Perched at the doorway of his raised house, an old Torajan man stares out at the spectacle below: pigs strapped to bamboo stretchers, buffalo guts lying in the mud. The man’s brother has died, and after months of keeping the embalmed body in the house, it is finally funeral season. After a lifetime on earth, the man’s brother is returning to where all Torajans believe they came from: the stars.
I took a long, queasy bus ride along the edge of Sulawesi to reach the mountains of Tana Toraja, and the cool air is a relief from the usual Indonesian heat. The endless tiers of rice paddies look impossibly alive, the clouds so huge they leap out of the blue sky. But in all this life lurks death: dank caves house countless coffins, and doll-like effigies watch the living from tiny balconies built into the mountainsides.
Villagers dressed in black sit on decks and under canopies, surrounding the scene of the funeral like spectators at a bullfight. Pigs scream as men slit the animals’ throats, packing the guts in bamboo shoots to be cooked. Twenty feet in front of me, though, is the most important sacrifice: three skinned buffalo in a pool of blood. These buffalo will guide the dead to the afterlife, aid him in his journey towards the land of souls. On earth, his family will feast on the buffalo for days, celebrating the liberation of this man’s soul, reveling in the most important moment of his life.