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Indonesia: Bugis and Buffaloes

Indonesia: Bugis and Buffaloes

“If you are naughty, the Boogie man will get you.”

Until Oh! visited South Sulawesi we didn’t understand that the threat once used by European mothers, had its origins not in some blues singing homey, but the ferocious sea pirates known as Bugis, whose wide hipped ships known as penisi, are so famous, and whose ancestral home is South Sulawesi.

But Oh! left the capital and its writers festival, to head further inland to visit Tanah Toraja en route to Manado.


While Bali is the Disney World of Indonesia, the Sa’dan Toraja people are the Caravaggios. Their lives are driven by both spirituality and extravagant art forms, which over time, have, like the buffalo sacrifices that accompany death rituals, been modified by tourism.

Leaving Rantepao the provincial capital, one is gobsmacked at the first view of the tongkonans (noble ancestral houses) with their ski jump rooflines and ornate decoration. Many are fronted by lines of buffalo horns, each one signifying the death of a family member.

Tongkonans are the ritual houses of the wealthy Torajans. These elaborate structures are found nowhere else in Indonesia.

Torajan class structure, ensures only the nobles have inheritance rights to these amazing houses and the similarly designed rice barns. While visitors may think that the buffalo sacrifices and tau taus (carved effigies of the dead in carved rock galleries) are pagan, the Torajans and their northern neighbours in Manado in reality represent syncretic Christianity in Muslim dominated Sulawesi.

In recent times the tau tau have been made to look more stylistic The pragmatic Torajans have found they are more marketable. Despite modernity, art still reflects the Torajan’s view of themselves, their past and the political present.

Buffaloes are traditionally sacrificed when a wealthy person dies. It may take a while to get the money together so the body is kept in the
tongkonan until the ritual sacrifice can take place.

Unlike Westerners, Torajans are comfortable with death. While the effigies live on, corpses are usually placed in caves or in trees. “The ground is so rocky” they offered as explanation. One man took Oh! to see the hole he was carving in a huge rock for his own body. He had worked at it for six years. A small girl proudly brought the skull of her grandmother to meet us later in the day.

Along with its art and architecture Tanah Toraja is home to the best Arabica coffee in SE Asia.


The people of Minahasa of which Manado is the capital, migrated from the Philippines. Well known for their business acumen, they have one of the longest democratic histories in Asia, having always had some form of representative Parliament.

The cemetery in Manado reveals that longevity is another Minahasan trait. Many of the ancient burial urns bear inscriptions showing most were well into their nineties and older when they died. The dates, inscribed by the obsessive Dutch colonials are accurate.

Tau taus represent those who have passed on. The effigies wave merrily from the balconies at newcomers.

The area is rich in biodiversity and the nearby Gorontolo National Park is well worth a visit for its extravagant trees, variety of wild fruits and monkeys. The endangered shy maleo bird is also found here.

But most people visit north Sulawesi for marine adventures, diving and snorkelling on the reefs off the coast of Manado and around the island of Bunaken. The drop off outside Bunaken affords an amazing glimpse into the marine universe. Mantas being hunted elsewhere for dubious Chinese medicine are still found here, along with great sharks and tiny seahorses. The odd curious turtle may approach you. Give him your card.

- By Melody Kemp -

Indonesia is a very creative nation which values its traditions. Look for traditional textiles such as batik and the complex tapestry weaving and Ikat (mutt mee) of the islands.


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