Buffaloes are guardians: how animals became the national treasure of Indonesia

While the Western world is trading nature for technology, Indonesians are keeping their ties to nature and relying on the trusty old buffalo to help both plow the field and life to live, and death to die

The skinny legs of Ai Made Sadr are immersed in knee-deep water. It is not clear how the frail Balinese manages to move along the champing swamp and hold a heavy wooden plow. The plow is dragged by a buffalo covered with blots of dried clay. The sun is at its zenith. Rice fields flooded with water reflect the heat, making it heavy and sticky. “It is important to plow the field well, to prepare the land for rice, — Made adjusts the straw hat with the brim.—The earth will be softer, will be able to breathe and absorb water better.”

Buffaloes — keepers: how animals became the national treasure of Indonesia

The power of the earth

Farmers have a reverent attitude towards land, water and nature. We would call it sustainable and responsible, but for the Balinese it is a way of life.

Riding a long plow handle, Made demonstrates the traditional metecap plowing technique. The buffalo goes ahead, while the peasant, sitting on the plow, moves his feet, setting the direction, and controls the depth of plowing with his body weight. “Many are in a hurry. Rent tractors. On a two-wheeled tractor, you cultivate a hectare of land in a day. With a buffalo you do it in four days. But you plow better.”

Made explains that the buffalo also breaks up large clods of earth and loosens the field with its hooves, repeatedly passing through the allotment back and forth. Due to this, the earth becomes porous. Water seeps more evenly through such soil, does not erode the upper fertile layer. “I don't waste water. And I lower the “extra” to the next field along this chute”, – the farmer points to a concrete groove running along the edge of the field.

Buffalo — keepers: how animals became a national treasure Indonesia

Bali has a unique subak irrigation system, created at least a thousand years ago. A network of dams, aqueducts and canals makes it possible to distribute water from mountain springs and lakes to thousands of fields and terraces. The uninterrupted work of the subak depends on the behavior of the farmer on the field and his prudent attitude to natural resources.

The Made family has several more terraces on the southern slope of Mount Agung. There you can't do without a buffalo: even a small two-wheeled tractor will not pass on the narrow terraces. The car has too much turning radius. It will only destroy the terraces created by Made's ancestors centuries ago. And the buffalo is able to make graceful turns and easily move along the sides from the terrace to the terrace.

“Gasoline, service, rent…” – the farmer bends his fingers. “Everything requires too much money. And the buffalo is cheap feed and free fertilizer. Organic! Made laughs and pats the buffalo's rump. Bali's leading contributor to responsible agriculture chews rice stalks and drives away flies with its tail.

Buffaloes — keepers: how animals became the national treasure of Indonesia

Buffalo — guardians: how the animals became Indonesia's national treasure

Asian buffalo

Bubalus bubalis< /p>

Order — artiodactyls
Family —bovids
Tribe —oxen
Gen < /strong>– Asiatic buffalo

There are less than 4,000 wild individuals left in the world. The buffalo was domesticated 5,000 years ago. There are at least 74 breeds of domestic buffalo, totaling about 150 million. Different breeds are raised for milk, meat and work.

The buffalo is easy to train. Starts working in the field at the age of two. Wide hooves and flexible joints allow the buffalo not to bog down on fields flooded with water and pull the plow without rest for 3-4 hours.
Height at withers – 120-133 cm, weight – 300-550 kg. Some individuals can reach 1000 kg. The life expectancy of a domestic buffalo is up to 40 years.

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Kingdom for a buffalo

“Mercedes!”&nbsp ;- says the seller, scraping the buffalo with a scraper. The animal has light horns, pink skin and white fur with black spots. “Mercedes” is not a nickname, but a price category. It happened that buyers paid a billion rupees for a buffalo of the Tedong Saleko breed – more than 73 thousand dollars.

The Bolu Market in Rantepao, South Sulawesi is famous throughout Indonesia. Here they sell the most beautiful and expensive buffaloes. On average, even an ordinary buffalo costs one and a half thousand dollars. But any exterior feature can drive up the price dozens of times. In a country where about 30% of the population lives on less than $3.2 a day, these numbers seem unrealistic.

Buffaloes — keepers: how animals became the national treasure of Indonesia

“Only Toraja are willing to pay that kind of money,” remarks the guide Nur, with whom we walk around the market. Toraji are residents of the provinces of Tana-Toraja and Toraja-Utara, where Rantepao is located.

“Officially, the Toraj are Christians, – says Nur, -but they continue to profess their own religion, Aluk-to-Dolo, which can be translated as 'the path of the ancestors'. According to this cult, the possession of a buffalo provides a high social status to the owner. Both during life and after death.”

The streets surrounding the market are filled with trucks for transporting livestock. It smells of manure, urine and rotten straw. The animals are led out of the pens in a circle to an open area so that buyers can view the goods in detail, from the tips of the horns to the hooves. Price negotiations are conducted in a whisper. Money is not counted. This is not an ordinary market, you will not be deceived here.

“The most important moment in the life of a Toraja is death and a journey to the land of Puyu spirits,” says Nur. “All animals are intended for the traditional rambu solo funeral ceremony. Without a buffalo, death will not take place.”

Toraja cannot “die” until a special rite of sacrifice of buffalo is performed. The ceremony requires so much money that sometimes relatives collect it for years. All this time, the deceased is considered “sick”.

The body is embalmed with formalin and placed in a separate room in the common house. Relatives visit the “sick”, talk to him, bring him food and drinks. “If you come to visit, you will be introduced to the “sick”. This is an active member of the family. He is asked for advice in difficult situations,” says Noor.

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Journey to the land of ancestors

In the village of Makale, which is fifteen kilometers from Rantepao, you can not specify where the funeral is today. The flow of people moves towards the traditional tongkonans, large wooden houses on stilts and with a roof in the shape of buffalo horns.

Tongkonans are now mostly inhabited by middle-aged Toraj, for whom the traditional way of life is more important than the availability of modern amenities such as water supply and sanitation. Only during funerals and other big holidays do houses fill with people.

Buffaloes — keepers: how animals became the national treasure of Indonesia

On the occasion of the festival, tongkonans are decorated with gold and red tinsel, foil garlands, lanterns. Aesthetics betrays the ancient origin of the Toraji from Chinese traders who established ties with this part of Asia centuries ago.

Opposite the tongkonans, a large area has been liberated. Temporary platforms with canopies are installed along its perimeter. The steward seats a good hundred people, taking into account social status, age and family relationships. Tourists fall into the category VIP, located next to the “box” of the next of kin. Less important guests sit on the ground.

Cigarettes and chips are delivered to the audience, tea is poured. The presenter with a microphone comments on the process of giving gifts to the family of the deceased: who and what presents. The most valuable gift  is not money, but buffaloes. All information is immediately recorded in the family ledger. According to the rules of the Toraja, you are obliged to “return” in the same amount.

“Death is dearer to us than life”, – Yudijaya, a young man, says sedately, as if he is not 30 years old, but much more. However, the situation obliges: Yudijaya is burying her father today. “Our family has been preparing for this event for a year and a half. My father dreamed that there were 24 buffaloes. All relatives and friends helped us raise money.”

Buffaloes — keepers: how animals became the national treasure of Indonesia

The buffalo sacrifice is the culmination of the funeral ceremony. In Toraja cosmogony, only a buffalo can transport the deceased safely and comfortably to the spirit land of Puyu. The more buffaloes, the less time the “journey” will take. And the higher will be the position of the deceased in the next world, where there is also a manager who seats the arrivals according to the status.

The desired place  is near the supreme deity Puang Matua. If Yudijaya's father gets such a position, then he will have easy access to the “big boss” and he will be able to help his relatives left on earth.

It takes several hours to prepare. The audience is chatting and laughing. It can be seen that the Toraj love funerals. Babies sit on their parents' laps. Older children ride buffaloes. I watch how the animals are prepared for the ceremony, sprinkled with water from a bamboo pipe and touched with a ritual spear.

But then the first victim falls. I see a limp carcass, blood and a thrown back head with horns. Nine men are working on the field at the same time. It is important to kill the animal with one blow of a long knife. Despite the centuries-old traditions, there is little artistry among the Toraja. The theater of death in their interpretation resembles an amateur slaughterhouse.

“Your vision is different,” says Tatodena, the local priest. “Torajas respect buffaloes. You buy beef from the store and eat it for lunch. Have you seen this cow? Are you thinking about her? When we buy a buffalo, we ask the seller where he grew up, who is the owner. Toraji never kill just for food. After the ceremony, meat, offal, blood and skin are divided among all participants in the funeral. Buffalo horns will decorate the tongkonan. This is a memory of the event, of the father of Yudijaya and of the buffalo that saw the deceased to the land of the ancestors.”

Horns and hooves

2 tons of cargo a buffalo of average weight can usually carry.
4-6 tons of manure buffalo produces during the year.
2 meters – this is the length of the horns of some breeds buffalo.
30 kg of food (grass, rice stalks, etc.) per day on average is required for an adult animal.

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Light and shadow

“The best skins come from Tana Toraja. Premium quality leather!” A stocky man stands near a buffalo skin stretched on a frame, peeling off the top rough layer from it. “And we make “chips” from scraps of skin. They are deep-fried, mixed with garlic. Very tasty!”

In a concrete hangar on the outskirts of Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of the island of Java, there is a workshop where puppets for the wayang kulit shadow theater are created. In 2008, UNESCO included the Indonesian theater in the list of intangible heritage of mankind.

Sueto makes skins. The main thing is to follow the technology: soak, clean, dry and polish with stones. As a result, the skin turns into a smooth, dense, translucent parchment.

The puppeteer Supri works with this. In his right hand he holds a hammer made of buffalo horn, in his left hand he holds something like a chisel. The master knocks out a silhouette from a flat piece of skin: “This is Bima. Son of the wind god. Strong, brave, honest and with an enviable appetite. Our President Jokowi's favorite hero.” Every Javanese has a character close to his heart. The one he wants to be like.

Buffaloes — keepers: how animals became the national treasure of Indonesia

The skin cracks like thin ice. The hand of the master must be firm. If it trembles, the drawing will be spoiled, you will have to take another piece of skin and start over. It takes several days or even weeks to make a doll. “During the rainy season, the skin is soft. If there is dry heat, I work longer.”

Using the same tools, the craftsman covers the carved silhouette with a pattern of tiny holes. Due to openwork perforation, a piece of buffalo skin looks like lace. “As if voluminous!” – admires the master.

Performances of the wayang kulit theater take place right on the street. They begin in the evening, when the heat subsides, and last until dawn. The best performances are broadcast live by federal channels.

Puppeteers hide behind a white sheet stretched over a huge frame and a fluorescent lamp burns. A podium for musicians has been put together in front of the screen. Spectators sit on folding chairs in several tight rows on three sides of the podium.

The voice of the main narrator, amplified by the speakers, howls, sings in a treble, mumbles in a bass voice, retelling stories based on ancient Indian legends. The mighty buffalo Raja Mahesasura, a doll in royal attire, a crown and large black horns, claims the love of the eldest daughter of the god Indra.

Indra and his friends believe that the buffalo Raja lost his sense of proportion and forgot that the gods are no match for him. The puppeteer switches to screams and a solemn recitative …

The faces of the Javanese in the harsh light of the lamps take on the grotesque features of the shadows on the screen. A fairy tale carved on the skin of a buffalo comes to life. And, it turns out, everything is like in reality. It is not clear who will win as a result – Mahesasura or Indra, a buffalo or a tractor. What is good and what is bad is to eat animals or sacrifice them and make them the heroes of magical legends. There are no clear answers. But the audience is sure: by dawn everything will end correctly.

Buffalo — keepers: how the animals became Indonesia's national treasure


Square1 904,569 km² (14th in the world)
Population ~ 275,775,000 (4th place)
Population density 141 people/km²
GDP ~ $1.29 trillion (17th place)

ATTRACTIONSBorobudur Temple, Kraton Royal Palace in Java; Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan; Toraja villages in Sulawesi; the rice terraces of Tegallalang in Bali.
TRADITIONAL DISHES nasi bogana (rice topped with banana leaf), rendang (beef in coconut milk), ikan bakar (grilled fish with spices).
TRADITIONAL DRINKS sekoteng (hot ginger drink), es champur (fruit cocktail).
SOUVENIRSbatik, silver filigree, carved wooden figurines.

DISTANCE from Moscow to Denpasar (Bali) ~ 10,040 km (from 12.5 hours in flight)
TIMEDenpasar is 5 hours ahead of Moscow
< strong>VISA
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CURRENCY Indonesian rupiah (100,000 IDR ~ 6.8 USD)

Photo: ALAMY (X4), SIME (X3), AGEFOTOSTOCK, PACIFIC STOCK/LEGION-MEDIA, ISTOCK partially updated in August 2022

Marina Mironova

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