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Tradition: Visitors come to Tana Toraja in part to witness the place’s famous buffalo fighting. Antara/Sahrul Manda Tikupadang
Funerals, tourism, and animal husbandry come together in one exhilarating, if occasionally dangerous, combination in Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi.
Buffalo fighting is a popular event at Tana Toraja’s funerals, which are giant, multi-day party-festival-rituals. Search YouTube for “Toraja” and “adu kerbau” (buffalo fight, Indonesian) or “tedong silaga” (buffalo fight, Toraja) and you’ll find plenty of videos documenting this sport.
I recently attended a huge funeral in the village of Ke’te Kesu. The family that owns the village is high-caste, rich and powerful, and they have turned their village into a prime “cultural tourism” attraction. So when they give a funeral, it has to be big.
The funeral will go on for days. On the busiest days, thousands (yes, thousands) of guests are served copious amounts of food and coffee — and, later in the day, cigarettes and palm wine.
And because it is European vacation season and all the guidebooks advise attending a Toraja funeral, there are hundreds of tall, inappropriately dressed, camera-wielding European tourists here, mostly accompanied by Indonesian guides. They are welcomed with open arms, as they add to the exciting, ramai (crowded, loud) atmosphere.
Later, dozens of buffalo will be sacrificed, and their meat divided among the guests. Buffalo fighting has no connection to the official funeral liturgy, but it does draw attention to the host family’s spectacular wealth. The most expensive buffalo (spotted ones with big horns) cost hundreds of millions of rupiah, according to local people.
The buffalo almost never hurt each other. They usually just lock horns and push for a few minutes. Sometimes, despite their handlers kicking them in the rear end to try to get them angry, they graze peacefully while thousands of observers sit patiently waiting for something to happen.
But occasionally there will be a really good match where the buffalos lock horns, one loses its footing in the mud, and the contest turns into horned wrestling, with the fallen buffalo straining to get back up while the other one pushes down on it with its horns. If the buffalo on the ground regains its footing, the one on top can end up flipped over on its back, which is a spectacular sight with a thousand-pound beast.
The match ends when one buffalo runs away. Sometimes the loser just runs a few yards across the field. But sometimes the winner chases the loser. When this happens, the vanquished bull keeps running until it reaches the crowds that line the edge of the field. Then the fleeing buffalo runs right into the crowd, with the pursuing buffalo right behind.
The raging-buffalo-in-the-crowd thing is kind of like crashes in auto racing: it’s not officially what the sport is all about, but it is without a doubt the most exciting and terrifying event in the sport.
For a spectator, there’s also the guilt factor of getting bored and kind of wishing that a buffalo would run amok, despite your better instincts.
At the funeral in Ke’te, I was eating and drinking coffee with some friends. I hadn’t been planning on getting up to watch the buffalo fighting, but then I heard the crowd get excited.
When anything hilarious, embarrassing, and/or nearly fatal happens in Toraja, men let out a sort of loud yodel: ah-HEE-hee! The first syllable is in the normal male voice, the second syllable is in a high falsetto, and the third is still falsetto but lower-pitched than the second. An ah-HEE-hee! expresses a pungent combination of extreme amusement and growing alarm.
Sipping my coffee, I start hearing a lot of ah-HEE-hee!’s. This probably means that the buffalo are really getting into it. So I excuse myself and find a better vantage point. I am perhaps 200 yards from the buffalo-fighting field, among Ke’te’s cluster of wooden rice barns and traditional houses (tongkonan).
I can’t see any buffalo yet, just masses of people. But the ah-HEE-hee!’s are getting closer. In fact, they’re coming from a raised footpath leading from the village to the field. I see people frantically jumping off the footpath, grinning or looking scared.
The path clears, and then they emerge: two big bulls, one just inches behind the other, hurtling up the path in my general direction. I make for a rice barn, planning to jump to safety onto the sitting platform under it.
But still directly in the buffalo’s path is a European tourist. She’s tall, blond, trying to run away along the raised footpath while carrying two expensive-looking cameras with big zoom lenses on them.
She’s got a grin on her face, so she must not realize what everyone else can see: that there are two thousand-pound buffalo bulls with 18-inch horns headed right for her.
Before I can figure out what to yell (in hindsight, it would have been something like “jump down!”), they’ve closed the distance.
I brace for the worst. This is one of those surreal moments, like a car crash or a mugging, that replays endlessly in your mind. Two stampeding buffalos suddenly emerging from a crowd of people.
A smiling tourist running a few yards in front of them. Buffalos right on top of her. And...
Luckily, the lead bull doesn’t have the time to gore a tourist right now. He’s only thinking about escaping the thousand-pound bull on his tail.
The tourist has moved to the edge of the path — perhaps she sensed the giant presence behind her at the last second. So the bull blows past her, just flicking her out of his way with a glancing blow with a horn.
Even that is enough to send the tourist tumbling off the side of the raised path. She takes a hard landing on her side. The buffalos run through the village and leave along another path. (I didn’t see what happened after that, but usually the pursuer eventually realizes he has won and decides to stop and eat some grass, the pursued does the same, and then each buffalo is carefully captured by an experienced handler.)
I run to the tourist, but there is already a crowd of Toraja people helping her. They pull her up, walk her over to a platform beneath a rice barn, and carefully place her expensive cameras next to her. A group of black-clad grandmothers who have been sitting under the barn fuss over her, brushing dirt and grass off her clothes. Someone brings her a bottle of water. She’s not talking, just breathing heavily and looking herself over to confirm that she’s okay. Which she is, miraculously — not even a scratch.
Eventually her Indonesian guide shows up — with one arm completely coated in a slurry of mud and manure. He must have jumped off the path and into a buffalo wallow. The grandmothers point him to a bak where he can wash off.
The tourist will be fine. But let this be a lesson to you, tourists:Water buffalo are dangerous.
Even if there’s one standing peacefully in your path, don’t go too close to it. And if you’re ever on a raised footpath in front of a fleeing buffalo, jump down.