“It would be impossible to lose your sense of direction  in Tana Toraja,” says guide Andi Aminullah, as the car twists  and turns along the rippling banks of rice paddies. “If you  notice, every one of the traditional houses faces north!”

are still built to face in the northerly direction as if waiting to continue their journey. It took more than 300 years after the first Europeans arrived on Sulawesi for them  to discover Tana Toraja. The remoteness  and seclusion of the area is still part of  the adventure of getting there, but today  the drive from Makassar, the largest city  on Sulawesi, only takes about nine hours. The road trip along the eastern fringe of Bantimurung–Bulusaraung National  Park includes some of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve seen in all of Indonesia:  in this area, so famous for its rich culture  and colourful traditions, the landscape  is merely an unexpected bonus.

Andi Aminullah – “Call me Ullah,” he says, “like Oooh-lah-lah” – guides for Asia experts Backyard Travel and is one of the most experienced guides in Sulawesi. Despite being a Bugis, his enthusiasm and respect for  the unique Toraja culture are immediately apparent. “It’s one of the most incredible  parts of the entire country,” he says.  “I’ve been guiding here for almost 25 years and every time I come there’s something more to learn about the fascinating  culture and lifestyle.”

Tana Toraja is becoming an increasingly popular destination, especially with European visitors, with one of the main attractions being the dramatic, age-old traditions around the magnificent and elaborate funeral ceremonies. Of course, there is never a guarantee that a ceremony will be taking place, but we are in Tana Toraja territory for less than 20 minutes when our driver Ali spots the telltale sign of a ribbon of bright scarlet that signifies a funeral procession marching along the flank of a little valley.

This is the first of five big funerals we come across in the next few days. We walk across  the valley and, although I am reticent about gatecrashing a family’s private day, we are warmly welcomed by a man called Pak Santium, who instantly invites us to be guests at  the funeral of his 80-year-old father.

Even by Torajan standards, this funeral is  a large one. We climb the hill to where an entire temporary village of bamboo structures has been built as basic guesthouses to accommodate more than a thousand guests and family who have travelled from as far away as West Papua and Kalimantan. These people need to be fed, and Pak Santium says that more than 130 animals will be slaughtered during the four days that  the ceremony lasts. For an upper-class funeral,  a bare minimum of 24 buffalo must be  sacrificed. The most important aspect of  the entire ceremony – the ‘main event’ – will  be the slaughter of the 30 precious buffalo that will transport the spirit of Pak Santium’s father on his way to Puya, as heaven is known to the Torajans. In Tana Toraja, families are judged  on the lavishness of their funeral ceremonies, and that judgement hinges not only on the number of buffalo sacrificed but also on  the quality of those buffalo.

“Buffaloes like these are the Mercedes of Tana Toraja,” an old man called Pak Rante tells us later when we stop to admire the impressive animal he is washing by the side of the road. “Mottled black-and-white buffalo are called bonga here and it is the most prized kind.” In fact, it’s more than just the colour that constitutes a prize buffalo, and this specimen has all the necessary qualities including the blue eyes, the long tail that almost touches the ground and, of course, the size and bulk of an animal that has been nurtured all its life. One of the most important factors is the location of what’s known as the palisu – the swirl, like a little whirlwind of fur, where the hair parts on the buffalo’s head.

“It’s part of the local ‘beliefness’,” Ullah explains, “that if the palisu is on the throat it can deflect the executioner’s knife at the most crucial moment in the entire ceremony.” Pak Rante estimates that his buffalo would sell for about US$15,000. “I think he was being modest,” says Ullah as we get back into the car. “It’s not unusual to find buffalo that fetch twice that price.”

Early one morning, Ullah collects me at Rantepao’s historic Misiliana Hotel for the short drive to the buffalo market at Bolu. In a wide clearing beyond the covered market, more than 200 buffalo are being paraded, stroked, coaxed and fed by doting owners. It is a beauty pageant for some of the most honoured animals in the world, yet every single one is destined to be a funeral sacrifice (other – less prized – animals are used at wedding and birth ceremonies). The sacred buffalo of Tana Toraja are treated almost like kings among animals, and it would be considered sacrilege ever to expect them to work.

Today, more than half of all Torajans work in other areas to send money home, often to cover the expense of funerals that could cost as much as US$150,000. The extensive funeral preparations have developed from unique ceremonies that date back well over a thousand years.

In the little village of Kambira, Ibu Windi introduces us to her parents. Her father, Johannes Lantong, died two months earlier and his wife, Alfreda, has been dead already  for five years. In all that time Alfreda has lain, embalmed in her coffin, in the main room  of the family home. As is tradition in Toraja, bot Johannes and Alfreda are referred to  as ‘sick people’; it is only once the first buffalo  is sacrificed and their spirits depart for Puya  that Torajan people will say they have died.

As the ceremony may be some time after  the person’s death, the body of the loved  one will be kept in the home until then,  even if that is a period of years. The Torajans  see death as a gradual process towards Puya, rather than the sudden event it is treated as in other societies. Bowing slightly towards the coffin, I greet the old couple as I would have done if they were alive. “I still talk to my  parents as I always did before they got ill,”  Ibu Windi tells me. “It’s just that now  they don’t answer anymore.”

Through the carved timber walls of the boat-roofed house, I hear hammering.  More than 500 people have been at work  during the last month creating a temporary village for the funeral. It looks like they are preparing a movie stage-set for Seven Years  in Tibet. If it is true that Johannes and  Alfreda are not yet dead, then their  daughter is determined to make sure that  the funeral will be ‘the best day of their lives’.

From Travel Colours June 2018

Catch the dawn chorus of buffalo grunts and excited haggling at Bolu buffalo market. This open-air market – which takes place on Tuesdays and Saturdays – is surely one of Indonesia’s most fascinating animal shows, yet it remains very much a local event with few visitors. Be sure to visit the fruit and vegetable market too for an insight into the incredibly varied and healthy local produce.