|Explore Asia Southeast Asia Indonesia Sulawesi|
Central Sulawesi is no place for sympathetic vegetarians. This region of Indonesia is best known for its elaborate and often bloody rituals. The residents of this island hold Christian-Animist beliefs, unlike most of their Muslim countrymates. A long twisting bus ride that is sure to tie your stomach in knots delivers you to the center of this jungled island. The eight-hour bus I rode in on was delayed briefly as a fifteen-foot snake was traversing the poorly maintained road and unlike those animals being sacrificed nearby this lazy reptile was spared its life as the bus and all of us within waited out its nocturnal crossing.
I was in this area for several days on a quest to witness the famed funeral ceremonies which were reportedly most prevalent during this early autumn harvest season. In a week, if the local transportation system could be trusted, I would be resting on some of the most spectacular beaches in Asia, the Toggian Islands, so I knew I would have amply time to decompress if these celebrations were as disturbing as I had been told. As it turned out that was exactly what I would need, as a Tanatoraja funeral was about to test the limits of acceptability regarding animal butchery.
On my first morning in the regional center town of Rantepao I carefully stepped around the weekly pig and cattle market before starting a bicycle ride into the countryside. Had I been eight inches shorter my rental bike might have seemed efficient but with my knees somewhere near my chest locomotion was a chore. While riding on a dirt road that probably claimed its share of dead bicycles I unexpectedly came across an outdoor wedding ceremony. This village was like most in the area. A series of uniquely shaped extended family homes were arranged around a central field. The horn shaped roofs on these buildings were built in homage to the water buffalo, rising at each end. I was invited to sit and watch the affair and later was offered to share in the local drink, tuak. Palm wine was being passed around in festive three-foot tall bamboo tube containers. The foaming beverage did not seem like something I should indulge in on a 90-degree day even though several four-year-old children were, and so I did.
Having returned to Rantepao I observed the daily late afternoon sporting event that took place on the towns field. A wicker ball was being kicked over a five foot net in a volleyball type four-man contest. Flying kicks were prevalent and athletic but usually resulted in a muddy landing. The variety of street vendor foods that came out each evening made this an enjoyable time. Sweet rice steamed in leaves and chocolate pancakes were two of the identifiable staples of my diet.
The following morning I continued my countryside search and this time encountered a house ceremony. Here men were dancing in unison, gently waving their machetes to the beat of a drummer whom was squatting in the muddy courtyard. Graceful female dancers robed in golden sarongs and beaded head ornaments stood next to slaughtered pigs encased in elevated bamboo crates. A holy-man, who more resembled a homeless man, waved a burning torch over the roof of a recently completed home to free it of unwelcomed spirits. The contradiction and juxtaposition of these characters made the long, bumpy bike ride worthwhile. Many tourists had come to this blood filled celebration, which ended when the villagers parceled up and ate the sacrificed pigs. My ride back to town coincided with an equatorial downpour that hit with the cleansing force of a warm car wash.
Back in Rantepao I tried to get some concrete leads on which neighboring village might be holding an upcoming funeral ceremony. The site of the tourist office, as stated in my guidebook did not exist, and the two establishments that claimed to provide tourist information were less than helpful. Both only offered information to those who signed up for what I saw as unnecessary guided tours of the region. At my guesthouse that evening I befriended a local student who gave me the tip I had been waiting for.
This ceremony was about to redefine my concept of the term bloody and would provide enough death to satisfy anyones morbid curiosity. The following morning back on my undersized Asian bicycle I attacked the pot holed country roads. I returned to a village I had previously seen while observing some cliffside coffins and tau taus, human effigies honoring the dead. Villages in this region reportedly go into debt for as much as two years to buy as many high quality water buffaloes as possible to honor the deceased. In this case sixteen pure black animals would soon bathe this village red out of respect for the long since departed. I arrived early and was not completely convinced that an event was to take place as no ornate decorations or festively dressed individuals were evident. Soon, on a terraced field a large horned bull was led in, then another, and a make shift bull fight ensued. No matadors here, only two unwilling beasts locking horns to determine physical supremacy. Every few minutes one would lose a tussle and run in shame only to be led back by a villager for another round of bovine mud wrestling. Eventually the crowd dissipated and filed into the nearby town square, as obviously a bigger event was about to commence.
About twenty tourists were spread out around the grassed courtyard, most arrived by mini-van, having booked a one day tour. Soon seventeen would depart. The locals, maybe 200 in number were dressed colorfully and crowded onto elevated woven patios surrounding the communal space. I determined where I could observe the ceremony without infringing on a familys private space and was offered coffee, sweets and a ringside section of floor mat within a covered deck.
Apparently many of the funeral formalities had taken place earlier in the week, including the offerings of and high pitched squealing deaths of over 100 pigs, and now this culminating ceremony could commence. Without any noticeable introduction the anticipated ritualized slaughter began. The local shaman appeared dressed in a torn tee shirt and muddy trousers. He led out a buffalo by its nose ring and raised the animals head, exposing its windpipe and jugular vein to his machete. If the beast was lucky, and few were, one mighty blow would elicit a crack heard throughout the gathering and it would drop dead in a pool of its own blood. More often the initial whack would open a gaping wound which would spray gallons of blood, as the buffalo would dart panic stricken throughout the village courtyard. On one occasion a wounded buffalo charged into a patio sending several locals crashing to the ground. At this point all but three of the camera toting tourists left out of horror and fear for their own safety. This scene repeated itself sixteen times in all and transformed the once grassy field into a red stained pool. One proud bull refused to die even after several blows by the holyman and successfully escaped out of the town square. Minutes later with a machete induced broken leg that was pointing in a direction that evoked nausea in me, he was led back by the Shaman for his final public demise.
When all the prized beasts were dead barefoot children came onto the field to probe and explore the stiffening bodies. Soon the adult males joined in and communally skinned the buffaloes prior to distributing the meat to the guests. I left a gift of sugar with one villager instead of the recommended cigarettes. While I was both fascinated and repulsed by the days events I knew I didnt need to speed up the occurrence of another Tanatoraja funeral.
Back in Rantepao I felt like it was time to move on. I had seen much more than I had come for and all of it had been captivating. My imagination had not been grand enough to preconceive of what I was to encounter. The people of central Sulawesi, unlike their rituals, were calm, understated and amiable. Inspite of the carnage of the week I knew all of this should be filed under the heading of a not quite tranquil but certainly intoxicating cultural education.
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article published 9/17/2001