Buffalo and burials in Tana Toraja
The Toraja people live for death. Funerals are enormous week-long events attended by thousands. Families store the bodies of their elders for years until they have saved enough to hold a lavish ceremony. The funerals are closely guarded but tourists pay to attend with guides. My Dutch companion Gijs and I did things the old-fashioned way.
Please note: some of the photographs in this post are gory.
Full-scale funerals in Toraja
We asked around until we were tipped-off that there may be a ceremony near a village called Sa’adan where, riding around on mopeds, we found a lady in a cabbage patch who pointed us to a long line of locals in black marching up a driveway. Joining the line, we emerged into a clearing to see a special sight: a thronging yard ringed with eight or ten lofty ark-shaped haus tongkanan. Each traditional house was packed with elders and excited children. In the middle were fifteen fine buffalo, numbers painted on their sides, nervously toeing the dirt while a crazed shirtless man danced around them with a spear.
We did our best to be invisible as a group of cross-legged elders began to sing and the crowd filed past them, dropping donations of money and cigarettes into a bowl. Suddenly there was a roar: the shirtless man had slit a buffalo’s throat. We heard the hollow, gasping, sucking noise as blood gushed from the neck and the buffalo staggered around, one leg tied to a stake in the floor. Eventually it crumpled in a bloody heap. The crowd giggled and cheered.
We watched transfixed as another ten buffalo were slaughtered, sometimes several at once thrashing on the bloody ground. Once a buffalo broke free from the rope in its death throes and charged at the crowd, but collapsed in a frothing heap just before the enthralled family. An efficient team butchered the animals and fed the meat straight into a metal cauldron over a wood fire. By the end, the yard was a bloody, sweaty mess of skin, hair, muscle and intestines. It was a powerful, disgusting, memorable spectacle.
Somehow we didn’t fancy lunch; so we rode back off into the sparkling paddies. It wasn’t long, in this region that lives to die, until we found a funeral procession blocking the road.
The Toraja believe that bodies must be shaken on their way to the grave to rid them of evil spirits. And so we watched as a squad of young boys laughed and screamed while they played tug of war with a bamboo frame holding the coffin, all the while being chased uphill by grim-faced elders. At times, the boys abandoned the coffin and play-fought, splashing and cheering in the mud. It didn’t seem like a funeral at all. The coffin was eventually slid into a chiselled hole in he rock-face.
On another day, Gijs and I swept past the tree-graves at Makale and cliff-graves at Lemo in search of Londa, site of some spectacularly spooky burial caves. As pouring rain sluiced down the limestone cliff-face, we squeezed past rocks covered in skulls, coins or cigarettes stuffed in their eye sockets. Onwards past piles of decaying coffins in a warren of small grottoes, we found a crawl-way which led to a muddy tunnel, and eventually we emerged in a cathedral-like cave full of only bats and the glistening eyes of spiders. The region must be full of cave systems like this. I can’t wait to return one day with a spare torch.
Near the caves is a church where we sheltered from the rain and joined a female congregation to sing an Indonesian version of “Amazing Grace”. Tana Toraja is a place not to be missed.