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On The Road: The sacred and the profane in Indonesia

My guide's ponytail tumbled out of his helmet as he led me towards a group of men chatting happily around a tethered buffalo. The kretek – clove cigarettes – were passed round and pleasantries exchanged before there was a palpable shift in ambience from the profane to the sacred.

The buffalo, contentedly chewing a bale of grass, became the centre of attention as one of the men deftly searched for an artery in its throat and pierced it deeply. Soon the creature fell dejectedly on to its side.

Tanah Toraja is in the highlands of South Sulawesi, a stunning land of thickly forested mountains and emerald paddy fields. Even though it is part of Indonesia, the most populous Islamic nation on earth, it is dotted with Protestant churches – evidence of early 20th-century Dutch missionaries' success. However, the Toraja are known for their ancient ways, and in particular their funerals and the bloody sacrifices that accompany them.

We left the compound and hopped back on our bikes, skirting potholes towards a distant village where a funeral was taking place. Tourists with an invite from a well-connected guide are welcome at these funerals, which take place several months or even years after the death.

We handed over a carton of cigarettes to the family of the deceased and were beckoned into the buzzing compound, notable for its striking tongkonan houses, their roofs curved elegantly towards the heavens, fronts adorned with buffalo horns to signify wealth.

We passed the coffin, wrapped in patterned red cloth and surrounded by wailing women, leathery hands placed on the cloth. We sat with the family and drained glasses of tuak – rice wine – chomped wobbling pork and rice, and chatted as the squeals of pigs being sacrificed filled the air. Death is very much part of life in the land of the Toraja.

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