Blood and Bone: Funeral Rituals in Tana Toraja, Indonesia

My days in Tana Toraja embodied the Indonesian flag: Red and white —which to some, symbolise dara and tulang. Blood and bone. It was a fascinating cultural and emotional experience. This photographic adventure is solely devoted to Tana Toraja, “The Land of the Heavenly Kings”.

If the sight of blood bothers you, be grateful you weren’t born a Torajan!

Day One:

The angry water-buffalo signaled defeat against another bull by turning tail and bolting across the dry rice paddy that was their battleground. We watched the pair of charging bulls change course straight towards us from a very safe 50m away. I always considered those who participate in the famous ‘running of the bulls’ to be a very special kind of idiot. Now, I found myself in the path of a 500kg bull. I felt ‘special’ indeed.

The women and children around me cried a fear-induced crescendo of alarm, and I realised that our elevated terrace might not be a deterrent for the bull as it grew before us, seconds away. We all shuffled to one side, then ran, shoved, dove. A child stepped knee-deep in the gloppy rice paddy as the bull leapt onto the lower terrace beside us and disappeared into the next rice field.

It was day one of the funeral ceremony in this Toraja village: the day the bulls, slated for sacrifice, were pitted against each other. Hundreds of villagers came to watch. They gambled hundreds of dollars on the outcome. Most fights ended immediately with one bull running away. They try to avoid getting hurt because it’s a bad omen for the ceremony. In the two hours we spent in that village, we watched a few bull fights, but were forced to flee from a half dozen runaway bulls. Giant buffalo suddenly materialized and sprint through the village, down our walking path or into our rice paddy. They seemed to have an internal compass for us, the only three foreigners in the village.

I suppose it’s fair enough the bulls tried to inflict maximum damage upon us while they still had the chance. Perhaps they knew what was planned for day three.

Day Two:

We arrived in the village early. Four men eviscerated a buffalo, skinned it, then removed the hooves, which the children played with before taking them home to make soup. The men carved out massive slabs of meat and heaved them to the makeshift butchering block: layers of banana leaves placed on the ground. Eight men sat around them in a circle slicing flesh into reasonable portions with rusty knives.

The sacrifice hadn’t begun. They needed something to feed the hundreds of guests who attended a funeral. Our guide sat us down beside the MC on one of the many low bamboo seating platforms. The entire array of platforms and ceremonial tongkonan was temporary, built over a month with the help of many hands in the community specifically for this funeral. He pointed to the platform directly overhead. “The coffin,” he whispered. A woman, who had died two months ago, was preserved with formaldehyde while the arrangements were made for the funeral.

It was clear after a few hours that the rest of the day would be occupied by the formalities of introducing every family in attendance, deliberating about fair allocation of gifts, speaking on the deceased and partying. We left to see the great variety of places where Torajan put their dead, including the old caves. “When our ancestors got annoyed with bodies getting eaten by animals, they started hanging the coffins from the cave ceilings,” I was told. Tombs are hand carved into solid cliff faces. I climbed 10m up a ladder made from a single shoot of bamboo to speak to one of the grave diggers in action. He told me it takes over six weeks of hammering and chiseling to make one grave, even the ‘dead baby tree’ where the richest Toraja would carve a hole in the trunk and place the bodies of dead infants. “They’re too small to reach heaven on their own, so the milky sap of this tree will feed the baby while it slowly grows its spirit towards heaven.”

I missed one tradition that takes place each August: the Ma’Nene ritual. Families exhume their mummified relatives to be washed, re-dressed in new clothes and posed for photos with family members.

Day Three:

Our guide explained the origins of the animal sacrifice at Torajan funeral ceremonies: always pigs and buffalos, never chickens or other ‘symbols of life.’ The ancient Toraja could communicate with their many gods directly, via a stairway to heaven. But there was – you guessed it – a fall from grace. The ‘upper world’ and ‘world of man’ became divorced. Ever since, people could only communicate to heaven through life rituals (banned by the Dutch a century ago, and no longer practised), or death rituals.

My interpretation is that Torajans believe the spirit of the deceased is transferred directly to heaven on the wave of gratitude all the animal sacrifices create. It was also a method of carrying one’s wealth into the afterlife. Before 1909, the wealthiest people would have their slaves sacrificed along with the buffalo so they could continue serving them in the afterlife.

I try to avoid casting western-biased judgments upon traditional beliefs and practises, unless they’re inflicting serious suffering on the earth or other living creatures. No part of any of the animals is wasted in this Toraja tradition: the meat is given to friends, relatives, attending families, local churches and preserved to be eaten the rest of the year. The butchers are trained professionals (though one cowboy killer tried to hold the buffalo by its nose instead of tying it up before slitting its throat. The beast nearly bowled over ten of us in the ensuing chaos). Only two of the 20 slaughtered buffalo I witnessed (and dodged) at the funeral took more than two minutes to die, and all of them lived extremely well in the years prior. The Torajans are both more connected to, and, likely as a result, less wasteful with the animals they kill.

Ours was a modest ceremony: only 24 buffalo sacrificed. Black buffalo are standard funeral currency, and apparently worth about $3,500. White, albino and mixed black/white buffalo are all worth more: up to, and sometimes exceeding the staggering sum of $50,000 each.

I couldn’t get my head completely around buffalo economics. For instance, if all Torajans gave up the buffalo sacrificing and sold them elsewhere, would they realise the profits? It’s more likely that the dollar values simply don’t factor in (except when sold to wealthy families for elaborate ceremonies, like the one my friend Liz attended where they sacrificed 100 buffalo) as most buffalo are raised in the villages, and gifted for funerals and as repayment for previous bovine gifts. This view is supported by the fact that funerals have meticulous record-keeping and elaborate announcements regarding which families attended the funeral: what and how many animals they gifted, and what animals were re-gifted by the deceased’s family to others in the community, whether dead or alive.

The Torajan people welcome visitors to their funerals, and encourage photos, because it all adds prestige by enhancing memories of the life and death of the deceased. By reading this, you too are honouring the spirit of the deceased woman of Tallunglipu.

Words by Michael Fuller

Michael Fuller is a nomad, constantly amazed and humbled by our world. After a decade of extensive travelling to obscure places, he quit his job to pursue travel & photography projects full-time. His new limited-edition book, The World at Work, documents people with many of the worlds rare and unseen jobs – like the buffalo slaughterers, or the stone-grave diggers.

For more of Mike’s cultural adventure photo-stories, or his practical philosophic travel advice, please visit MichaelFuller.ca, his Facebook page or join his mailing list.