A young man and an old man strike a golden gong as they walk around the perimeters of a rugged field. The soothing vibrations seem to placate the nervous crowd around them: men and women, amassed in rows on all sides, twitch and hiss as if they were a pressure-cooker of different emotions. Some sit on their haunches, shouting as they peek down from a bend in the road above. Others sit silently inside makeshift tents marked with a number, whose roofs are curved like the long horns of the buffaloes that graze before us in the field.
It’s like an eerie game show, or a paradoxical bovine catwalk: each of the 18 animals has a white number crudely sketched on one of its sides. That’s both a sign of belonging, and a very methodical way to give up the ghost: with their heads slung low, the beasts wait for death, as oblivious as if they were people queuing up at an office.
“The numbers indicate which tent owns which buffalo,” says Sam, stepping among us in the crowd. “They are going to kill the first soon”.
Sam is my wife’s father, at least for the day. We just met him on a bus the night before, and he has managed to take us to a Rambu Soluk — a traditional Torajan funeral, and quite a rare event to catch out of season, in the midst of January.
A few hours earlier that morning, we had awoken in Sam’s storeroom — not because he had drugged and kidnapped us on that night bus, but simply because there was no other space left in the wooden house he shared with three other families.
A tall and robust Malaysian with a Torajan bloodline and an Indonesian wife, Sam has short black hair, big hands, and a smile that makes his guests feel extremely at ease. He was waiting for us in the common kitchen, chatting up one of his roommates to see if she knew anything about the ceremony we so much hoped to witness. Torajans usually hold the Rambu Soluk in the summer and in December, but we had arrived in Rantepao during January.
“Somebody always dies,” the woman said, positive that the funeral rituals could well stretch until now, and then left us to take care of the pile of dirty clothes parked in the courtyard downstairs.
We had come to Rantepao, Tanah Toraja, with high hopes of catching one of the most elaborate and expensive funeral rites in the world. To Torajans, death is the epicenter of life, much more than birth and marriage, and when one goes, it’s all about making an impression.
“Nobody cares if a child is born, or somebody marries,” Sam explained.
“But when you go, you must go with a bang”.
Like it or not, the “way to go” is to slaughter as many buffaloes as possible to honor the departed. In Torajan culture, together with chickens and pigs, buffaloes are the most important animals. They not only represent this society's strong ties to the land, but are also used as a sort of “transaction currency” that defines a family’s social status. Most tongkonan — the Torajan traditional homes — are adorned with wooden buffalo heads, and their roofs are built curved at both ends, in guise of buffalo horns.
The problem is, the cheapest buffalo costs around 30 million Indonesian Rupiah — about US$2250. Torajans are then forced to save money all their life, always thinking about having enough to adequately celebrate the passing of their family members. That’s because Torajan funerals are such grandiose affairs: they go on for about ten days, with dances, buffalo fights, and of course, the buffalo slaughters that have made Tanah Toraja famous around the world.
“These days people do what they can. But a perfect funeral should have 28 buffaloes, each of different type and color. You can do the math yourself,” another Torajan friend had explained to me even before I arrived in Rantepao. “But some younger people are also starting to evade the tradition, saving effort and money, and only killing three or four animals. Things can get quite expensive, too, depending on how many sons and daughters the departed had: at my grandmother’s funeral, we killed 80 buffaloes”.
I frowned, and I frowned again when he added that while families collect money for the funeral bills, the bodies of their dead are often kept in the homes, in “waiting” for their funeral ceremony. This can go on for months or years, or until a bank helps out with a loan.
I had to ask how that was even possible: apparently, there are preservatives able to slow the decay. “And after the funeral, the bodies are either placed in caves, hanging coffins, or inside tongkonan-shaped tombs”.
When his roommate leaves, Sam raises from his chair and looks at us with hopeful eyes. “Let’s go to the buffalo market and ask around. If there’s a funeral, someone over there will know”.
Buffaloes are sold at the weekly Bolu market, a concrete slab at the northern end of Rantepao: it’s a sad show of bovines, tied by their noses and feet, and pushed around by country folks who have come from far away to sell the animals.
“If they have white patches on their backs, and green or white eyes, the buffaloes cost a fortune, up to 300 million and over,” explains Sam as we walk around dozens of animals, carefully threading our way through a layer of mud and excrement.
We roam around the field under the scorching sun, witnessing the constant tug-of-war between buyers and sellers, scared buffaloes and the pick-up truck drivers who must take them away. Sam keeps asking around, trying to get information as horns turn, young buffaloes grunt, and salesmen scream. A woman in a sundry shop finally confirms the location of a funeral, and we cut across the nearby food market to get into a car.
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