When I was taking beginning Indonesian at Cornell last year, our textbook usually started with a short cultural introduction before delving into vocabulary and grammar lessons. One of those chapters featured Tana Toraja, a region on Sulawesi island known for its elaborate funeral ceremonies. When an important person dies, water buffalo (sometimes dozens) are sacrificed to accompany the soul to the hereafter, and the buffalo horns are displayed on the family’s distinctive Torajan home. A basic water buffalo runs about a thousand dollars, but the sought-after spotted buffalo, especially those with blue eyes and large horns, can cost upwards of $8000. Part of my mid-term exam after that unit included performing a role play with my partner. Our assigned situation: one of us was planning a funeral in Toraja and the other one was a buffalo farmer – we had to negotiate a sale. I distinctly remember giggling when given this scenario, thinking “When am I ever going to actually use this in real life?”
My friend Abbie and I both wanted to visit the exotic region of Tana Toraja, so we planned a trip there over the recent Hindu New Year holiday weekend. Our 3-day tour included visits to many of the distinctive grave sites that make Tana Toraja and its funeral ceremonies famous. Some dead are buried in grave houses.
Some are buried in cliff walls or caves. These are often guarded by wooden effigies of the bodies. I found the overall effect to be like a gallery of onlookers watching the comings and goings from cliff-side balconies.
Some are buried in large boulders.
Babies were traditionally buried in trees, although nowadays they are buried in the family’s grave house.
Some of the dead are placed in caves, where the older coffins have disintegrated, revealing the skeletons housed inside.
Our tour also included a half-day trek to a village, which was one of the more challenging hikes I’ve ever done. Our guide informed us we’d be walking through rice paddies, which sounded lovely. And it WAS gorgeous.
But it was also strenuous. Terraced rice paddies are formed with borders of compacted mud to contain the flooded fields of rice. It was on these dirt dikes that we scrambled through the paddies, balancing on what was sometimes only a 5-inch wide band of earth. Slipping meant falling into a soupy rice field on either side of us with mud up to our knees. We spent several hours slowly making our way up and around the hillside, occasionally climbing over boulders or crossing rivers by strategically hurling ourselves from rock to rock. Our destination: a traditional Torajan house (tongkonan) where we would spend the night. How lucky am I to get to do this type of stuff?
In addition to touring graves, trekking through paddies, and a tongkonan overnight, our tour also included a stop at the weekly livestock market, where villagers from around the area come to display and sell their water buffalo. I love visiting markets, and was especially excited to visit this one because 1) I had never been to a livestock market and 2) I kept thinking back to my beginning Indonesian role play at Cornell. It was fascinating. There were hundreds of water buffalo on show: black ones, brown ones, white-spotted ones, small ones, large ones, and blue-eyed ones. When we came upon a gigantic spotted buffalo, with clear blue eyes and a huge set of horns, I couldn’t resist. I went up to the man tending the prize animal and asked him how much it cost. He told me 250 million rupiah. That’s about $25,000. Wow. And so there I was, not exactly bargaining for a buffalo (because really, what am I going to do with a water buffalo?), but at least inquiring about its price. Who would’ve thought?