This article originally appeared on VICE Asia.
It's hard to imagine anything more central to life in Toraja than the buffalo. This region of Indonesia, located in the island of Sulawesi, believes that buffalo play a vital part in the afterlife, basically escorting the spirits of the dead on to eternity. But before the buffalo are sacrificed in a massive funeral party, they live long lives and, sometimes, battle it out in a local custom called Ma’pasilaga Tedong.
Ma’pasilaga Tedong is typically part of the rambu solo death ceremony, a funeral tradition that culminates with the slaughter of sometimes a dozen, sometimes more than 100 buffalo for a huge feast that's part of all traditional Torajan funerals. The VICE Indonesia team has been to Toraja before to shoot a documentary about the rambu solo, but they missed out on the bullfights.
Watch: Sacrificing Hundreds of Buffalo for One Funeral in Indonesia
I wanted to see them myself, so I traveled north from my home in Makassar, Indonesia, to Toyasa Akung village, in North Toraja. I met up with Rafly Panggalo, 16, and his three friends as they readied their own bull, Hammer, for the match. Hammer had been living in a bamboo-fenced area near the buffalo fight ring for a month. According to local traditions, it's important to keep the bulls near the ring so they get used to the smell of the air and soil.
Panggalo told me that the bullfights were a vital part local culture.
"It’s a hobby, a part of our culture, and our custom," he said. "A lot of Torajans, not just young people, are fond of it."
The fights themselves can be deadly affairs. Male buffalo are massive creatures and two are let loose to butt heads in a muddy enclosure. The smaller, younger ones can usually walk away from the match with little more than a few scrapes and bruises, but the heavyweights are sometimes killers and it's pretty common to see a bull not survive its match.
Still, buffalo are also sacred animals in Toraja, and incredibly costly investments that are traded back-and-forth to cement filial ties and the web of communal obligations that help keep villages together. The fights, and the later slaughter, occur during the rambu solo death ritual and this match was no different. The entire ceremony was thrown in honor of Almarhum Dina Rantetampang as part of her funeral.
“The bullfights are a part of the rambu solo ceremony, which we hold to entertain guests and the grieving family,” said Pong Lora, a member of the family of the deceased.
Hammer, a stocky contender owned by a local man who works in Papua, earned his name thanks to his crushing blows. His rival, a bull owned by Makassar Berkarya, was matched up over Facebook. There are countless Facebook fan pages for Ma’pasilaga Tedong, with the largest being the Community of Tedong Silaga Lovers (KPTS), totaling more than 73,000 followers. Fan pages like these are where fights are set up and promoted. The owners come from as far afield as Sumatra and Kalimantan to see their bulls duke it out in the ring. They even show up with an entourage, mostly kids, and team shirts promoting their chosen buffalo before the rest of the crowd.
The fights themselves are exciting, but chaotic affairs. The event organizers say they aren't responsible for anyone's injuries and the bulls themselves can easily break through the fences or make a run at the crowd. Everyone there was having fun but remained watchful of what the buffalo were doing because some matches ended with the weaker buffalo running away in defeat.
Bets changed hands unofficially on the sidelines as the two bulls enter the ring. Hammer, sadly, lost his match and returned to his 8-year-old owner defeated but still alive.
“Hammer lost," Gandi Phillips, said. "His enemy was bigger, and it butted Hammer in the eyes. It’s OK. He can fight again another time.”