WARNING: This post features descriptions and photos of animal sacrifice. The events pictured made my wife a vegetarian. Read at your own risk.
An ominous tension hung in the air as the beating of a gong filled the courtyard with hauntingly beautiful sounds. The expectant crowd drew in closer as four machete-wielding men took a firm hold of their water buffalo, preparing to slit their throats as part of the elaborate funeral rituals performed in Tana Toraja in Indonesia.
There was a stake in the middle of the courtyard and I thought they were going to tie a leg of the buffalo to it in order to keep it from running rampant. This was not to be the case. Without warning, one of the men pulled back his machete and hacked the throat of a buffalo, causing it to panic and flail about wildly. It broke free from the killer and took off running – right at me!
Like a rodeo clown, I jumped over a barrier and into a hut as the wounded buffalo ran by me then up the road with blood spurting wildly from its throat, looking like something from a Quentin Tarantino fever dream. Ten Indonesian men chased after him, shouting. The other buffalos had been hacked also, one running amuck into the crowds on the other side, the other two stunned and standing more or less in place, blood gushing from their necks. The crowd cheered with a mix of testosterone and adrenaline fueled excitement. It was more akin to a Mexican bullfight than any funeral I’d been to before.
The buffalo that nearly trampled me and run away from the ceremony, was dragged back to the courtyard and one of the executioners, with a sandal clad foot I might add, kicked him right in the gaping wound in his throat. His foot emerged covered in thick crimson blood. This seemed to agitate the dying beast more than anything, and he swung his massive horns at the “matador.” Another man came over and hacked at his throat with a machete and at last the buffalo staggered and fell to his death.
It was brutal.
Before the sacrifice, my wife decided that she could not watch, left and walked up the street. She is the kind of person who will get upset if she sees a stray cat with an eye infection or a street dog with a limp. It will haunt her for days. Watching the sacrifice was out of the question.
After the killing was over, I had a sinking feeling. I realized that the buffalo that nearly trampled me and run away from the ceremony, went to where she was waiting. I feared she may have seen something nightmarish.
Now, lets move to her point of view. She had taken refuge behind a house about 150 meters up the road, waiting for the events to be over. She heard a great commotion with lots of screaming and shouting, looked out and saw a terrorized buffalo – with blood spewing from a gaping hole in its neck while being pursued by a mob of men – running right at her. Shocked, she ran off crying. The local ladies took her in and tried to console her. They mistook her emotions for fear, not realizing that she was upset by the sight of the wounded and terrorized animal.
When the ceremony was over, I found Kristi. She was sickly pale and had obviously been crying. She couldn’t talk. I saw blood all over the pathway near her, looking like something Dexter would get off on. “Is it too early to joke about this?” I said stupidly. It was hard for me not to laugh about the macabre events – she had gone away to avoid the killing, but inadvertently got the best view of anyone!
(By the way, yes, it was way too soon to joke, or even talk about it.)
This scene I described takes place almost daily all across Tana Toraja, a region in central Sulawesi, as the local people enact some of the most complicated, colorful and elaborate funeral ceremonies on Earth. Although most are officially Christian, the Toraja hold on to many traditions that predate the religious conversion. The funerals are the most visible.
We hired a local tour guide named Amos to take us to a funeral. With a carton of cigarettes as a donation to the family, we went to the first funeral. Underneath makeshift shelters made of bamboo poles and tin roofs, we saw hundreds of local people dressed in their finest black clothes, taking refuge from the hot sun. We were then assaulted by the smell of burning pig. Two men with flamethrowers were burning all the hair off a pig that had just been sacrificed and the smoke was blowing right into our faces, attacking our nostrils.
Amos led us to a courtyard. It was the day of the funeral devoted to receiving gifts and welcoming the family. In the main courtyard there were three buffalo heads, evidence of a sacrifice earlier that morning. Three machete-wielding men, barefoot, with cigarettes dangling from their mouths, were in the middle of the innards of the buffalo, cutting up the meat and removing the entrails. The different families in attendance each got a portion of the beef.
There was a master of ceremonies who read aloud the names of those in attendance and what they had donated. Every gift is meticulously recorded and a reciprocal offering will be given when someone dies in the other family. Family groups took turns arriving in processions and sat in the shelters. Once seated, the family of the deceased would offer coffee, tea, and cigarettes. They would thank them for coming, chat for a bit, and then another family would parade in and take their place.
We were welcomed with open arms. We posed for photos with many people and chatted with the family. Although it was obviously a bit of culture shock to walk in on the proceedings we quickly became comfortable due to the friendliness of the people. We were jolted back into the surreal reality every time two men walked by carrying a bamboo pole with a squealing pig tied to it, and heard its desperate screams as it was being sacrificed.
The next day, led by Amos, we were trekking in the hills north of Rantepao, visiting colorful villages and crossing rice paddies. Unexpectedly, we stumbled upon another funeral. When we arrived, we found the courtyard area was in the middle of tongkonan, the traditional houses of the Toraja. It was a much more colorful and photogenic scene than the day before. Moreover, there were buffalo waiting to be slaughtered. The family offered us tea and coffee and invited us to sit under a shelter. We decided to wait and watch.
Prior to the slaughter, about 15 buffalo were brought into the courtyard and paraded around. The family selected which ones to sacrifice and which to auction off or keep. Once the sacrificial buffalo were picked, young men led away those who were granted a reprieve. One stubborn bull refused to go, not realizing he had been granted a new lease on life.
There was a small ritual performed where an offering was made to the spirits to make sure these buffalo were suitable to follow the deceased into the afterlife. After the buffalo were anointed, the crowd closed in and nervous chatter filled the courtyard. “Shit is about to get real,” said a guy next to me.
After the sacrifices, as Kristi recovered from seeing things she couldn’t un-see, we made a somewhat somber ascent through the rice paddies. I paid special attention to the many buffalo we passed along the way. They were happy. They are generally free range, often wallowing in mud that locals jokingly call a “buffalo spa.” We saw one buffalo lazing in the shade in a river and another being washed by his master. Their lives are spent eating, working in the fields, enjoying the spa and generally living a pretty good life. When the gong sounds they meet a brutal demise, but they are no doubt treated better than livestock almost anywhere else on Earth.
Some Things Transcend Culture
After seeing the surreal Torajan funerals, I could not get out of my head the vast difference between ceremonies in the United States (or anywhere) and Tana Toraja. The next day at our guesthouse in Rantepao, an ambulance arrived carrying the body of a girl in her 20’s who died the night before of leukemia. Her family lived next door to the guesthouse where we were staying.
There was much crying and wailing as the lobby of our hotel was quickly transformed into an impromptu meeting place, and much food was brought and set out. The guesthouse was next to a church, and people began setting up plastic chairs outside it.
That night, a large crowd assembled at the church and there were speeches, a candle light vigil, beautiful hymns and much crying and sadness. It was a scene exactly like the funerals or memorial services I’d seen in America – they suffer the same shock and sadness at a passing. It was yet another clear example that the things that unite us as people are far more powerful than the differences. We are all sad when a loved one passes, even if we send them off in vastly different ways.
What interesting cultural events have you seen?
Stay Tuned for a follow-up, G-rated post, where I explain some more things from this fascinating culture. It will be vegetarian and PETA friendly.
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