In answer to the question “what did you do on your holiday?”, attending funerals would normally be seen as a strange, macabre reply, but when visiting Tana Toraja in the highlands of southwest Sulawesi, we have to make an exception. In this beautiful land of mountains, rice paddies, boat-shaped houses and perhaps the friendliest folk in Indonesia (which is not saying so much), funerals have a crucial function in the traditional society and an amazing tourist spectacle to boot. The Torajans, now largely christianised, used to follow and array of rituals throughout their lives and the cycle of the seasons, but now by and large, only the funerals retain great importance. Designed to give the deceased a proper send off to the other side, the proceedings require great effort and expense on the part of relatives, but otherwise, of course, great ill fortune could befall the family that slacks in that duty. They are a superstitious lot, the Torajans. Not neccessarily mystical.

I was lucky enough to attend three funerals in five days during my short but intense sojourn. I wasn’t expecting to see any at all – the funeral season is July and August when weather and availability of vacation allows relatives to come from far and wide to attend the big event. But January provides a secondary opportunity, apparently. I was met by a guide immediately when I got wearily off the night bus from Makassar. He convinced me to lay out cash on the hotel transport to get to this big buffalo funeral some 20 km from Rantepao. We had to get there by 10am to catch the carnage. Animal sacrifice plays a big part in the rituals of Toraja. The spirits of the beasts will accompany the deceased on their journey, and this funeral was for a rather rich lady. Half a dozen buffalo were going to get the chop. We arrived at the extensive temporary pavilions, beautifully hand painted in traditional totemic/textural style and set up around the standing stones that mark the traditional funeral grounds. These provide the guests, numbering in the hundreds, a comfortable place for viewing, eating and chatting during the three or four day event. The deceased lady lay waiting in a boat-shaped conveyance atop a tower at one end of the grounds. She was officially only “sick”, not dead, until the rites had been accomplished. Several buffalo, all male, from juveniles to magnificently horned adults and one striking albino specimen were being led around by their nose rings. Somehow the village headman on the mic, in conjunction with the audience, selected seven lucky contestants to make the journey to the other side. Then it happened rather quickly. The first buffalo was carefully led into position, roped to a rock and coaxed to raise its great head a little. A the right moment, the executioner suddenly slammed home a blow with a sharp machete, right across the front of the neck. Wobbling like drunk, only one of the seven eventual victims managed to run anywhere before collapsing silently sideways. Legs and head pumping a short time then down, blood gurgling through gashed tubes and soaking the grass. Maybe one more spasm then death or unconsciousness at least seemed to follow quite rapidly. Some just stood there bleeding, looking profoundly surprised, for quite some time. As subsequent buffalo were led in past the increasingly large number of corpses, none seemed upset by the events they were witnessing. Someone said buffalo have a spirit like people, and accept their fate. Only the big albino, through strength or a poorly delivered blade, continued to writhe and lash his head against the ground in bursts lasting through five or so minutes.This is not considered propitious.

Since rice agriculture in Toraja has become mechanised, the buffalo have little or no work to do and serve only as status symbols and sacrificial victims. But this is a very serious role. I got talking with the daughter-in-law of the deceased. She works as a doctor in Samarinda, Kalimantan. I was invited in for lunch with her father and seven year old son who spoke terrific English. As the expert butchering proceeded outside, we ate spicy fish and pork cooked in bamboo with coconut and blood. She told me that as her husband was eldest son, they had provided three buffalo, bought at market, including the albino which cost about $10,000! How was this financially possible I inquired. Many funerals come to all of us eventually. She explained they had prepared for a long time. Her “sick” mummified mother-in-law had stayed at home for six months (sometimes years) while arrangements were made, time off work obtained, money saved. The next day would be the private family service, after with the old lady could leave content with her retinue of beasts for a peaceful afterlife, and not come back and haunt anybody. Given the cost, I hope she was happy! The meat was all distributed appropriately with some lucky punters receiving the great honour of getting sent a ghastly severed head, minus the horns. The horns would normally be added to the stack adorning the house of the provider. The front of wealthier Torajan houses have such displays to flaunt their prestige. But I imagine it wouldn’t go down so well in muslim Samarinda.

We went on to visit some traditional villages to see these beautiful Tonkonan houses shaped like boats, buffalo horns, or pods from the mother ship depending on who you ask. The wooden exteriors are beautifully carved and painted with some rather unintelligible motifs. Sometimes the long curving roofs are thatched and randomly vegetated in the manner of Japanese Kayabuki farmhouses, sometimes metal. Many of the villages have elaborate cemeteries in nearby caves or graves hewn from rocky faces which are sometimes populated with Tau Tau effigies of the dead staring down at the world with a variety of often very lifelike expressions. The dead bodies are housed in finely carved coffins which eventually rot scattering bones and skulls around. To add to the mess, the dead are provided with virtually all their personal possessions from their house – photos, clothes, favorite drinks, copious cigarettes, books (including phone directories, in case they need to make a call back home). Sometimes bones and everything are later moved to the family mausoleum. Its all decidedly creepy. Especially when one finds the colony of 10cm cave spiders….

We were tipped off of another funeral the first day. A less ostentatious affair but still with very many guests and a huge amount of slaughtering of screaming pigs. No buffalo. Each live, trussed up pig was tagged with spray paint to indicate who had brought it, then examined by the MC (mainly for size I imagine) to see who was being suitably generous to the bereived and who might by skimping on the usual outlandish expenses. Later we went down the hill to watch some buffalo fighting, which basically employs the male buffalo’s natural instict to intimidate and chase off rivals. Some heavy gambling might have ensued, but the one big guy could too quickly see off all other contenders, and after each short bout would retire proudly to his mud hole with the nonchalant air of Mike Tyson in his prime.

A couple of days later I hiked from the village of Sad’an with its traditional weaving to Batutamonga half way up Mount Sesan. I took an ojek (motorcycle taxi) to Sad’an. My driver spoke very good English (the oddest people do) and quizzed me intently about Scotland and my opinions of Torajan tradition. I told him it was important to conserve cultural traditions in the face of a deluge of westernisation but that I thought the funerals seemed excessive for the responsible parties. He strongly agreed and said that people spend their lives worrying about how they will pay for relatives funerals while meeting lifes other finacial challenges. He said it puts a lot of strain on marraiges and added that many Torajan girls marry tourists. My mind boggled at what you could be getting yourself into there! We passed a couple of Torajan wedding cavalcades (it was Saturday) headed by police escort and I thought it would be rather nice to catch one of those. There were lots more interesting villages to explore on the hike and by lunchtime the land was turning really beautiful; rich rice country and forests of humungous bamboo backed by striking mountains. I heard some amplified excitement coming across on the wind. Sounded like a market I thought. When I homed in though, I discovered yet another funeral. A rather rough affair I thought, with few of the nicities. A small market and a lot of pigs getting bled. I sat with some of the young local guys and shared my warm Guinness and smokes in exchange for palm wine and the company. I was soon swarmed with kids as usual. Then somebody came and plucked me out, took me inside to the real, enclosed proceedings that I hadn’t even really been aware of, and sat me next to the son of the deceased. I was munching on some snack I had been presented when he turned around. I deferently greeted him but some food paricle flew out my mouth and hit him in the face. We both pretended not to notice but I dont think he liked me after that. They fed me a fine lunch anyway and there was a plethora of other friendly characters decked out in various traditional but idiosyncratic garb and all were happy to pause for photographs. One old guy donned his shield and with spear in hand came at me threateningly from the courtyard. My friendly neighbour said he was yelling something along the lines of give me your white women. Two pretty young girls were wearing gorgeous Torajan beadwork and eventually overcame their shyness. In complete contrast, the inner courtyard was a charnel house as usual. Two skinned buffalo and several pigs, living, dead, in parts, lay scattered around attracting flies. And in the middle two slightly sickly, nervous looking stags lay tethered to stakes. They were being saved until the end I was told. The best part was when one very large pig escaped and went mad, virtually destroying the MC table and sending everyone flying. Most people thought it was funny.

Next day I climbed the mountain for some fine views and discovered more freaky burial sites on foot and by bike before I left. I cant put together how open, kind and generous the Torajans are with the rather macabre nature of their rituals and seeming obsession with death. Im sure I only scratched the surface. But (along with the rest of Indonesia) I would hearily recommend this place for any of you would be travellers out there with a taste for nature and the, eh, exotic. Nosferatu’s slaughter house in paradise. Gotta love it.