On The Road: The sacred and the profane in Indonesia
Saturday 02 October 2010
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.
Footprint's Southeast Asia Handbook is available now (£16.99)
The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations
- 1 Isis burns thousands of books and rare manuscripts from Mosul's libraries
- 2 Scarlett Johansson new band 'already hit with legal complaint' from another The Singles
- 3 Husband and wife die holding hands within hours of each other after 67 years of marriage
- 5 'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
The 50 Best spas
Map identifies the best and worst places for emergency healthcare in the world
The Atlas of Beauty: Photographer travels around the world to capture cultural diversity through stunning portraits of women
Friends 20th anniversary: Where to visit as a superfan in New York
The 10 Best lightweight luggage
Oscars 2015: Birdman beats Boyhood as Eddie Redmayne and Patricia Arquette win big - as it happened
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
£12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Knaresborough ...
£23,000: Beverley James: Do you have a background in hospitality and are you l...
£26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The post holder is a key member of the V...
£18000 - £28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Driv...