Little is generally known about Indonesia in the West. With 17,000 islands, 240 million people and over 400 languages or dialects, it’s a land of amazing diversity and culture. I could write about Bali or the Gili islands, the amazing surf and dive spots or the orang-utans and Komodo dragons, but you can find that out for yourself.
However, understanding places like Maluku, Borneo and Sumatra requires some real investigation. I headed to Sulawesi – that weirdly shaped island east of Borneo. The flight was near empty and the passengers gave the pilot a hearty round of applause on landing (What else was he meant to do?). I was in Sulawesi to witness the famous funeral ceremonies of the Torajan people, usually held in summer so that families can save up money and prepare intricate costumes to honour their dead. The ride to my destination wasn’t a good one — uncomfortable and windy, full of patchy sleep, but I got there.
Arriving in Rantepao, I was surrounded by curious houses called tongkonan. The roofs rear up at both ends in the shape of the boats thought to have brought them to this land, and the higher the roof, the greater the family status. I’d never seen anything like them. I waited for a large funeral, playing football and taking pictures. I was given a room in a tongkonan and was entertained by endlessly Van Damme films on TV.
The funeral day finally arrived. With my guide Anton, we took local transport through the paddy fields, picking up mourners as we went. The husband of the deceased woman greeted me and invited me to sit with his family. The grieving family were relatively rich and had built a family shrine consisting of large viewing bays surrounding the coffin, which was housed in a portable tongkonan.
After solemn prayers and dedications, the celebration of the deceased woman’s life began. Around 30 local men with Jackie Chan haircuts picked up the coffin and excitedly carried it down the road to the other villages hopping, skipping and cheering. Eighteen buffalos walked alongside, including a prized albino bull, with women following behind carrying a red satin train above their heads. The younger girls and boys were dressed in beautiful black satin, with elaborate bead necklaces and colourful headbands. Once back in the family shrine, the coffin was carried up a steep rampart to rest for the remainder of the 8 day long ceremony.
We then came to the most famous part of the ceremony. After a long sermon from a local animist leader and then a Catholic priest, a female buffalo tied to the stake (you might want to close your eyes right now) quickly had her throat cut by a professional slaughterer. The buffalo bucked and jumped as blood poured from her neck onto the soon matted earth. She collapsed, but took a further two minutes to die, lifting her head in final death throes before passing on. I watched it all with a fixed stare – it was pretty horrendous.
The Toraja believe their animals must follow them into heaven as well as some of their possessions, like the ancient Egyptians or my aunt with her handbag. The number of sacrifices depends on the wealth of the family (and, I guess, how much you like the family member). Other relatives also bring along their own animals to be slaughtered as a sign of respect for the deceased. It took the men 16 minutes to totally decapitate and divide up the buffalo. I was timing it. I heard 18 buffalo and lots of pigs would be eaten over the 8 days. And we complain about turkey sandwiches on Boxing Day!
For the rest of the afternoon, I watched male buffalo wrestling. The local men cheered, whooped and made bets. When one buffalo got the upper hand, the other made a run for it followed by the stronger bull. The crowd ran for it too. The buffalo had poor eye-sight and ran in blind panic. Only once did we get a great battle. Two evenly matched bulls fought for 30 minutes, one getting underneath and flipping the other over. They fought on, the testosterone burning until they both fell down a steep bank into the river. I left soon after that. My flippers and feet were covered in bullshit.
One more Van Damme film later (Double Impact and boy, did it feel like it), I left Tana Toraja. The night bus took me from the island of Sulawesi, onto the rest of the ever-surprising country of Indonesia.