Leashed to a stake in the ground, the buffalo's entire body squirmed as its broad throat was slit, its knees buckling and its huge torso collapsing onto the grass. With its last breath, it raised its head high into the air, the gash across its neck stretched wide open and gushing. Finally the bull's head lowered to rest against the wet ground. It was at this point that the old animists of Toraja, an ethnic group in south Suluwesi, believed the deceased had finally passed on, headed at last towards Puya, the land of souls.
One of Toraja’s famous funerals was underway. Earlier that morning in Rantepao – capital of the North Toraja Regency on the island of Sulawesi – my wife Joanna and I had hired a motorbike for £4 and sped off through the hills in search of one such ceremony, said to be getting started somewhere to the southeast.
Even outside the peak funeral months of June to September, there seems to be a funeral almost every day in Toraja; you just need to know where and when. Today it was the village of La'bo, and after just twenty minutes through the rice paddies we were unmistakably there.
In the wet fields along the drive were only a handful of farmers and buffalos mired in mud, but here were over a hundred guests: family, friends and a smattering of foreigners led by guides hired in Rantepao. Encircled by towering tongkonan – traditional houses each intricately carved with curved, sweeping roofs of split bamboo – was the casket. All were waiting for the funeral to begin.
Since the arrival of the Dutch in the misty highlands of Tana Toraja, the animistic "Way of the Ancestors" (Aluk To Dolo) has been largely supplanted by Christianity, now the region's majority religion. Nevertheless, the old funeral rites have survived intact.
Funerals remain by far the most expensive and ceremonious occasions in Torajan life and death, and at their heart remains animal sacrifice. Torajans save up for years to throw a funeral, as the more buffaloes and pigs amassed for the feast, the greater the honour to the deceased.
In my broken Bahasa I asked for the head of the household and was pointed towards a tiny old woman in black. When our turn came to approach her, we handed off our gift with two hands: a carton of kreteks, clove cigarettes. She accepted the present with a smile, offered a frail handshake and ushered us to our seats. Stepping around a dozen or so tied, squealing pigs laid out in the grass to await their slaughter, we made our way into one of the bamboo huts surrounding the grassy field where the casket lay. The women chewed on sweets while the men chain-smoked and sipped palm wine. We chatted with extended family members until the first wave of food arrived.
We spent the following several hours in the hut, stepping out only briefly when the ceremony turned raucous. First came the shaking of the coffin. A dozen men surrounded the coffin, lifted it up and carried it in a wandering circle around the patch of grass. They shook the carved box wildly enough to send the lingering spirit on its way – and possibly break a few of the corpse's bones. In a procession that was anything but solemn, the smiling widow, trailed by a handful of elderly, black-clad peers, led the haphazard cortege under a long piece of red cloth tied to the coffin.
Next came the eulogies, then more food, and finally, one of the buffaloes was dragged onto the patch of grass. It wasn’t long after the first bit of bloodletting that Joanna was ready to get moving again.
After a round of goodbyes in the smoky hut, we headed out the back way towards the road from where we could hear the shrieks of bound and paralyzed pigs, louder than ever. We glimpsed several of the poor beasts strewn across the hill in various stages of butchery. Our friends at the funeral would have plenty of meat for the feast.
The final resting place for this deceased would be in one of the limestone caves that dotted the surrounding hills, while some Torajans are buried in stone graves and others high on the cliffs in hanging coffins, the latter taking years to rot and then break onto the rocks below.
Before leaving Rantepao, we rode to a couple of nearby cliff sites, finding piles of skulls at the mouths of deep caves. The wreckage of fallen coffins was strewn around them. At Londa, a few meters up the cliff face from the burial site, was a shelf crammed with wooden tau tau, effigies of the deceased. From their crudely carved faces, painted eyes stared blankly across the rice paddies below, somewhat eerie embodiments of the special bond between the living and the dead of Tana Toraja.
The launching point for attending a funeral in Tana Toraja is Rantepao, (8hr by bus from Makassar), where you'll find plenty of knowledgeable guides to escort you to a funeral. Explore more of Indonesia with the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.
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