Travel photographer Nick Kuchmak takes his camera to the Indonesian island and attends a funerary animal sacrifice.

[Editor’s note: This collection contains GRAPHIC IMAGES of a traditional animal sacrifice. They are not intended to offend, only to document and share.]

“Of course death is better than life,” my guide Buty stated after we’d just watched the sacrifice of two large buffalo for a funeral ceremony. Thinking back on my time in southern Sulawesi, I couldn’t come up with a better summary of the cultural beliefs of the Torajan people.

It takes 9 hours by bus to get from the island’s capital, Makassar, to the region of Tana Toraja. Death is a big part of life here, and a man’s wealth and status are measured by how many buffalo and pigs are killed at his funeral. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the bodies of the deceased to be kept in the family home for a year or more, until enough money can be gathered for the ceremony. Afterward, the bodies of the most distinguished are laid to rest high in a limestone cliff grave, overlooking deep green rice terraces and the unique architecture of Torajan houses.


Traditional house, Sulawesi

1. Traditional homes of the region are called "tongkonan." They can be neither bought nor sold and are passed down through the generations. These tongkonan make up the village of Kete Kesu, near Rantepao, one of the most commonly visited villages by tourists.


Indonesian village elder

2. Locals are always wiling to share a smile or a wad of chewing tobacco. This lady is the head of a village near Kete Kesu.


Rice paddies, Indonesia

3. Rice is the chief source of food for most of the villages of Tana Toraja, with many harvesting just once a year.


Baruppu, Indonesia

4. The tourists who visit Tana Toraja generally concentrate on the cave graves and show villages south of Rantepao. Head north on foot or by guided motorbike and the villages become much more traditional, the pace of life more leisurely. This was taken in the village of Baruppu.


Torajan people

5. Meeting the Torajan people is certainly a highlight of a visit to this part of Indonesia. Any chance for a home stay or visit to a remote village should be accepted.


Stream, Sulawesi

6. Numerous rivers and streams flow from the mountains into Sulawesi's lowlands, providing plenty of irrigation for the rice paddies. Streams also offer a source of food -- carp, tadpoles, and eel often make the menu.


Swimming hole, Sulawesi

7. Even though for most of the year the climate is very temperate, during the dry season of July and August the river is the community swimming pool, with children as well as buffalo using it to cool off.


Smoking a cigarette

8. Torajans had elaborate ceremonies for just about everything until the Dutch missionaries began to outlaw traditional practices in the 1900s. Many beliefs have changed, but the Torajan obsession with death and funerals remains, despite pressure from the church.


Torajan man

9. Family members from surrounding villages as well as those who've found work as far away as Papua or Australia all return home for the most important day of someone's life -- their funeral.


Torajan man in hat

10. Funerals generally last a total of three days. The first involves the receiving of guests, which provides a chance to meet and greet the family over coffee and biscuits. On the second, the sacrifices are carried out, followed by a feast.


Torajan water buffalo

11. One of the buffalo seemed to know what was coming and made attempts to escape. All in vain, as the village men spent the better part of an hour dragging the beast back up the mountain, where it would be sacrificed.


Buffalo sacrifice, Sulawesi

12. Throughout July and August, just after the harvest, the biggest funerals are held. At this time, as many as 50 buffalo may be slaughtered, depending on the wealth of the family and size of the funeral. One quick swipe of a sharpened machete is all it takes.


Slaughtered water buffalo

13. It's believed the buffalo will guide the deceased through purgatory and into the afterlife, and without this sacrifice the spirit may become lost. Many families go into debt just to pay for the slaughter animals. Within minutes, the buffalo is butchered. Certain cuts of meat will go to the village elders, while others will be divided up equally. Literally nothing is wasted.


Torajan kids at a funeral

14. It can be difficult to watch for visitors, but the sacrifice is the most important event of the funeral ceremony. To Torajan children, it is a way of life, and some enjoy it with loud cheers and screams of encouragement when the buffalo is laid to rest.


Water buffalo horns

15. Due to the importance of the buffalo in Torajan Society, homes are decorated with the horns of animals previously sacrificed to indicate status.


Pig for slaughter

16. Unlike the buffalo, pigs are sacrificed privately. Despite Indonesia being predominately Muslim, most Torajans are Christian and it's usually pork for lunch at the funeral ceremony.


Pig jawbones

17. While not as significant as the buffalo, the remains of pigs previously slaughtered adorn the homes of locals.


Bloody cigarette

18. A man enjoys a smoke after the hard work has finished. Cigarettes are the preferred gift when tourists attend ceremonies.


Skulls, Indonesia

19. Human remains lie around burial sites high up on limestone cliffs, where graves are hammered into the rock by hand.


Sulawesi cave grave

20. Not all graves rest on cliffs. Others lie inside caves and are reachable with the help of a guide.

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