Buffalo sacrifice and megalithic funerary cults in Sulawesi and Southeast Asia

From the analysis of the Indonesian funerary rites (Sulawesi and Sumba), and more generally in Southeast Asia, a conceptual plot emerges including the erection of megaliths, the ritual sacrifice of the water buffalo (psychopomp animal par excellence), the cult of the Ancestors and its link with the fertility of rice fields. Let us try to understand how such different symbolic areas have harmonized with each other over the millennia.

di Marco Maculotti

There is a very close correlation, for the populations of the island of Sulawesi, in the Indonesian archipelago, between the Ancestors, the stone and the fertility of the rice fields.. Here, the bodies of the deceased are buried in caves, rock walls or megaliths specially erected, because the tribal populations believe that the soul of the deceased can still benefit community life, especially the abundance and health of its clan and the fertility of their fields and herds.

The "tau-tau", typical of the funerary tradition of the Toraja ethnic group, wooden alter-egos of the deceased; South Sulawesi. All the photos in this reportage belong to the Author and, consequently, to be understood as the exclusive property of AXIS mund i.ย The captions of the slideshows can be found in the appendix to the reportage, after the notes

Also for this reason, as we will see, the Indonesian traditions (but also, extending the study area, of Southeast Asia in general) connect the funeral rituals in a very clear way to the ritual sacrifice of the water buffalo, which in their culture is considered the psychopomp animal par excellence, closely connected to the ancestral spirits of the Ancestors and, therefore, the ideal intermediary between the spiritual world (which is also the world of the dead, as well as that of the "spirits of the vegetation") and that of men.

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The burial methods vary from tribe to tribe: in the south of the island, where the Toraja ethnic group, the remains of deceased ancestors are placed inside the features boat-shaped coffins (erong), to emphasize the symbolism of the journey of the soul to the "other shore", and often accumulated inside sacred caves (symbolism of the regression to the "cosmic uterus"), used to contain what remains of the clan ancestors.

When the body of the deceased is placed in the characteristic coffin, a wooden statue with his appearance, called tau-tau ("Little person") is placed on a wooden balcony built on the rocky wall opposite the burial, from which the spirit of the deceased, ritually "incorporated" within his alter ego wooden, seems to be benevolently observing the fields below, for the fertility of which he is invoked and honored by his descendants still alive.

Going up towards the north, in the easternmost part of the island, from time to time you come across other types of burials, equally characterized by lithic elements: here the dead come buried within huge stone blocks, in which a "window" is dug to accommodate the remains of the deceased, positioned in the middle of the rice fields, confirming the very close relationship between spirits of the dead / Ancestors, stone and fertility of the fields, which we have already mentioned in a previous report [cf. MACULOTTI: Bada Valley: the โ€œxenomorphicโ€ megaliths in the jungle].

Here not only the deceased rests in stone: he himself becomes stone, being commemorated by the descendants through the ceremonial erection of a megalith that represents him. Now immune to the world of changes left behind permanently, immobile and imperturbable as only the rock can be, nevertheless it is believed that his soul embodied in the megalith can still benefit his descendants by propitiating the crops.

This probably explains the presence of funeral boulders in the middle of the terraced rice fields, as well as their shape, which can well be defined as phallic and which in all probability refers to a corpus mythological existence - not only in this area of โ€‹โ€‹the world - between the spirits of the ancestors, the underworld, the fertility of the land and the abundance of crops and crops. Despite the different methods of burial, the mythical-symbolic context we wish to deal with here does not change.

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To this end, ci will mainly use the illuminating and full-bodied essay of Francis Brighenti Cattle sacrifice, funerary ritual and ancestor worship in the tribal cultures of India and Southeast Asiaย (whose reading is highly recommended to understand the ethnic and geographic scope of the spread of these rituals and beliefs), from which we will extrapolate the most meaningful information to highlight the triple connection between sacrifice of the buffalo / spirits of the Ancestors (and of the dead ) / fertility of the fields.

We have already anticipated how, in all the most archaic cultures of the Indonesian archipelago (and, as we shall see, of a large part of southern and south-eastern Asia), the water buffalo is considered, from a mythical-ritual point of view, the psychopomp animal par excellence, the one who accompanies the soul of the deceased to the afterlife and who intercedes on behalf of the community with the divine and ancestral spirits of the Other World. Brighenti appropriately notes how the relationship that the buffalo has with the Ancestors reverberates in the architectural symbolism of bovine horns in traditional Sulawesi Toraja dwellings: the house itself, built on stilts, is conceived as a microcosmic scale representation of the universe [BRIGHENTI: p. 40].

Equally and perhaps going further, the Lamboya of the nearby island of Sumba conceive their homes as "living buffaloes". In both Sulawesi and Sumba, the horns of buffalo ritually sacrificed during ceremonies in honor of the spirits of the Ancestors and the dead are nailed in long lines to certain structural elements of the house [ibid., P. 42]. Stylized buffalo heads adorn the joints of the beams that support the houses.

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Some scholars, in addition to underlining the architectural symbolism connected to the buffalo-ancestors equation, also advance the hypothesis that the typical shape of the Indonesian roof would also have taken as a model "the boats aboard which ancient Austronesian-speaking people reached the islands of Indonesia"[Ibid, p. 41].

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This appears highly probable to the writer, having had the opportunity to personally visit some Toraja burial sites of southern Sulawesi, in the province of Tora Toraja: lying inside caves or on rocky walls - as already mentioned -, the skulls and the bones of the deceased ancestors are in plain sight, placed inside or on wooden coffins whose shape is undeniably inspired by that typical of boats. Likewise the Gie Trieng, a Mon-Khmer ethnic group settled in northern Annam, they place the bodies of the dead in wooden coffins in the shape of a pirogue, decorated with sculptures of buffaloes [ibid, p. 39].

Impossible not to trace this customย the archaic conception (and widespread far beyond Southeast Asia) of the journey of the soul of the deceased to the "other shore" of the Other World (with the topos recurrent of the test consisting in fording a river, or crossing an oceanic expanse, and so on). On the other hand, Brighenti himself notes how, in the Southeast Asian tradition, the psychopomp bovine presents itself as a "boat animal" that leads the soul of the deceased towards the kingdom of the dead [ibid, p. 41, note 80], which - let us remember - is somehow connected to the humid, dark andย germinal of "groundwater", and therefore also in connection with the fertility of the fields.

In this regard, it is illuminating to say the least that the Toraja of Sulawesi, in their cosmogonic and origin myths, describe the buffalo and the rice as the two mythical brothers of the first man created by the demiurge god Puang Matua: the mythical connection of the three "characters" (four if the man is divided into the two subcategories of living e Ancestors) reconnects - as it is easy to guess - to the ritual custom of sacrificing buffaloes during the most important fertility ceremonies, as well as during the funerals of clan members [ibid., p. 44].

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In Sulawesi as in the whole geographical area analyzed by Brighenti, the sacrifice of buffaloes accompanies all the stages of the process by which the soul of the deceased is sent to join the ancestral spirits, in the southern kingdom of the dead (a parallel of the Kingdom of Yama of the Hindu tradition). These sacrificial ceremonies [1]ย sanction the passage of the soul of the deceased from the "solar" world of the living to the chthonic world of the Ancestors, the puja, in which it continues its existence, after being judged by Pong Lalondong, the "Lord-Rooster" [ibid., p. 45], King of the Underworld and Judge of the Dead, the Sulawesian equivalent of Erlik Khan of the Turkish-Mongolian-Siberian shamanic tradition.

Nonetheless, it must be emphasized how most of these populations, including the inhabitants of the island of Sumba, conceive the inhabitants of the Other World not only as ghostly, vampiric and therefore potentially harmful (as well as terrifying) presences, but also as equal to real divine beings, considering them to be intermediaries between heaven and the world of humans. The ceremonial sacrifice of the buffalo among the Suminans is addressed precisely to these ancestral spirits that they callย marapu, and in which "the deified ancestors conceived as the progenitors of the powerful patrilineal clans whose leaders traditionally direct the political, social and religious life of the island" are specifically recognized [ibid., p. 51].

Sumba, in connection with these sacrificial rituals and beliefs, still preserves what is considered the last megalithic-funeral tradition still in force.. In addition to the buffalo heads, here, the megalithic slabs weighing tons, under which the remains of the deceased are buried, are also decorated with images of other symbolic animals, such as the horse (who shares with the buffalo the role of psychopomp intermediary used to lead the soul of the deceased to the afterlife) and the crocodile (which with the water buffalo has in common the "wet" and hypogeum symbolism connected to the "underground waters" that flow in the southern world of the dead and of the Ancestors).

If in fact, in the traditions of Southeast Asia, the buffalo acts as an intermediary with the spiritual powers residing in the kingdom of the dead [2], which as we have said is considered to be (here as elsewhere) an underground dimension, dark, humid and germinal, in connection with the "underground waters", over which the spirits of fertility, those of the Ancestors and those of the dead govern at the same timeTherefore, we should not be surprised by the interpolation in the Sammanese artistic-sacral tradition of the tomb representations of the water buffalo with those, equally significant on the symbolic-ritual level, of other animals traditionally considered psychopomp or dwelling in "underground waters".

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As Brighenti reports, the examination of the issues related to the ritual sacrifice of the water buffalo and the erection of megaliths in honor of the spirits of the deceased and of the Ancestors (often in order to propitiate the aforementioned as well as the spiritual powers that preside over fertility of the fields) cannot be limited to the Indonesian area, of which we have reported some significant ideas here. The geographical area in which these ceremonial customs have been documented, in fact, covers - as anticipated - the entire area of โ€‹โ€‹Southeast Asia, with significant peaks (as well as in the Indonesian archipelago) on the hills and mountains of north India. -Oriental.

For example, the sacrifice of the buffalo in honor of the spirits of the dead is also found among the Dravidian-speaking populations settled in the area of โ€‹โ€‹the Nilgiri hills, on the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The Toda, on the occasion of the death of one of their tribe, foresee two funerals: a "green" one, shortly after the death, in which the corpse is offered on the funeral pyre and which culminates in the ritual killing of the bovine; and a "dry" one, months later, during which a piece of the skull of the deceased, recovered from the pyre, is buried at the base of a tree, and his ashes are interred in a circle of stones named azaram [BRIGHENTI: Fr. 7].

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In this second phase of the ritual we can see the millenary persistence of the belief, very popular among the "primitive" and "archaic" populations of the whole world, which the soul of the deceased, once leaving the physical body, could reincarnate (or rather, be ritually transferred) inside a tree or stone. From there, post-mortem, if properly revered with periodic rites and sacrifices, it was believed that it could benefit the community, for example. favoring the fertility of the fields and the abundance of rainfall, or the multiplication of herds.

The writer, during his trip to Indonesia last summer, was able to personally visit the last remaining tree in which, according to tradition, the Toraja of Sulawesi used to bury the bodies of stillborn children [last photo of the slideshow above], probably in connection with the belief that the souls of the Ancestors dwelt in those same plants (in the same way as the Yaksha Hinduism).

Funerary-megalithic and "arboreal" traditions of this type are also found, again in the Indian sub-continent, among the tribal peoples of the mountainous regions of the northeastern Deccan (among which we remember the Gond, the Lanjia Saora, the Bondo and the Gabada) and among some ethnic-linguistic groups not very distant from the former, such as the Khasi and the Nagas [ibid, pp. 9 et seq.].ย 

I khasi, Indian tribal people speaking an Austro-Asian language of the Mon-Khmer branch, settled in the state of Meghalaya, still possessed at the beginning of the XNUMXth century the most complex and developed funerary-megalithic ritual in all of continental Asia. At its end, all the bones of the dead moved from the family mounds to the megalithic ossuary (called mawniam o mawbah, formed by imposing slabs) which contains all the remains of the ancestors of the matrilineal clan to which the family belongs, or of all the descendants of a common ancestor [ibid, p. 24]. The megaliths into which the souls of the deceased are transferred are said "Stones of nourishment for the dead" [ibid, p. 25].

Identical beliefs are found among the Bondo of Orissa, another lingua munda tribe, which define the part of the deceased's soul left to wander the earth sayrem. Also according to their tradition, after a ceremony roughly similar to that now reported for the Gabada, the megalith becomes "the earthly seat of the spirit of the deceased, from which his heirs believe a beneficial power is released that can positively influence the fertility of their crops" [ibid, p. 16].

Also the Naga tribal peoples, settled in India, erect menhirs in the middle of their own rice fields in which they involve the souls of deceased relatives, believing in this way to stimulate their fertility. In fact, they believe that a part of the soul substance of each member of the community who in the past organized ceremonies involving the sacrifice of oxen and buffaloes "is fixed to the stones and poles he had erected in life, and that these monuments, after the death of the giver of the feasts, they become the seat of a powerful magical virtue capable of positively influencing the fertility of humans, animals and plants"; complex of ideas that is found identical in some tribal communities of India, Indochina and Indonesia [ibid., pp. 28-29].

The sacrifice of the buffalo is also widely practiced in India in the context of tribal cults dedicated to the spirits who preside over the fertility of the fields, the abundance of rainfall and other functions essential to the survival of rural agricultural communities. As Brighenti notes, these functions are, in the final analysis, the same ones delegated by the farmers of Hindu religion to their own female deities [ibid. p. 2].

Nevertheless, among other tribes the terrifying and burdensome side of the ritual burden predominates, as for example amongย i Maria-delle-Colline, who are especially concerned, expecting such rites, to limit the possible damage caused to the living community by the unresolved spirits of the deceased: according to their beliefs, in fact,ย "The megalithic monuments have the purpose of fixing the restless and wandering spirit of the deceased in a specific place, preventing him from harming his descendants" [ibid, p. 19].

Among these indigenous communities emerges above all the ritual need to pacify what the Gabada communities, in lingua munda, define il duma, that is to say the malevolent spirit, because not yet pacified, of the deceased. In the final stages of the called ceremony Gothar, il out (village priest who combines the functions of astrologer, diviner and healing magician) leads the souls of the deceased to the megalithic monuments suitably erected both in the village agora and in the sacrificial area, outside the town: they will become the new permanent seats of the now pacified spirits of the dead [ibid., pp. 12-13].

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Autochthonous Sumbanians at one of the oldest megalithic sites that the author has had the opportunity to visit; Sumba island, August 2018

How can we consider, from a historical and geographical point of view, the diffusion of these ritual and megalithic traditions and of the mythic-folkloric beliefs with connected axes? Brighenti reports the opinion ofย Fรผrer-Haimendorf, according to whose thesis the introduction of this type of funerary rituals centered on the immolation of a buffalo (or in its absence, of another bovine) and on the erection of megalithic monuments in which the soul of the deceased was involved with appropriate para-shamanic practices, it would have been the work of Neolithic populations of lingua munda coming from regions located east of Assam.

When, at the beginning of the twentieth century, these languages โ€‹โ€‹were classified, they merged, together with the Mons-Khmer ones spoken in the mainland of Southeast Asia ("Austroasiatic" languages), into the new linguistic super-family called "austrica", which is also believed to include the "Austronesian" family, whose diffusion covers an area ranging from Madagascar to Polynesia. The epicenter from which these languages โ€‹โ€‹spread and, over the millennia, diversified, would therefore be the Indonesian archipelago [ibid., P. 11], which lies at the center of this immense geographical area that covers the Indian Ocean and the western part of the Pacific; and, consequently, Fรผrer-Haimendorf hypothesized that funerary and megalithic traditions had spread from Indonesia, in a period between the sixth and fourth millennium BC [ibid, p. 43].

Most scholars agree that these funeral and sacrificial ceremonies, as well as the megalithic culture associated with them, originated in prehistoric times in Southeast Asia: therefore there would be no determining contribution of the Vedic sacrificial traditions and rituals to be traced [ibid, p. 23], which nevertheless provide for similar ceremonials, such as that of the sacrifice of the cow [3].

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The Author at a megalithic site in the area occupied by the Toraja ethnic group; South Sulawesi, July 2018


[1] The Toraja of Sulawesi, like other archaic peoples (such as the Dayak of Borneo and the indigenous people of the island of Sumba) practiced until recently, on the occasion of the funerals of the aristocrats, not only the sacrifice of cattle and pigs, but also that human, beheading slaves who would continue to serve their masters even after death. The funeral of the wealthiest members of the community included (and sometimes still foresees) a second funeral some time after their death, celebrated after the rice harvest [BRIGHENTI: p. 46]. Human sacrifices were also recorded among the Kondhs of Orissa, of the Dravidian language, and among the Naga and Wa populations [ibid., P. 17 and 29]

[2]ย In Hindu culture the symbolic association of the buffalo with the kingdom of the dead is widely attested on a mythological and traditional level: it is the mount of Yama, god of the dead and ruler of the southern kingdom in which the latter arrive after the physical passing, of which he was the first to find the way (it is the ยซvia dei Peterยป, Or theยซ lunar ancestors ยปof the Hindu tradition). A "double functional" of the Hindu god of the dead Yama is, in the tradition of the tribal communities of the Nilgiri hills, Emme-Daruma-Raja, the "King-Judge-Buffalo". Like Yama, he is imagined riding a buffalo, especially when a man or a woman dies: then, the god comes out of his infernal palace, located on the very high top of a mountain, to tear the soul from the body of the deceased with the his snare or with his net. The soul thus trapped is then led by its servants towards its own otherworldly destiny [BRIGHENTI: p. 9]. In the gloomy Emme-Daruma-Raja we can also glimpse archetypes that almost slavishly mirror Erlik Khan, the Lord of the Underworld and of the dead in Turkish-Mongolian-Siberian shamanism [cf. MACULOTTI: Divinity of the Underworld, the Afterlife and the Mysteries]

[3]ย An ancient Brahmanic funerary ritual, namely lo ล›rauta foreseen by the Vedic texts, it provided for the sacrificial offering of a cow on the occasion of the cremation of the corpse of a high-grade ฤrya sacrificer. The burnt meat of the sacrificed cow was then offered at the sacrificial fire and the smoke emitted by them constituted the "lymph", or nourishment in the form of "essence of meat", intended for petr, that is, to the spirits of the ancestors who awaited the soul of the deceased in their kingdom; but at the same time it was also considered a food supply for the latter, during the journey to the afterlife [BRIGHENTI: p. 3]. The same ritualism and the same beliefs were also maintained among the Lanjia Saora, a tribe of lingua munda from Orissa [ibid., P. 15]. Here we find the idea, very widespread also in European tradition and folklore (especially in the medieval tales of fairies) that the spirits and souls of the dead feed on a sort of "subtle nourishment" or "quintessence", drawn from the sacrificial victims or, in the absence of an adequately performed ritual, from innocent victims, human or animal [cf. MACULOTTI:ย Fairies, witches and goddesses: "subtle nourishment" and "bone renewal"]

Slideshow captions:

  1. Sacred burial site of the noble clans of the Toraja ethnic group, at Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi
  2. Tau-tau at a sacred burial site characteristic of the Tana Toraja area of โ€‹โ€‹South Sulawesi
  3. "Phallic" megaliths in the geographical area of โ€‹โ€‹the Toraja ethnic group, in southern Sulawesi, and megaliths with "windows", placed in the middle of the fields (as can be seen from the last panoramic photo from above) to make the rice fields bear fruit, in Sulawesi central-eastern
  4. Some water buffaloes and two shots of a sacred event of the Toraja, near Rantepao, the most inhabited urban center in southern Sulawesi
  5. Typical Toraja houses with architectural-symbolic characteristics that recall the sacredness of the water buffalo; in the last photo, a miniature reproduction of the typical Torajan house at a burial site
  6. Wooden coffins in the shape of a dugout and tau-tau placed in a cave on similar wooden boats at two burial sites in South Sulawesi
  7. Remains of Torajan ancestors buried in wooden coffins inside large underground caves, to which offerings are constantly brought, South Sulawesi
  8. Megalithic tombs, Sumba island
  9. Some recurring symbolic motifs on the Summanese megalithic tombs
  10. Torajan burials directly in the bare rock, by creating some "windows" directly dug into the stone wall, in southern Sulawesi, and the last remaining tree in which the locals used to bury the corpses of stillborn children, in east-central Sulawesi
  11. Megalithic tombs, Sumba island
  12. Megalithic tombs, Sumba island
  13. Particularly ancient megalithic tombs, Sumba island



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