Hornbill Watercolor by Alfred Russel Wallace. 1855. Courtesy A.R. Wallace Fund
Land of the water buffalo. Torajaland, Sulawesi

“I have rarely enjoyed myself more than during my residence here. As I sat taking my coffee at six in the morning, rare birds would often be seen on some tree close by, when I would hastily sally out in my slippers, and perhaps secure a prize I had been seeking after weeks. The great hornbills of Sulawesi (Buceros cassidix) would often come with loud-flapping-wings, and perch upon a lofty tree just in front of me; and the black baboon monkeys, Cynopithecus nigrescens, often stared down in astonishment at such an intrusion into their domains; while at night herds of wild pigs roamed about the house, devouring refuse, and obliging us to put away everything eatable or breakable from our little cooking-house. A few minutes’ search on the fallen trees around my house at sunrise and sunset would often produce me more beetles than I would meet with in a day’s collecting, and odd moments could be made valuable which when living in villages or at a distance from the forest are inevitably wasted. Where the sugar-palms were dripping with sap, flies congregated in immense numbers, and it was by spending half an hour at these when I had the time to spare that I obtained the finest and most remarkable collection of this group of insects that I have ever made.”

~ Alfred Russel Wallace. Sulawesi 1857

Passages like this one capture my imagination….

Enlightened, and a little deflated from the transformations I saw in Makassar and Maros I decided to head into the interior of Sulawesi. Perhaps in the mountains of Torajaland I could catch a glimpse of what Wallace once saw. If it still exists…

After a long overnight bus on wretched roads that snaked up into the mountains I arrived in the cool dawn light of Rantepao, the biggest town in Torajaland. I want to capture the rolling hills, wildlife, and rural feel that Wallace so enjoyed during his collecting trips in Sulawesi. I also want to learn more about the Toraja people.

As I’m finding out in Indonesia, exotic cultures are almost as numerous as the exotic species that thrive here. That being said Torajan culture is truly unique. Living in the interior people in upland Sulawesi often grew up in isolation from one another and developed close familial clans and belief systems. People cultivated rice fields, wealth was centered on buffalo, a caste system prevailed, and animism beliefs focused on ancestor worship, or aluk. With a wave of Dutch missionaries in the early part of the 20th century, and waves of tourism in the latter part of the century Torajan cultural has gone through some transformations. Today churches and funky tongkonan houses decorated with buffalo horns stand side by side. Tourist hotels have popped up in Rantepao, but just outside of town you can get lost in ancient mazes of rice fields. Essentially, the rituals of the past swirl together with those of the present.

Torajan culture is probably still most famous for its elaborate funeral ceremonies. These are giant social events that can go on for days where the entire village and community usually attends. Often the family of the deceased will save up money for years to pay for these funeral ceremonies. Needless to say it is quite a party, complete with dancing, chanting, poetry, and lots of animal sacrifice and subsequent feasting. At the one I attended dozens of water buffalo were sacrificed and hundreds of squealing pigs! It is not for the faint of heart, though sitting around with local Torajan families watching the festivities for a while it started to feel oddly like a family reunion of sorts. Minus the visceral animal sacrificing and colorful and exotic ceremonies the Torajans were just being social and paying tribute to their family elders as the rest of us. Perhaps after so much travel the superficial differences we have fall away easier and we’re free to see all our commonalities come into focus.

Later that day I visited some of the famous cliff cemeteries of Torajaland with new friends Adam and Kate, from the UK. We had seen enough poor water buffalos and piggies get slaughtered! We were curious to know where the deceased were taken after all the ceremonies ended. In Torajaland the dead are put into stone graves carved out of the numerous karst stone formations, buried in caves, or hung in hanging graves from the cliff walls. For the higher status deceased wooden effigies called “tau tau” are put up near the grave. Often many generations worth of tau tau sit shoulder to shoulder, looking eerily down on trespassers. Spooky, like stepping into another world entirely.

The world I liked the most though was that of the countryside. Hiking through Torajaland with Adam and Kate we met the local people wandering through rice fields and villages- playing with school kids, chatting with farmers, and staying the night in home-stays. We also saw lots of wildlife – huge butterflies, colorful birds flitting through the coffee gardens, and hawks hovering over the valley. The wild setting bore an uncanny resemblance to Wallace’s own observations in rural Sulawesi so long ago.

“Every bit of flat land was cleared and used as rice-fields, and on the lower slopes of many of the hills tobacco and vegetables were grown. Most of the slopes are covered with huge blocks of rock, very fatiguing to scramble over, while a number of the hills are so precipitous as to be quite inaccessible.”

For me hiking in Torajaland was like picking through a sort of eden. Rice fields march up the hillside in terraced snaking designs. Ducks and pigs wander between the paddies. Stands of coffee, cacao, banana, cassava and tall bamboo border the trails and jut out like islands from the rice fields. The vaulted roofs of tangkonan rice barns jut over the villages like the hulls of boats. And many a lazy water buffalo with a rope through the nose lolled in the mud beside each house. It was a lovely place, full of the beauty and nostalgia that Wallace so loved about rural Sulawesi…

One Response to “Land of the water buffalo. Torajaland, Sulawesi”

  1. Keisha Nanni Says:

    Your article is well written,A good blog!I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article.

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