In Tanah Toraja, Indonesia, long-held animist beliefs mean the dead are laid to rest with elaborate ceremonies that last for days. Daniel Stables attends a funeral to learn what life and death means to the locals here.
I am clinging to the back of a sputtering motorbike, speeding through the highlands of Tanah Toraja on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Traditional Torajan houses, their roofs steeply curved to resemble a buffalo’s horns, tower above the dusty earth on wooden stilts. Above them, rice fields stagger down the mountainsides in great shelves, glittering in the midday sun.
I am en route to a stranger’s funeral in a foreign land, and I’m not quite sure what to expect.
As we approach our destination, the roads begin to fill with petrol fumes and chattering pedestrians. Quite suddenly, the traffic, human and motorised, comes to a standstill. Ahead, a buffalo is being held at rope’s-length by four nervous-looking young men, tottering uneasily on its hooves and dipping its head warningly at each of them in turn. My guide, Paulus, kills the engine and turns back towards me. “I think we’d better park here,” he says cheerfully.
We descend a small hill into a clearing, where I soon lose count of the number of pigs being carried past us, shrieking and strung up in bamboo frames, to be dumped in a central patch of dirt. Occasionally one will be sacrificed with a knife to the heart, and carried out of sight to be blowtorched, cut up and cooked.
The return of blood to the earth is the central tenet of these ritual slaughters – great crimson pools gather in wells where the mud has been churned by the feet of the attendees. By Paulus’ estimate there are a thousand pigs here, donated by friends and neighbours – the deceased was a man of high class.
Despite the staggering porcine cost of today’s ceremony, the real stars of the show, spiritually speaking, are the buffalo, who it is believed carry the dead to heaven. Scores of them are here today, tied by nose-rings to a large bamboo structure in the centre of the clearing; they will be sacrificed tomorrow.
Buffalo are the ultimate status symbol for Torajans, and skulls and horns are affixed prominently beneath the curved roofs of their longhouses. Rare blue-eyed, white buffalo can sell for up to one billion rupiah – around £60,000.
The majority of Torajans are Christians, despite the proud upkeep of their animist traditions. When this funeral is finally over in a few days’ time, the body will be laid to rest in a rock-cut tomb decorated with a portrait of the dead, flowers and wooden crosses. Macabre wooden statues of the dead, known as tau tau, stand as silent watchmen over the tombs.
Paulus diverts my attention from the grim scene before us – it’s time to go inside. I’m welcomed warmly by the family of the deceased, and in return for my traditional gift of balok palm wine, I’m given sweet black coffee, biscuits and cassava wrapped in banana leaf. A toddler walks past clutching a Pikachu balloon.
Over our coffee, Paulus asks me about my trip, and tells me he has rarely ventured outside of his homeland. “Torajans don’t like to travel,” he says, “because we’re always thinking about our own culture.”
“Besides,” he adds, indicating with a casual wave the chaos going on outside, “we prefer to spend all our money on funerals.”
Explore more of Indonesia and Southeast Asia with the latest edition of The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget.