Six months in Asia travel blog

Me walking through rice fields

More rice fields

Incredible rice terraces

Friendly kids

Choosing the buffaloes for sacrifice

Serenading the deceased

The coffin almost takes a tumble

Girls in traditional costume at funeral

Stone graves and tau tau

Rice barns at Ke'te Kesu

There was an audible intake of breath as the pall bearers lost their hold on the coffin as it jammed in the entrance to the pagoda and almost went tumbling to the ground. In the four days I've been here in Tana Toraja, a stunningly picturesque region of Southern Sulawesi, I've attended two funerals. Weirdly, they are the principal tourist attraction here and the local people welcome outsiders.

Like the ethnic people of Flores, the Toraja are a fusion of animist and Christian. The Dutch, like so many other misguided colonial powers, attempted to "civilise" the local communities and missionaries were dispatched to convert. Many of the old traditions were lost and today the people worship in church, but when it comes to dying the old ways survive and death here is big business. The Toraja believe the spirits of animals accompany the deceased into the afterlife and many buffaloes are sacrificed, depending on your status. With the average buffalo fetching over a thousand pounds, I saw 20 being slaughtered at one funeral, so you can imagine the costs involved.

It's quite a slog getting here. I flew from Ende airport, basically a glorified hut with a runway which must be the only one in the world to have a beached ship at the end of it. After a night in muggy, sticky Makassar I continued by bus for a ten hour journey to Rantepao, the main tourist centre. It's a dusty, scrappy, not pleasant place, but the scenery surrounding is extraordinary. Rice is everywhere. And unlike in Flores most of the fields are still green and are yet to be harvested. The fields stretch out as far the eye can see in some places, the green crop glistening in the sunlight.

After a first day exploring the vibrant and extremely muddy buffalo market, I spent a whole day trekking in the north along the slopes of Gunung Sesean, a dormant volcano, where paddy fields cascade down endless terraces. I took a guide as it's quite hard to find your way around and he took me places I would never have gone on my own, climbing the terraces strewn with ancient volcanic boulders and fording streams. We passed villages with their unique tongkonan, traditional houses and rice barns with enormous roofs which look like boats.

The next day it was time to get to grips with the local culture, or, more specifically, death. When a relative dies, the body is embalmed and kept in the house for days, even months, while the family save up enough for the funeral which takes place over several days. My guide took me first to one on its third day and the family were pretty wealthy, given the number of buffaloes to be slaughtered. I had mixed feelings about watching this. On the one hand, it's part of a unique local culture and the buffaloes are eaten so it's not a wasted activity. However, the butchery is quite barbaric and the animals die slowly. I watched the first buffalo bleed to death in front of me and it's a deeply distressing thing to look into a creature's eyes as it dies. After a few more I'd had enough.

The second funeral was in its first day and involved moving the coffin to a pagoda built temporarily to house it for the few days of the ceremony. A group of paid singers surrounded the coffin for a song and then lunch was served. Afterwards, the pall bearers carried the coffin uphill to the pagoda, but it was a perilous journey as the ground was extremely muddy. The ornate roof of the structure housing the coffin then got stuck in some overhead wires and had to be sawn off. With the proceedings threatening to turn into farce, the bearers set off again, but on the slope up to the pagoda, they encountered another problem. Even with the top now removed, it was still too big to fit inside and it caught in the entrance and tipped precariously to one side. For a few moments I simply couldn't bear to watch, but finally, after more sawing, the coffin was finally in its temporary resting place and the ceremony could continue.

Later my guide took me to see the various burial places. At Lemo, an old site, the bodies are buried in stone graves carved into a cliff overlooking rice fields. Also present, are tau tau, wooden effigies carved to resemble the dead. At Tampangallo the coffins were placed on shelves in a damp cave, but over the years the wood has rotted and bones have fallen to the floor. Unable to afford another funeral, the families have kept the remains in the open. Most disturbing of all was Kambira, the site of a decaying ancient tree where babies were buried in hollowed out cavities.

It may all sound a bit gory and macabre, but I think the Toraja have quite a healthy and positive attitude to death. It is very much part of life here and funerals are big social occasions. It's a unique and fascinating culture. They are also fortunate to live amongst some very beautiful scenery. I'm off to Kuala Lumpur at the weekend and then onto Borneo, which should rival Tana Toraja for scenery and ethnic culture. But I've heard that deforestation due to logging for palm oil is destroying a lot of the country so it will be interesting to see the effects for myself.

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