Toraja Funeral | Tana Toraja | Indonesia

Attending a funeral was the reason that we traveled to Toraja and we accomplished this on our second day. As in the States, Black is the funeral attire for the region but is often embellished with red (symbolizing blood) or yellow (symbolizing the power of God). Young family members of the deceased, clad in beaded traditional clothing, lined the entrance to the family tent in the center of the elaborate arena which was especially constructed for the funeral. Upon arriving at the funeral, guests were provided with refreshments and seated according to family in a numbered pavilion. Funerals are a community affair, with the family of the deceased being responsible for entertaining and feeding their neighbors for the duration of the celebration. Another group of men related to the honoree gathered in a circle to chant and sway in remembrance.

After an hour or so, the festivities got under way. The coffin was laid under a traditional boat house, which male family members hoisted up on bamboo and took for a walk through the community (in this case, down a very steep hill and back again), while female members took hold of a red cloth and led the way. Since so many men were working together to carry the sarcophagus, it became a massive game of tug of war, with the coffin at times dangling precariously close to falling over.

Guests of the funeral are obligated to bring offerings, often in the form of pigs or for the wealthier, water buffalo. Upon arriving, guests must pay a tax for the animal. As you can imagine, the volume of pigs that were brought combined with a tight space, made for a loud, pungent affair. Often, a pig, who was still bound at the ankles or around a bamboo pole, would attempt to re-position itself before failing and falling on some of the other swine, and what started as one loud oink, quickly dominoed into a chorus of miserable pigs.

Eventually, it was time for the sacrifice. A beautiful water buffalo was led into the center of the arena by his nose and tied to a tree. Having done my research, I knew what  to expect but as soon as it started, I had no idea how hard it would be to watch.

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As a man approached the creature with a gleaming machete, the atmosphere of the crowd shifted. I expected one swift movement of the blade would do him in but unfortunately for the animal, a few moments of sawing passed before he began to gush.  It was not a quick death. What struck me the most was how loud the blood flow was. The water buffalo thrashed, eyes bulging, as it came to terms with the situation. After several long minutes, he gave up and in a pool of his own blood, took his last breath. More disturbing than the slaughter was the group of children that approached the animal after he was gone. They giggled to each other in their local language before pushing one forward. That child began to play with the lifeless eyeballs in front of him, as if they were a prize won from a machine.

We witnessed this not once, but twice. The second animal that was offered was less cooperative. Due to the volatile nature of the creature, they resorted to covering his eyes to make him easier to handle.

 Once the slaughters were finished, a parade of family members walked the outskirts of the arena before settling in the family tent. Others followed and presented their gifts to the family.

Tampangallo | Tana Toraja | Indonesia

This site was more remote than the others and as a result, felt more authentic than some others that had been pillaged and rearranged over the years. Worn, wooden coffins were suspended from the ceiling, some with gaping holes from which their contents spilled. 

Baby Tree | Tana Toraja | Indonesia

A culture with such unique burial customs also has a special treatment for children. Unlike adults, who are placed inside a stone chamber, sometimes after several years, children are immediately buried within a living tree behind doors constructed out of palm leaves. Only trees with white sap, symbolizing a mother's milk, are chosen for this special task. The particular jackfruit tree that we visited was last used in 1937. A family's status determines the number of pegs that are used in sealing the door (more pegs equals higher status). Twins are also buried together, behind a double door. In contrast to the other burial sites that we visited, this place was very somber, secluded and private.

Weekly Market | Tana Toraja | Indonesia

During our initial consultation with our tour guide upon arriving in Toraja, we were informed that we were lucky because we arrived the day before the weekly market. Having been to my fair share of markets during my three years in Asia, I was picturing a variety of colorful fresh produce proudly displayed in woven baskets lining the side of a road. Those things existed but merely served as the passage to the real attraction of the market: animal acquisition.


Our first steps inside yielded an encounter with these fish flopping around, helplessly gasping for air. Apparently, they can survive for up to three hours out of water. This was just a small taste of what was to come.


We walked further down the road to the water buffalo exchange and were greeted with quite a sight: as far as we could see in any direction, there were sellers displaying their fare. As you can imagine, it was quite pungent and crowded.


Water buffalo play an integral part in the funeral celebrations of Toraja. Like any other species, water buffalo come in a variety of colors and sizes. The most prized (expensive) are those that are albino or partially albino. Horn shape and alignment are also indicators of the value of the creature. Long necks are also a valued trait and to acquire longer necks, the water buffalo are strung through their nose and suspended high in the air for several hours a day to achieve the desired effect.


Though these animals did not appear to be comfortable, it was nothing compared to what we witnessed at the pig sties. From quite a distance, you could hear the agonizing squeals of discomfort. Before continuing, let me just say that in general, I'm not a huge fan of meat, mostly because I simply don't care too much for it. This experience, and the one that followed the next day however, were almost successful in turning me into a permanent vegetarian for humanitarian reasons. The displays of animal cruelty that we witnessed in this market were shocking and overwhelming. We witnessed live pigs being carried upside down on spits (when their legs could very visibly not handle the strain), tied up in bags, hit, kicked by children, spat on, tossed around in wheelbarrows, picked up by their hind legs and bound to the point of suffocation onto the backs of motorbikes. I didn't last long down there.


As a city dweller, I know that there are things neatly tucked away outside the city limits that take place to put food on our tables. However, I have trouble believing that the degree to which things were taken at this market are widely acceptable practices in the industry. As a teacher, it was also disturbing to see children taking part in these activities, being brought up with such an irreverence for life. I recognize that I was merely an outsider looking in but I know that I will never forget the chorus of squeals that rose up over the market that day. 

Hanging Graves | Tana Toraja | Indonesia

Torajan houses are commonly referred to as "boat houses". This nomer of course references the obvious shape of the roof. Now commonly constructed out of wood, original Torajan homes actually incorporated dismantled vessels into their designs. As mentioned in my previous post, water buffalo are an important component of life in Toraja, and as such, the pinnacle of the roof is also recognized as symbolizing the horns of the animal.