Sundays in the town of Rantepao, the capital of the Tana Toraja regency in Sulawesi, Indonesia, is all about buffaloes. It is market day, or Hari Pasar in local lingo. And the centre of attraction in Bolu Market, the biggest in the town with a Dutch colonial past, are the hundreds of buffaloes lined up across the dung and mud that cover the market floor. The animals on display are groomed for the Sunday market. “We might go without a bath but the buffaloes get the finest soaps and shampoos,” says a trader.
The reason behind such care and maintenance is an animistic tradition that accords a special place to the buffalo in Torajan funerals. The buffalo, according to the local belief, “accompanies the dead to the afterlife” and families pull out all stops to buy the animal for slaughter at the elaborate funeral ceremony.
Torajans treat the dead like a member of the family, keeping the mummified body in the living room of the house till they have enough funds for a lavish funeral. Family members even dine around the deceased till the mortal remains are buried in tombs carved in the boulders in the mountains of Rantepao. Life-size wooden statues, or tau-taus , placed outside the tombs are said to guard the dead and the worldly possessions that go to the grave with them.
The buffalo market is the first stop towards a lavish funeral. Traders from across Indonesia ship their animals to the Sulawesi coast and drive them up for hours to reach Rantepao in time for the weekly market. The Tedong Saleko or albino buffalo is among the most sought-after variety while the ones with black stripes on their back or curved horns are also highly prized. A buffalo can set the buyer back by almost ₹12 lakh.
The animals are slaughtered at the funeral ceremony and the meat, along with the meat of other sacrificial animals such as hens and pigs, is distributed among the attendees. While the practice has been criticised by animal welfare organisations, the country’s administration has allowed it to continue. Young Torajans, however, are moving away from such lavish ceremonies.
Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru