Ikat weaving


- Tongkonan: Torajan Kindred Houses -

The most striking feature, perhaps, of Toraja is its houses. As you fly over Toraja, coming in via the South, you will see the small villages scattered in between the mountains covered with bamboo and veiled in mist. Most houses have the typical boat-shaped roofs, which, nowadays, are predominantly made of iron.
The roofs used to be made of bamboo and other natural materials. The making of such a house was very laborious. The houses that you will see in villages such as Ke'te' Kesu' (near Rantepao) are the so-called tongkonan (from the Toraja word tongkon, which means 'to sit down'). These kindred houses are used for family purposes, and the construction involves the entire family clan.


The traditional village of Nanggala', in the North of Toraja
According to myth,
the first Toraja house was constructed in heaven by Puang Matua, the Creator (see: Religion). It was built on four poles, and the roof was made of Indian cloth. Next, Puang Matua ordered the construction of another house, on iron poles and a bamboo roof. When the ancestor of mankind descended to earth in the southern half of Toraja (in the area bordering the Regency of Enrekang), he imitated the heavenly house, and a big house ceremony was held for the occasion.

The former village founder of Toraja, an important figure in Toraja, was called Tangdilino'. Near Mengkendek (southern Toraja), a house was built that had a roof with its two ends bending upwards. This particular form is explained in various ways. The first story stresses resemblance to a boat - since, according to myth, the ancestors of the Toraja people came by boat from the Mekong Delta in South China - the second story claims that the arch-shaped roof looks like the sky. This is, indeed, reflected in some prayers by the ancient animistic belief Aluk Todolo.

Status and prestige

Men building and decorating a tongkonan

Historically, only the nobility has the right to build these elaborate and beautifully carved tongkonan. The most important noble houses were the seats of political power for local rulers who dominated small groups of villages. Each of these families has a long past, full of myths, mystery, and ancestral achievement. All noble families, of course, have a significant history to justify their claim to wealth and status, whereas most ordinary people live in undecorated houses - mostly bamboo shacks - called banua. Sometimes the status associated with a tongkonan and the people who are allowed to inhabit these houses, varies according to the different areas within Toraja itself.

Three different types of tongkonans can be distinguished. The first is called tongkonan layuk, which belongs to the highest adat authorities. This type of tongkonan used to be the centre of government - a position that even today seems to be respected. The second kind is the tongkonan pekamberan, which belongs to the family clan and group members surrounding the adat functionaries. The third kind is called the tongkonan batu, and belongs to the ordinary people (i.e. not adat functionaries).

The style of the tongkonans has changed slightly over time. The oldest surviving structures are generally small, with only a small curve to the roof. As the house came to embody aristocratic ambitions, it was gradually built higher and the curve of the extended eaves has become more and more exaggerated. As a consequence, the living space inside the tongkonan was reduced due to increased prestige and status, as the exterior of the house grew to be more colourful and exuberant in appearance.

House Decorations

The buffalo head and the mystical Katik
Many house carving designs
are derived from plant and animal motifs. The names of these designs are reminiscent of everyday life, and very humble, for instance, pumpkin vines. Water plants and animals such as crabs, tadpoles, water weeds, and so forth are a sign of fertility. The trailing water plants, lusciously growing in all directions, are often depicted because they are able to multiply rapidly, while still clinging to the central stem. It is hoped that the house descendents will also be numerous and stick to the family clan.

Other carvings represent buffaloes, heirloom embellishments or heavy ears of rice. All of these motifs are connected to the desired wealth and abundance. The main wall poles, on the front of the tongkonan, are always decorated with stylised buffalo heads. On the top of the façade, in the gable triangle, there are images of beetle nut and sunbursts, since some take this part of the tongkonan to represent the Heavens. Of course, being the mediator between earth and heaven, cocks are always a part of the decorations. The most mysterious of all creatures that is sometimes found on the front of a tongkonan is the so-called katik, a big, long-necked bird with a crest on top of its head. This is either a cock, or a mythical bird of the forests. Some, however, claim this is a hornbill, the image of which is often used all over South-East Asia.

Relation with the spiritual world

A modern tongkonan (at a grave sight) with an iron roof
The layout of the Toraja adat houses
is imbued with symbolic meaning. The orientation of the tongkonans has cosmological connotations, and the design of the carved decorations on the front has symbolic significance since it contains a variety of messages about social hierarchy and structure, and the relations to the world of the spirits.
As described above, the creator Puang Matua is associated with the North, and therefore the tongkonan must also face North. The South of the house is associated with the afterworld (heaven, or Puya) and the ancestors. The West and the East are associated with the left and right hands of the human body, but also with the world of the gods (East) and the ancestors in their deified form (West).

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