Sulawesi was formerly known as Celebes and together with Sumatra, Java and Kalimantan it is one of the Greater Sunda Islands. It is situated between Kalimantan and Maluku; it has a very distinctive shape, in the travel brochures variously described as ‘orchid-like’ or ‘spider-like’. Sulawesi has four peninsulas that enclose three huge bays: the Gulf of Tomini, the Tolo Gulf, and the Bone Gulf. Since the central landmass of the island is ruggedly mountainous the four peninsulas have traditionally been remote from each other, with better connections by sea than by road. In the different corners of this remarkable island one finds an incredible diversity of people and cultures. The geography dictated that some, like the Minahasans and the Bugis, became seafarers, while others, like the proud people of Tanah Toraja who were hemmed in by mountains, developed land-locked cultures.
The earliest settlement of South Sulawesi by humans has been dated to around 30,000 BC., when sea levels were much lower than nowadays and the island still formed part of the land bridge that led to the settlement of Australia and New Guinea. In Central Sulawesi there are over 400 granite megaliths, which various archaeological studies have dated to be from 3000 BC to 1300 AD. Today Sulawesi has 18 million inhabitants speaking eight major languages and professing to Muslim, Christian, Hindu and animist beliefs.
The southern tip of Sulawesi is dominated by the Bugis. Since ancient times they were great seafarers who in fact sailed as far as Australia; drawings of their ships were found in cave paintings while some Bugi words were absorbed into Aboriginal languages of northern Australia.
Further north in the highlands is Tanah Toraja, often referred to as the “Land of the Heavenly Kings”. Tana Toraja has a unique culture that has not changed in the past hundred years and is set in stunningly beautiful scenery. Although the Torajans have nominally converted to Christianity, they have retained a distinctive culture based on the animistic belief that their forefathers descended from heaven onto the mountains. They still perform elaborate burial ceremonies that take days to perform. Visitors are welcome to witness these ceremonies that include spectacular dances, ritual chants and the slaughtering of buffaloes. The Torajans believe that the persons who died need water buffaloes to make their journey into the afterlife.