums, displaying the tau tau in a glass case at the entrance, traditionally the graves are dug into the sides of cliffs. When the casket is tucked into its cliffside niche, the tau tau, now relieved of her solemn duty as escort for the soul, is rewarded with a place in a gallery near the tomb, overlooking the village or fields.

We drive to the cliffs at Marante.

It’s a quiet place where a few boys are playing. In shallow caves under a rocky overhang about forty feet above us, the brown tau taus sit in a row. The vision is solemn and powerful.

Then we are surprised to see that many of the tombs have fallen open. The wooden caskets are in pieces. Amid them are piles of human bones. Broken skulls are lined up in a macabre parody of the watching tau taus. The boys play among them unperturbed. Despite Yunus’ good English, we can’t get an answer to this mystery.

Tau taus at Marante, Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia, with bones fallen from caskets (photo by author)

Over the next two days, we visit three other sites: Lemo, Suaya, and Kete Kesu. Lemo is neat as a pin, with long tau tau galleries laboriously chiseled into solid rock, with wooden guard rails to prevent the tau taus from tumbling off.

Tau taus at Lemo, Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia (photo by author)

Suaya has an ancient feel and the tau taus are faded to the same pale gray as their stone balconies, crowded in a way that makes them appear to be melting into one another.

The tau taus at Suaya, Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia (photo by author)
The tau taus at Suaya, Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia (photo by author)

Kete Kesu is a prosperous carving village that makes elaborate modern sarcophagi but their ancient coffins, which hang from the cliffs, are dilapidated and fallen open. Like Marante, the long bones are piled into common heaps and the skulls are lined up with their eyes facing the village.

Old caskets decay and bones become part of the sacred ground. Lemo, Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia (photo by author)

The tau tau gallery is not the shallow balcony typical of the other sites. A large grotto in the cliff has been fitted with a front wall of stacked stones, to make a neat oblong opening about three feet above the path — a proscenium stage.

Tau tau grotto at Kete Kesu, Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia (photo by author)

Inside, tau taus of many generations are grouped in a tableau stunningly like a the obligatory family portrait at a reunion. They huddle in various seated and standing poses, leaning in toward one another, adults holding children on their laps. With the nod of a guard we draw closer and peer inside.

Tau taus at Kete Kesu, Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia (photo by author)

Behind the seated group, fitting the natural contours and bumps of the cave, a dozen more are standing in casual clusters as if they are having conversations at a cocktail party. The weather-beaten figures are chillingly undead, gazing out, their inlaid eyes wide with solemn watchfulness, creatures of duty whose obligation is completed, now locked in timelessness.


I look at the tau tau who is visiting our home, once the ambassador for a soul’s final journey, deserving of an honored seat in a gallery of sacred mementos.

What went wrong? Our inquiries reveal there were a string of tau tau thefts in the 1980s, which rattled the Torajans and led them to hiding tau taus, fencing off the grottos, or substituting the genuine tau taus with reproductions.

As for our visitor, it is impossible to know her specific story and impossible to guarantee a return to her family without knowing the village she was taken from. Hell, she might even be one of those reproductions, cynically set free on the international market to hoodwink naive collectors such as we. So for me, she stands now as a metaphor not for the soul of a noblewoman, but for the disruptions of traditional societies. Modernity creeps in. At the center of the Makale funeral ceremonies we saw a huge satellite dish.

Makale funeral, home of the deceased, with satellite dish (photo by author)

Yunus tells us that the complex score-keeping and oneupsmanship that the funeral ceremonies demand create an indebtedness passed on from generation to generation. While some entrepreneurs are trying to get into the game by selling overpriced buffaloes for funerals, others are converting to Christianity to get out from under the burden.

If a sacred and beloved object is quickened with the spirit of its maker and its owners, its dieties and its believers, it must continue to have power, even if it is hijacked to upstate New York. Our guest, the naked tau tau with rotted feet enchanted us, inspired us to scrape together the resources to visit her homeland and to bear witness to an ancient culture, an evolving culture able to honor its isolated past while opening to the global future.

When we got home, I sent Yunus a CD of West Side Story to commemorate our stories of love across the cultural divide and a CD of James Taylor, an American crooner Yunus didn’t know. And we sent him books he had wanted to read but were banned by the Indonesian government. Life is not a culture museum.

Anti-minimalist and keeper of curios. Check out published memoirs and thrillers at

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