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Sulawesi: Water Buffalo, Cloves, and the Boogie Man

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The water buffalo is invaluable throughout Asia, as everything from the milk and meat to the dung is used in everyday life.

There are few places where the powerful animal is more prized than in Tana Toraja on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The huge animal is treated like a member of the family and its human partner spends each and every day with the bovine beast washing, feeding, and caring for his companion. The relationship is mutually beneficial as the beast of burden provides labor by plowing fields, providing transportation, and performing many other tasks that the largely agrarian society requires.

The animals come in various colors, hide patterns, and sizes with horns up to two meters (over six and a half feet) long. The most prized, however, are the albino variety, with blue eyes and well-shaped horns, much like the guy pictured above. To own a near-perfect specimen like this is akin to having a fleet of the finest automobiles, a private jet, or any other show of wealth in our Western world.

These images come from the upcoming Balifornian Films documentary on the elaborate Torajan funerary traditions and rituals, which include the slaughter of these loyal animals. The funeral celebrations can last weeks, with hundreds of mourners bringing offerings including cigarettes, pigs, and their own coveted water buffalo. The deceased are then entombed in cliffside tombs, deep in caves, or even in hanging graves. There is much mystery and intrigue woven into this part of the world.

Sulawesi is the home of the age-old, frightening myth of the “boogie man” propagated in the 15th century by the English to promote negative views of their rivals, the Buginese, who battled the marauding English, Dutch, and other Europeans who were trying to obtain strategic control of the lucrative spice trade. In colonial times, cloves, for example, coveted by dentists for their anesthetic properties, were more expensive than gold. The cloves only grew on the small “spice islands” of Sulawesi. This was also home to many other spices that were desirable the world over.


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