The House of Torajanese

If the cover of a book about Toraja would have to be decorated with only one symbol - it would be Torajanese wooden house - tongkonan. Horned roof, black, white and red patterns – are its distinctive features.

The connoisseurs of Eastern culture know that such a form of the roof – is not something special, inherent only to Torajanese houses.

Similar roofs could be found in the houses of another Indonesian tribe - Bataks of Sumatra island, in the sacred complex of Ise in Japan, in the architecture of the south-western China.

The horned rooftops of Bataks and Torajanese show that both of these cultures have a common ancestor - the Austronesian culture from the territory of Indochina.

About 3 millennium BC Austronesians left the continent, moved to Taiwan, and from there they began to settle in the territories of modern Philippines and Indonesia.

Centuries passed. The paganism in nearly all places of Indonesia was changed to Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. But Tana Toraja regions and Lake Toba were isolated from active politics and economics for a long time.

They were in the mountains, in remote valleys, far from the commercial sea routes. Therefore, migrants from other islands and countries, which often were becoming the conductors of other religions and traditions were not very interested in them. As a result, by the 20th century the Toba and Toraja had kept a very similar culture despite the separation of several thousand years long.

Some of Torajanese say that the roofs of the houses symbolize the water buffalo horns, which are the sacred animals in Toraja religion. Toraja buffaloes and being sacrificed, because according to Torajanese beliefs they will carry the soul of the deceased to heaven.

One legend says that the Toraja ancestors arrived to the region by sea from the north. During the storm, the boat fell into disrepair. Torajanese began to use them as the roofs of their first homes.

If you not deal with the question of the shape of the roof, the architecture of Tongkonan has quite functional and fully consistent with the historical realities.

Until the 20th century Tana Toraja was a very volatile region. The military conflict between clans and wars with the neighbors - Bugis and Louvois were usual.

Tongkonans were erected on top of a mountain or a hill, to get a better view of the enemy, and to repel the attack in time.

The staircase leading to the tongkonan, was located under the house and the front door was in the floor like a hatchway. It was enough just to stand on the door to close the entrance from the enemy.

The small windows of Tongkonan were tightly shuttered, and served as a reliable protection at night.

A ground floor, used as a stall for livestock was guarding buffaloes and pigs. Moreover, the high location of the house on high stilts did not allow the enemy to quickly and unpredictably break into the house.

The architecture of Tongkonan embodied the concept "my house - my fortress" completely.

By the way now if Torajanese build a modern house made of bricks or light wooden houses as their Bugis neightbours they make the stairs in the house as steep as the stairs of Tongkonan.

Maybe this is one of reasons of playfulness and good health of older Torajanese, which perform several ascents and descents during the day which can replace a short physical training.

Not always the Tonkonan roof was so high. The pursuit for pretentiousness started in the late 19th century, when the Toraja was flooded by the profits from the sales of coffee. Roofs became more curved and carving even more sophisticated. An implementation of iron played an important role in increasing the roof height.

By the way, if the family does not have much money and can not find the very qualified master, the roof of alang of ricebarn can be made in a simple way.

In the 50-s of the 20th century Tongkonans suffered a disaster.

After Indonesia obtained independence a radical Islamic movement Darul Islam decided to set up an autonomous republic in Sulawesi. The members of the movement planned to forcibly convert Torajanese to Islam. Tongkonans were destroyed and burnt in fires.

When the government succeeded to subdue radicals, the new attack came. In the 60s of the last century tongkonans were criticized by the central authorities. Ancestral homes of Torajanese were considered dysfunctional and uncomfortable. Authorities supported any attempts make Torajanese leave tongkonans and move into brick houses.

For particularly zealous supporters of Protestantism tongkonans and Torajanese rituals were something symbolizing the spiritual darkness. Therefore, the criticism came from the Protestant Church.

There was some truth in the criticism of the authorities. Tonkonans are large outside. And very small inside in terms of inner. No toilet and kitchen inside. So toilet and bathroom are in a separate building on the street. A small window slightly passes the daylight.

In ancient times the hearth was constructed  in the central room of the house. It was a huge wooden box on coasters with the ground on which were laying the stones. The food was cooked in this construction. The smoke was going into the house or going out from the small windows.

Many Torajanese whose houses fell into disrepair due to fires in the mid-20th century rebuilt their homes in the manner of Bugis. The spacious, airy homes with large windows, large rooms and on piles have become more comfortable when the military threat disappeared. They had plenty of room for hosts and guests. Furthermore, the house could accommodate all of conveniences such as bathrooms and toilets.

In 70-s, the economic situation in Toraja improoved. Many locals found work in the lucrative mining enterprises of Kalimantan and Papua. And started to use the money earned there for restoring the positions of Toraja. The families returned back to building of Tongkonans.

A tourist boom also raised the interest to Tongkonans.

The government policy in the 80-s has changed followed by the support of ethnic diversity of Indonesia regions.

Many modern Torajanese are trying to build a stone house and live in it. And to build a  tongkonan as a symbol and the foundation of the family. And settle inside the relatives, when they come to visit.

Or build a spacious wooden house on stilts with large windows in the style of Bugis. But decorate it with Torajanese symbols or even the traditional horned roof.

Such modifications are not tongkonans in Torajanese understanding and are called the house or "Banua".

But if the family wants to keep a ritual function of the house by improving its practical capabilities, it makes a tongkonan with a closed ground floor. It can be equipped with extra rooms, and extended with extra space. Sometimes the first floor can be made of stone.

This tongkonan with a covered porch on the ground floor is still a full tongkonan with all entitlements and ritual magical properties.

Usually every 3-5 alternations of generations, the family establishes a new tongkonan. And the next 3-5 generations fo Torajanese build their homes around, organize festivals in its yard and build their lives around the life of the house.

One big tongkonan may be surrounded by many different houses. All these houses made of stone, wood, of one or two floors are one big family of the tongkonan. And the number of the alangs or ricebarns in fromt of Tomgkonan must match the number of homes that tongkonan unites.

The new tongkonan domesticates the unoccupied spaces, wading into still undeveloped wilderness of Toraja.

The first political unifications in the history of Toraja started with unions of families united under same Tongkonans. The leaders of the Tongkonans federations became the first political leaders in the region.

The main modification of Tongkonan affected both – architecture as well as religion.

The years of confrontation, when Christian Church saw in tongkonans a symbol of caste superiority over others are gone. The buildings of churches in Toraja started to adopt the decorative elements of tongkonans.

The Protestant church in Batutumonga village is decorated with traditional patterns. These patterns preserved in Toraja since pagan times, adorn the walls of tongkonans.

The symbol of tongkonan can be seen on church vestments of priests. Finally many Toraja Christians began to call the church - our big tongkonan. This was the main evidence of the end of the conflict of religions.

The house of Torajanese - is not only a home. It is in every sense, the family itself.

Tongkonan name comes from the word "tongkon", which means to sit or be present. Indeed, tongkonan – is a place where all members of the family gather and family events are organized. Where people are born, where they begin their life and die, completing it.

For religious ceremonies Torajanese did not build temples. Their ancestral homes were like temples for them. A courtyard between the house and rice barns “lubak ba» becomes a venue for the most grandiose rituals.

Tongkonan - is the foundation of the family and the symbol of unity of the family. And actually tongkonan - is always a home for the family.

Tongkonan can not be just sold. It's like selling a grandfather or family honor. There is an old Torajanese saying, "It is better to allow to cut off your head, than to sell tongkonan."

It is allowed to sell only the old tongkonan if the process of building the new on the old place already stated. And in this case Torajanese behave mostly as they sell just the elements or the material. But still the Torajanese, building the new tongkonan tries to use at least a small piece of wood of the old one, to ensure the continuity.

The owners must care about their tongkonan as they would care abiut the family member. They think that the wealth of tongkonan must only be increased. And condemn those  who reduces it - by selling the family heirlooms or other property of tongkonan.

This attitude toward the house as a living organism – is a feature of many Austronesian cultures. There is the idea in these cultures that the proper construction of the house and its condition are directly linked to the prosperity and health of the people living in it.

A house of torajanese - is both a tree and not a tree anymore. Tongkonan – is a part of nature and created by man. It is a re-created tree which vitality must be tamed with the right rituals that accompany all stages of construction.

When the celebrations are held around the house the family jewels are taken out from the home and are decorating its facade. At this time Torajanese tongkonan is poetically compared to a tree which branches are full of jewels.

A kinship ties torajanese not only with their tongkonan, but with tongkonans of fathers and mothers, grandparents, wifes or husbands and tongkonans of their parents. And all of them need to take care of, be repaired. And torajanese need to participate in festivals, which are held in them.

Torajanese who live abroad or in other areas of Indonesia buy smaller figures of tongkonans as the reminders. And no matter to what corner of the world a torajanese was brought by the fate, they will make every effort to get back home. If the tongkonan call them some day.

You don't feel inside the tongkonan that you are in a small space, closed from the outside world. It makes you feel at the crossroads of the four cardinal directions - north, south, east and west.

In the house and at the same time in a mystical, universal space created by the legends of Torajanese.

Torajanese always were giving a sacred significance to the division of the world into four quarters.

Paradise was on the south and on the north. Torajanese traditional priest tominaa turns to the north while praying. Appealing to the ancestors spirits, the priest looks to the south.

The holidays are divided between holidays of the east and the west. Holidays of the East symbolize the sunrise, the birth and development of life. Holidays of the West are associated with sunset and fading.

This cosmology is connected with torajanese ancestral home - tongkonan. It was always the fortress and the foundation of the family. And Torajanese paid attention to the location of the house in space, the location of its rooms and their functions.

Toraja believe that the north - is the residence of the gods. Also the north is associated with the waters of the River Sadan. It flows through Tana Toraja from the north to the south and feeds the rice fields.

The importance of the River Sadan and generally any water element for Toraja was manifested even in the language. The word for the river "salu" is associated with the most important and noble concepts in Torajanese language.

Word for the conversation process is transmitted with the concept, which literally means "the river of words." The river of some concept - is something right towards this concept. Going down the river "unnola Salunna" on a high Toraja language - means "doing something right." "To travel along the river" - "dipaolay salu" means to "try to achieve the most equitable solution in the poetic language.


And "river path" or "Sanda salunna" - is one of the components of the ancient Torajanese faith - Aluk Todolo. This sphere is responsible for maintaining proper lifestyle. And exactly from the north comes in Toraja this river element which is important for each citizen.

Therefore the entrance of tongkonan is always facing north. Northern facade - is always the face of the house - "Lindo Banua."

South – is a place associated with death. The country of souls of the dead from the Torajanese point of view is situated on the south. The bugis, the main enemies of Torajanese during many centuries constantly attacked this land from the south. That’s why the back of the house "Pollok Banua" - occupies the southern part of the house.

That’s why Torajanese put the deceased in the house with their head to the south. The soul of the dead person departs after death to the south. A southern position of the deceased symbolizes the reverse of the cycle of life.

The east – is the land of the rising sun, associated with birth rituals that accompany the harvest, prosperity and human life.

On the eastern side in the main room of the house Toraja making center. On the east side of the house in the yard burying the placenta, infants born in the house. In the philosophy of the Austronesian peoples of the human placenta is considered its twin. By the way, if you take just a genetic component, such a comparison is correct.

After a while, when the placenta of its residents is buried near the new tongkonan the moving of the house is prohibited. Although technically it could be ease to disassemble a house like a building kit, to transport and to assemble it on a new place.

West – is the land of the setting sun. It is associated with death and funerals.

But the philosophy of Torajanese house does not end on the association with the sides of the world and dividing it horizontally. It combines three vertical areas – lower natural, middle human and higher divine.

The first floor of tongkonan - "sulluk banua" is equipped with veranda and piles. In ancient times they served as a corral. In traditional tongkonan the height of this level is 2 meters. Same as height oа a buffalo with horns. In addition, the high position of tongkonan helped to defend it better from attacks of the enemies.

Women weave, spin, arrange events involving guests on the veranda. This level of the house belongs to nature and its forces. Sometimes the owner covers the first floor with walls, creating the extra room. Sometimes this floor is used for household needs. Lika for drying laundry.

The middle level - "kale banua" - belongs to the people, to the owner of the house and his family. It is divided into three parts according to their relation with north and south.

The northern room - "tangdo". It served as a bedroom for unmarried girls.

The middle part of the house - "sali." It was a living room, kitchen, dining room during the day and sleeping room for men or for servants at night. In ancient times there was a huge wooden box with the soil and some stones on it that served as a hearth.

When the owner cooked at home the smoke was spreading from the hearth around the home. That is why tongkonan is called "the house from which the smoke rises."

The southern room "sumbung" served as the bedroom for the owner of the house.

If the deceased appeared in the house, the functions of the rooms were changing. The deceased was placed in the southern room. The functions of bedrooms and living rooms were shared between the other rooms. During the funeral when the deceased body had to be wrapped in cloth according to the ritual, it was transferred to the central room of the house.

When the wedding was celebrated in the house the central and southern rooms were used for the rituals.

The upper level of the house - "rattiang banua" – is the attic and the roof. It is the most divine level of the house. The most important heirlooms are kept there  - gold daggers, beaded jewelry, gold necklaces, antique dining wooden bowls, ceremonial textiles, magic stones and funeral gong.

Traditionally, the roof of a house was made of bamboo and straw. But with the advent of the new tehology the galvanized iron was used more often. From the 90-s of the 20 century Torajanese started to use iron roofs. It is a luck nowadays to find a house with a thatched roof, where ferns grow and birds make their nests.

Moreover, Tongkonan has an another dimension - time. Placenta of the children born in here is buried near the house. After a person's death, the funeral in his honor are held in the same tongkonan.

This way - tongkonan is the beginning and the end of life. It encompasses the beginnings and the ends. The lifes of those that are gone by and the future generations, past and future. Tongkonan embodies the philosophy of Toraja - the unity of the natural, human and divine spheres. It symbolizes life and death and their complementarity.

Torajanese erected tongkonans without nails from antiquity. The entire structure is fastened by a locking system. In modern tongkonans the tradition is maintained, although for iron roofs the masters still have to use nails.

Big tongkonan conan needs an average of 6-8 guild masters who can make it in 3 months. The already built tonkgokan is covered with carving.

And about 3 months and three masters will be needed to decorate the house with carving.

The price of the construction such a beauty – from eight buffaloes, excluding material. 700 - 800 millions for the material. 250 - 300 millions for the construction. And another 80 - 100 for three carvers.

Buangin wood is used for load-bearing structures.

All small details should be kept in mind during the construction process. The vertical supports must be installed so that the upper part of the trunk of the tree would be on top.

The installation of the horizontal beams have the rules too. The upper part of the trunk of the tree, which is used for construction should be oriented to the north-east corner of the house. Because the north-east - is the main reference point for all the rituals associated with the birth and growth.

A basal portion of the stem should be oriented on the south-west corner of the house, because the southwest was the reference point for the rituals associated with death and extinction.

It was believed that if the workers put the beams in the wrong way, it will bring misfortune, illness or even death for inhabitants of the house.

Torajanese believe that the older tongkonan is, the more power it accumulates. Even the wood of tongkonan can keep its power. So if tongkonan is rebuild, the owners try to use at least a small piece of wood of an old house for building a new one. This way they ensure the continuity of tongkonan’s life.

The area around the house

As a living being, basis of the family and as a member of the family Torajanese tongkonan has its own property.

According to the ancient tradition Aluk To Dolo the property in Toraja is divided into two parts.

The first - that may belong to the family members personally - such as rice fields and plantations. They can be sold, divided, shared and inherited.

The second type of property - that belongs to the house and is its property.

The land around tongkonan with a garden and rice barns, playground "rante" for family-stone megaliths, family tomb and regalia - flags, daggers, beaded jewelry, magic items, and the gong for the funeral are the property of tongkonan.

All this stuff can be used by a family living in tongkonan. But selling it is not allowed.

But no matter how the life changes, the traditional tongkonan is considered a member of the family, able to combine Torajanese and collect them.

The house of Torajanese - tongkonan is a source of pride for local residents. And an opportunity to show the house in all its glory comes on holidays. Exactly these times the house and all the space around are decorated and visited by the adoring countrymen.

The yard of tongkonan or lyuba’ba – is the space between the house and barns. Luba’ba is a strategically important object. In everyday life the villagers dry rice, children play, and men organize cockfights here.

But if an event like a wedding or a funeral is coming the courtyard serves as the main stage for celebrations.

The guests occupy the platforms for rice barns, Alangs. They sit, watching the progress of events, eat, or sing psalms with the priest during Mass.

Before transfering the body of the deceased to the main platform, where it remains during the entire ritual, the coffin is left on the platform Alang.

Alangs are the rice barns, located face to face with traditional home. They are believed to belong to the house and without them it is unfinished.

Tongkonan is considered to be like the mother and the rice barns – its babies as there can be several barns by the same house.

Sometimes the local folklore associates the barn with the image of a husband. Probably because if the couple divorces, the woman gets the tongkonan, and her husband gets the barn and its contents.

By the way, if the transfer of tongkonan has severe restrictions, the transfers of alangs can be done quite easy.

The crop is stored on the top of Alang. Below the friends gather for a chat, have a lunch or escape the heat or rain. Very often the number of Alangs is the same as the number of children in the family. Sometimes, if the family is large, it makes just one common family tongkonan and several houses for each small family.

The special status of the owner of Alang can be emphasized by the barn pillars. By default, there should be six of them. But if the owner wants the Alang to demonstrate their wealth – they can make eight pillars.

Alangs are built on perfectly smooth round trunks of palm trees. The better they are polished, the lower are the chances that rats, mice and other vermin get to harvest and ruin it.

In addition to the Alang the tongkonan owns rante – a round playground, with mounted megalitic stones called simbuang. Simbuang – is a posthumous monument for the relative of the family owning the rante.

Prior to the funeral, the family of the deceased orders the masters cutting the  Simbuang for installation during the event. Sometimes almost half of the village can go to get the stone from the workshop or to erect the Simbuang to its site. Everyone tries to contribute to dragging of the multi-ton boulder.

In ancient times, when most Torajanese remembered in whose memory the simbuangs on their rante were installed they did not sign the stones. Over time, people began to move around Toraja, Indonesia and aboad causing the threat of oblivion. Then the masters started to carve on megalithic stones the names of those in whose honor they are installed.

In the northern, more conservative part of the Toraja, Simbuang - do not have a specific carving exept the inscriptions. In the southern part – the ones with symbolic faces can be found. The faces are usually made on the women's stones, set in honor of the deceased torajanese females. And often they have even the carved hair.

There is an interesting sign of the close intertwining of Toraja Christian and pagan traditions. In general, the phenomenon of megalithic stone - is essentially a pagan monument. But the fact that the cross is often carved on it says that it has been established in honor of a Christian.

A burial site is another property of tongkonan. Torajanese never buried their deceased under the ground, because they believed it could defile the land giving food to humans.

Torajanese think that a house as well as liang make a couple. No matter how sinister it sounds for a representative of another culture.

Tongkonan is a living place for those who are still alive. Liang is a house for the ancestors.

There are several types of burial sites in Toraja.

The natural caves were used for burial sites for many centuries. There was no lack of rocks and caves for a long time.

But the aggravation of hatred between tribes caused the appearing of tombs carved into the rock. These tombs could be built on impregnable heights. So the marauders who tried to profit from the disposal of things would have to spend a lot more efforts to get to the treasure.

Ground burials - Patane – are a relatively recent invention in Toraja. You can build Patane faster than carve a tomb out of the rock. In addition, it costs much less to the bereaved family.

Toraja revere the traditions so seriously that the masters making  tombs in the rocks still use hand tools.

Woodcarving and house decoration

Torajanese Tongkonan looks like a fairy tale house. It is hard to forget its intricate carving. The houses are covered from the ground to the top with striking black, white and red dynamic patterns.

Historically woodcarving was widespread in Toraja because the population did not have an alphabet. The information could be saved by  retelling it from father to son, or carving on wood.

By the way, in the modern Torajnese language the word for writing sounds exactly the same as the word for carving - "Masura".

The carving of Tongkonan was stating much about the owner's status. The nobility was allowed to decorate the houses affluently. The freemen could only decorate some particular details. And slaves were prohibited from decorating the houses at all.

So, tongkonan was a material symbol of aristocratic power and prestige.

All the ornaments have a deflinite meaning.

Not every torajanese will be able to read and explain all the symbolics encoded in the carving of tongkonan. But masters created this house must remember the meaning of every symbol.

Of course the most popular symbol is the buffaloes head – pa’ tedong. Buffalo is associated in Toraja with courage, endurance, prestige and power.

The second most important pattern is Pa’ Tаngke Lumuk. It reminds the sea weed in the water. The symbolic meaning is – the members of one family connected with the common kinship and working together every day.

There are more than one hundred of patterns of carving in Toraja. But all of them can vary depending on the district of Toraja.

Some specialists believe that patterns are the regulations of Aluk To Dolo for the Tomgkonan’s owners.

The lower level of Tongkonan is covered with the recommendations towards the servants.

The middle one includes the recommendations upon the relationships in the family.

And the upper one – is covered with the regulations upon respecting the gods.

So, all the patterns of Tongkonan are the the code of conduct. And following this code people can attain a long and successfull life.

The symbols of fighting cocks and the sun can be often found on the Tongkonan’s façade.

These are female and male symbols.

Fighting cocks are the symbols of bravery and valour in Toraja. Moreover it is a remaining about the favorite amusement of torajanese men keen on gaming and especially cockfights.

The sun carved on the façade and giving live to all the plants and animals is associated with female nature.

4 colours in the houses ornaments, textile and bead decorations of Torajanese – black, white, red and yellow are not accidental. They are the basis of Torajanese belief – Aluk To Dolo. It is the expression of their concept about the mutual complementing of live and death.

Black is a funeral color. Yellow – color of rice, gold and gods. Red – color of blood, that indicated human. White is a color of purity.

In ancient times Torajanese used the natural materials for these colors.

Carbon for black.

Lime for white.

Clay for red and yellow.

A palm wine was used for fixing the colors.

The most important sign of Tongkonan’s prestige is right on the façade. The buffalo horns.

All the horns remained from the funerals are carefully preserved. They are collected and hanged on the main pillar of the house. The pigs jaws decorate the sides of the house.

If there is not enough places in front of the pillar the horns are placed behind the pillar. Or on the sides. If there is no place on the sides too – the horns are shared with the kindred houses.

Totally this Tongkonan in Lempo village including sides and kindred houses in its complex is decorated with more than 200 buffalo horns.

Another sign of prestige is a wooden buffalo head named kabongo.

In old times the owners could decorate their houses with kabongo only after conducting the ceremonies of the highest rank.

Usually the color of this head is spotty black and white. The buffalo of this exact color – bonga or saleko is the most rare and precious breed.

There can be the heads of birds decorating the house as well. Rooster as well as cassowary that lives only in West Papua province of Indonesia.

If the funeral occurs the members of a family wrap a garland tuang-tuang around the house. The modern torajanese use bamboo to making tuang-tuang.

But in times of tribal wars, conflicts with southern and eastern neighbours and headhunting the human bones were used for creating tuang-tuang.

It is quite hard to fing really old tongkonans nowadays. At first because wood is the material that is not too much durable.

Secondly because in 50-60s of the 20 century Tana Toraja was attacked by separatists. And hundreds of Tongkonans were burned during the conflict. In some districts of Toraja the reconstruction works started only in 80-s.

As soon as most of the attacks were from the south – from Enrekang, the oldest tongkonans can be found in the mountains of Northern Toraja.