April 30, 2012

Late for a Torajan funeral, we arrive to blood-soaked mud at the foot of a tongkonan (traditional arched roof house). Ten ritually slaughtered water buffalo lie on the ground. Loud gurgles rise from their slit throats, the sound of lungs still trying to draw air. 

One floor up sit the coffins of the couple being feted finally, eight months after they passed on.

According to Torajan beliefs, the deceased couple’s spirits have lingered in the earthly realm waiting until their family accumulated enough money to purchase the required buffalos. Now, finally, their spirits can ascend to Puya, the afterworld, accompanied by the slaughtered buffalo. 

The more buffalo, the better. Several months ago, four hundred were slaughtered to honor the father of a wealthy contractor at a mine in Papua.  

This family has bought a modest eleven. Still, the price tag is heavy.  The black buffalos cost several thousand dollars, and those with white heads, the most prized, go for ten times that.

Here, there is one remaining buffalo alive. A relative of the deceased grabs the rope tied to the buffalo’s snout. Unsheathing a small sword hanging from his belt, he yanks up his arm, raising the buffalo’s head and exposing its neck. The first slash sends blood gushing to the ground. It spills like water being poured from a bucket. The blood-filled lungs of the buffalo send out the same eerie gurgles we heard on our entry. 

The animal riles and bucks, and the executioner loses grip on the restraining rope. The buffalo makes a run for the crowd encircling him, blood continuing to pour from the neck wound. Mourners run for safety. Then suddenly he stops. After a half minute he plops on the ground to the hollering approval of the crowd. 

Surrounding the area where the buffalo are slaughtered are temporary structures of bamboo where relatives live while attending ceremonies, which can run between four and ten days. Guests eat cake and drink black coffee or whitish liquor made from the fermented sap of a local palm. At the moment, most take to the milk colored yeasty liquor. Its intoxicating properties soothe the scene just witnessed. 

Having started the spirits of the animals towards Puya, the executioners now turn to the task of feeding the living.  The water buffalo are butchered on the spot, and meat is divvied into party favors for the funeral attendees. Starting with the legs, butchers cut a streak up the thigh and peel back the skin. The fat coating the meat shines white against the mud, now a murky purple from the absorbed blood. 

A cousin of the deceased grabs a hold of a foot and brings it over to where we sit with a five-year-ole relative. He washes the appendage in a black plastic bin and ties a short rope around it. The boy gleefully trails his newfound toy.