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September 2nd, 2012
From the moment a Torajan is born, their whole life revolves round the time of their funeral. This is partly because the Torajans have a very firm belief in the separation of body and spirit and all lifetime rituals that come with that. It is also partly because funerals in Tana Toraja (Land of Toraja, situated in central Sulawesi) are such an extravaganza that it takes a life's savings to be properly sent to the afterlife. It is the belief of the Torajans that the spirit of a deceased that has not properly ascended to higher realms can truly haunt those of the family that have been left behind. I guess that that is a legitimate enough reason to throw some serious cash at 'the final party' and help the spirit of the deceased with that ascension.

Extravagant is truly extravagant in Tana Toraja. To begin with there is a small funeral ceremony that takes place right after the unlucky one has passed away. This ceremony is meant to leverage the grief off the friends and family who are left behind in the mundane. A year later there is a second ceremony, during which time the body is kept in storage. It is this second ceremony that truly asks for sacrifice, and not only financially. A complete village will be built up for just this funeral and the ceremony itself can take up to five days. It is usually attended by at least close to a thousand guests all of who need to be fed. Add to that the grave itself. In some cases a burial cave will be hacked out of the rocks and adorned with a life-like statue. Those with true status even get their own menhir. After this is the most costly part of the funeral. According to the Torajans, the sacrifice of buffalos at a funeral is necessary because the spirit of these sacrificial animals is needed to assist the spirit of the deceased to transcend to higher realms.

A young Torajan (Tana Toraja)

For me, a buffalo is just a buffalo, just another future steak. But when a Torajan looks at one he sees much more than that. The Torajans classify buffalos based on physical characteristics and some of these characteristics have value. Does the buffalo have its horns pointing down instead of up? Then it is more important and more expensive than an average buffalo. Does the animal have white spots covering its body? That is a sign of even more value. Did your herd produce an albino buffalo, which is completely white and has black eye whites? Then you probably can buy yourself a new car from it. The going rate for a regular buffalo is about US$ 5,000, with albino buffalos fetching a whole heap more than that. The classification is important because at least ten buffalos need to be sacrificed at a funeral, and they all need to be different. The higher the class of the deceased the more buffalo lives will be taken and the more special the characteristics of these buffalos. My guide in Tana Toraja told me that at the funeral of one of his family members five hundred buffalos were sacrificed. Even if that number is downplayed a bit (Torajans are keen on status) it leaves quite a number of buffalos that have been sent to the Eternal Grazing Grounds at that funeral.

The butchers work efficiently. When the first buffalo is brought in it is tied with one leg to a pole in the middle of the court. The butcher raises his knife and shows it to the guests. Then in one quick go he makes a large cut in the neck of the animal, hitting the main artery, and walks away. For the first few moments the buffalo is oblivious to what is happening. But suddenly it apparently senses that something different is going on. What it senses is an invading numbness, an invading death, and inevitably the animal starts to fight it. During this fight the amount of blood that sprouts from the cut dwarfs the Trevi fountain in Rome and those who stand too close will surely be spray painted. The buffalo's futile struggle takes about three minutes after which it has to give up.

A buffalo is sacrificed (Tana Toraja)

Immediately the butchers move in to start work on the cadaver, while the family walks by to pay their respects to the sacrificed animal. The butchers first take off the skin, after which the rest of the body is carefully hacked into pieces. After half an hour nothing is left but some offal and a huge pile of cut meat which is then distributed among the funeral guests to feed their families. The guests with the highest status, who also have the best seats, will get the best pieces of meat.

Another important guest at Torajan funerals is the pig. They are traded at huge pig markets where these animals are bound to bamboo beds to incapacitate them. Transporting pigs is done on the back of motorcycles. Apparently there are no Animal Front supporters at this market. Unlike what George Orwell wrote, pigs here definitely have a lower status than buffalos in the animal hierarchy. Being invited as a pig to a Torajan funeral does not make you a happy pig. After the first buffalo has been sacrificed to open the ceremony, dozens of pigs are quickly slaughtered one by one by striking them in the heart with a knife and taking them apart just as is done with the buffalos. Pigs know how to make a noise and their deathbed screams chill the spine. But the delicious Babi Kecap that is served sometime later makes up for that horror.

Huge pythons roam the jungle floor
in search of lizards (Batuputih)

While the slaughter goes on and on, the guests chat with each other in their lounges while drinking tea and coffee, and nibbling on munchies. To them, slaughtering animals is simply just another fact of life, and the fact that it is done in front of their faces instead of anonymously in a distant abattoir does not seem to bother them.

All of these guests, including me, have brought gifts for the family of the deceased. Some also brought a to-be-sacrificed buffalo or pig, and more distant family members, such as me, brought large packets of cigarettes, the kreteks. These cigarettes are laced with clover and turned out to be the crowd's favourite. After half a day of sacrificing animals the stench of death and animal faeces becomes so pugnant that the aroma of the clover is a welcome way of masking the stench. However, the cigarettes do not help against the hundreds of thousands of flies that are attracted by the smells.

After the slaughtering has finished the Torajan men all stand up and form a circle around the heap of offal. That pile is not too large as the Torajans eat most animal parts. The men begin to sing which lasts for at least an hour. Their songs have some beautiful vibrations in the lower part of the sound spectrum. These vibrations apparently transform the dense energies of the sacrificed animals, as indeed the atmosphere greatly clears up after singing their songs. With the transformation of the animal energies, the energies of the diseased co-transform.

A shrimp, dandy style
(Bunaken, underwater)

You might think that the Torajans are a people that treat their buffalos with cruelty. But nothing could be further from the truth. The buffalos that are singled out for sacrifice, for which only bulls are selected, usually had a life in which they have been hand fed and cooled down with cold showers when the day was hot. Now and then a female buffalo is put into the stable for some more enjoyment. These sacrificial buffalos are pampered and treated by their owners with respect and honour. On one morning I even saw a buffalo owner taking his sacrificial buffalo out for a morning jogging exercise (seriously!). In exchange for the pampering, the last three minutes of a buffalo's life is dedicated to the life of the person whose spirit needed assistance, then the buffalo is turned into the prime steak to which it would have ended up anyway. It is a life that most of the shining clean packages of packaged beef on the shelves in our supermarkets, that are usually picked up with less respect than in Tana Toraja towards the animal that gave its life, have not had. Hell, if I was a buffalo I would definitely sign up for a life in Tana Toraja instead of living elsewhere.

Warm regards,

Next time: 17,508 Islands

Last time: Land of the Dragons

Funerals are public events, with the deceased
getting a high seat, so that its spirit has
a good overview (Tana Toraja)
The girls parade around like queens
(Tana Toraja)
While the boys play around (Tana Toraja)

According to the Torajans, the spirit of the animals will assist
the spirit of the deceased to ascend to higher realms
(Tana Toraja)
The family pays respect to the sacrificed animal,
while it is cut up in pieces (Tana Toraja)
You really do not want to be a pig
and be invited to a Torajan
funeral! (Tana Toraja)

After the slaughter the men sing
around the leftovers, apparently to
transform the dense energies
(Tana Toraja)
What to do with the horns of the buffalos?
Well ..... (Tana Toraja)
People of high status are buried in caves,
adorned with a lifelike puppet (Tana Toraja)

Others are put in hanging graves
(Tana Toraja)
Leftovers (Tana Toraja) The Torajans truly have a unique culture
(Tana Toraja)

The golden ricefields of Tana Toraja The rainforest of Sulawesi is filled with interesting animals
The Black Macaque is the comedian of the
forest, harassing other wildlife where
possible (Batuputih)

The Hornbill is the most beautiful
bird on the block
It feeds its young by vomiting up
collected berries
The Tarsier is a nocturnal
animal whose eyes are literally
larger than its stomach

Ever seen a spider with a horn? (Batuputih) Or one with little sacks hanging
from its face? (Bunaken)
Ever seen a Tarantula in real life? (Batuputih)

Lizards roam the jungle floor in search of insects
A python's skin is most delicately adorned with
beautiful patterns (Batuputih)
The snake butchers of Tomohon sell python meat
for US$ 1.50 per kilo

Yes, it is what you
think it is (Tomohon)
Preparing for a night dive (Bunaken) A Leafy Scorpionfish looks like a ..... leaf!
(Bunaken, underwater)

'Normal' Scorpionfish are
less hard to find
(Bunaken, underwater)
The inside of a Featherstar
(Bunaken, underwater)
Nudibranches are the butterflies
of the oceans (Bunaken, underwater)

They come in all shapes and colours
(Bunaken, underwater)
Soft corals move along with the current
(Bunaken, underwater)
A giant Hermit Crab roams around
the coral (Bunaken, underwater)

(Bunaken, underwater)
The beauty of the
Two-Spotted Lionfish
(Bunaken, underwater)
Grandma sure loves her Bintang
(Tana Toraja)

Starbucks smartly adapts to local customs.
But I am not sure if I would take up the offer