Tana Toraja Traditional Settlement

Tana Toraja is located in the Northern part of the South Sulawesi Province. Situated between Latimojong Mountain range and Mount Reute Kambola. The arible Toraja consists of three groups. The Eastern around lake Poso, Western Toraja living around the Palu river and Kalawi in Centre Sulawesi

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Traditional Toraja House in Kete Kesu Village, Tana Toraja – South Sulawesi
Traditional Toraja House in Kete Kesu Village, Tana Toraja – South Sulawesi

The Specific architecture of Torajan house has its own architecture form. Torajan house are shaped like a bout and the two ends are shaped like the bow.

Torajan house is a compound buildings consist of traditional houses (Tongkonan) and rice storage buildings (Lumbung). The building are sculpted with ornaments of various shapes. The ornament is painted with traditional colour dominated with the black and red colour. All of them create the aesthetic value of the building of Torajan houses.

Toraja Demography

Toraja is a name of Bugis origin given to the different peoples of the mountainous regions of the northern part of the south peninsula, which have remained isolated until quite recently Their native religion is megalithic and animistic, and is characterized by animal sacrifices, ostentatious funeral rites and huge communal feasts. The Toraja only began to lose faith in their religion after 1909, when Protestant missionaries arrived in the wake of the Dutch colonizers.


Nowadays roughly 60% of the Toraja are Christian, and 10% are Muslim; the rest hold in some measure to their original religion. Whatever their religious belief, it is their ancestral home, their ‘house of origin’, the great banua Toraja with its saddleback roof and dramatically upswept roof ridge ends, that is the cultural focus for every Toraja. This house of origin is also known as a tongkonan, a name derived from the Toraja word for ‘to sit’; it literally means the place where family membets meet – to discuss important affairs, to take part in ceremonies and to make arrangements for the refurbishment of the house.

The Toraja are divided up geographically into different groups, the most important of which are the Mamasa, who are centred around the isolated Kalumpang valley, and the Sa’dan of the southern Toraja lands. There have never been any strong, lasting political groupings within the Toraja. The Sa’dan area, with its market towns of Makale and Rantepao, is known as Tana Toraja. Good roads now reach Tana Toraja from Ujung Panjang, the capital of Sulawesi, bringing a large seasonal influx of foreign tourists who, while injecting money into the local economy, have not yet had much lasting affect on local people’s lives.

Village Pattern

In former times, Toraja villages were sited strategically on hilltops and fortified to such an extent that sometimes access was only possible through tunnels bored through rock. This was all part of the then common Indonesian custom of head-hunting and inter-village raids. The Dutch pacified the Toraja and forced them to leave the hills and to build their villages in the valleys, and they also introduced wet-rice cultivation. The Toraja abandoned their traditional slashand-burn agricultural policy and now live by rice-farming, and raising pigs and beautiful buffalo.

The Toraja are a proto-Malay people whose origins lie in mainland South-East Asia (possibly Cambodia). Toraja legends claim that they arrived from the north by sea. Caught in a violent storm, their boats were so damaged as to be unseaworthy, so instead they used them as roofs for their new homes. The tongkonan, with their boat-shaped roofs, always face towards the north.

Style and Construction

Tongkonan are built on wooden piles. They have saddleback roofs whose gables sweep up at an even more exaggerated pitch than those of the Toba Barak. Traditionally, the roof is constructed with layered bamboo, and the wooden structure of the house assembled in tongue-and-groove fashion without nails. Nowadays, of course, zinc roofs and nails are used increasingly.

The construction of a traditional rumah adat is time-consuming and complex, and requires the employment of skilled craftsmen. First of all, seasoned timber is collected, then a shed of bamboo scaffolding with a bamboo shingle roof is erected. Here, components of the house are prefabricated, though the final assembly will take place at the actual site. Almost invariably now, tongkonan are raised on vertical piles rather than on a substructure of the log-cabin type, so al the wooden piles are shaped and mortises cut in them to take the horizontal tie beams. The piles are notched at the top to accommodate the longitudinal and transverse beams of the upper structure
. The substucture is then assembled at the final site. Next, the transverse beams are fitted into the piles, then notched and the longitudinal beams set into them, and the grooved uprights that will form the frame for the side walls are pegged in place.


Thin side panels are cut to the dimensions decided on by the woodcarver who is going to decorate them, and slotted in, The two outermost uprights of each transverse wall pass through the upper horizontal wall beam and, being forked at the upper end, carry the parallel horizontal beams that support the rafters. A narrow hardwood post, also forked at the top and set into the central longitudinal floor beam, runs up each transverse wall, is anchored to the upper wall beam and carries the ridge purlin. The rafters are laid over the ridge purlin, whose extended ends rest on the triangular overhanging gables. An upper ridge pole is then laid in the crosses formed by the rafters, and the ridge pole and ridge purlin lashed together with rattan.

To obtain the increasingly curved roof so popular with the Toraja, the ends of the upper ridge pole must be slotted through the centres of short vertical hanging spars, whose upper halves support the first of the upwardly angled beams at the front and rear of the house, which in turn slots through the centre of further short vertical hanging spars that carry the second upwardly angled beam. The sections of the ridge pole projecting beyond the ridge purlin are supported front and back by a freestanding pole. Transverse ties pass through both the hanging spars and the freestanding posts to support the rafters of the projecting roof. Before the roof is fitted, stones are placed under the piles. The roof is made of bamboo staves bound together with rattan and assembled transversely in layers over an under-roof of bamboo poles, which are tied longitudinally to the rafters. Flooring is of wooden boards laid over thin hardwood joists.

A new tongkonan at Pa’tengko, just outside Makale, took eight men three months to build, and six men one month to carve and paint the outside wall panels. There is no carving inside recently built Toraja houses, but on occasion timbers from old houses are reused in the construction of new ones. In Bintu Lepang, in the Solo district of Tana Toraja, there is a house which dates from about 1950 that was made out of beams and posts from three older houses. Here old carved exterior beams were incorporated into the new interior. This tongkonan was notorious for housing an unburied corpse from 1964 until 1992, as a result of a dispute between the dead woman’s adopted children. The body was soaked in coffee to preserve it and wrapped in over fifty of her textiles to smother the smell and to stop the heirs from squabbling over the them. The government finally had to order the funeral to take place.

Social Organization


Toraja society is extremely hierarchical, comprising nobility, commoners and a lower class who were formerly slaves. Villagers are only permitte to decor their house with the symbols and motifs appropriate to their social station. The gables and the wooden wall panels are incised with geometric, spiralling designs and motifs such as buffalo heads and cockerels painted in red, white, yellow and black, the colours that represent the various festivals of Aluk To Dolo (‘the Way of the Ancestors’), the indigenous Torala religion. Black symbolizes death and darkness; yellow, God’s blessing and power; white, the colour of flesh and bone, means purity; and red, the colour of blood, symbolizes human life. The pigments used were of readily available materials, soot for black, lime for white and coloured earth for red and yellow; tuak (palm wine) was used to strengthen the colours.

The artists who decorated the house were traditionally paid with buffalo. The majority of the carvings on Toraja houses and granaries signify prosperity and fertility, and the motifs used are those important to the owner’s family. Circular motifs represent the sun, the symbol of power, a golden keris (knife) symbolizes wealth and buffalo heads stand for prosperity and ritual sacrifice. Many of the designs are associated with water, which in itself symbolizes life, fertility and prolific rice fields. Tadpoles and water-weeds, both of which breed rapidly, represent hopes for many children.

Many of the motifs that adorn the houses and granaries of the Toraja are identical to those found on the bronze kettle drums of the Dong-Son. Others, such as the square cross motif, are thought to have Hindu-Buddhist origins or to have been copied from Indian trade cloths. The cross is used by the Christian Toraja as a decorative design emblematic of their faith. On the front wall of the most important houses of origin is mounted a realistically carved wooden buffalo head, adorned with actual horns. This emblem may only be added to the house after one of the most important funeral rites has been celebrated.

Village layout varies according to size. As a general rule, in the larger settlements of Tana Toraja the houses are arranged in a row, side by side, with their front gables facing north

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. Each house stands opposite its own rice barn, and together these form a complementary row parallel to the houses. Roofs are aligned on a north-south axis. Houses of the Mamasa Toraja are not orientated in this way but follow the direction of the river, and their rice barns are set at right-angles to the houses. The major agricultural ceremonies of the Toraja year are celebrated in the area between the houses and the barns.


To the Toraja, the tongkonan is more than just a structure. The symbol of family identity and tradition, representing all the descendants of a founding ancestor, it is the focus of ritual life. It forms the most important nexus within the web of kindship. Torajans may have difficulty defining their exact relationship to distant kind, but can always name the natal houses of parents, grandparents and sometimes distant ancestors, for they consider themselves to be related through these houses. Descent amongst the Toraja is traced bilaterally – that is, through both the male and female line. People therefore belong to more than one house. Membership of these houses only requires the kinsman’s active participation at times of ceremony, the division of an inheritance or when a house is rebuilt.

Although the tongkonan has become identified by outsiders as being representative of all Toraja building, it is only the nobility and their descendants who can afford both the building of the houses themselves and the enormous ritual feasts associated with them. Noble Toraja can claim affiliation to a particular tongkonan as descendants of the founding ancestor, through the male or female line. This association is periodically confirmed through contributions to the ceremonial feasts given by the tongkonan household. Commoners customarily lived in smaller, simpler houses and acted as helpers at these communal feasts. Commoners trace their descent through their own houses of origin. These, although of simpler design and decoration, may still be known as tongkonan.


Upon marriage, Toraja men will usually go to live with their wives. If they later divorce, the husband is the one who will leave, his ex-wife being left in possession of a house that he may have spent much time, energy and money on refurbishing. He is often compensated by being given the rice barn, which he dismantles and removes. The tongkonan is never moved. One important reason for this is that a large number of placentae are buried to the east side of the house (east is associated with life in Tora’a mythology). The placentae, buried by the fathers of new-born children, are believed to call them back if in their adult life they ever journey a long way from home, so ensuring that they will always return to their house of origin.

As in so many places in modern Indonesia, the traditional house, with its cramped, dark, smoky interior, has lost its attraction for many Torala (although it still commands great ritual prestige). Many have opted for a ground-built, concrete, single-storey house in the contemporary Pan-Indonesian style, and some have adopted a wooden, pile-built Bu ‘s-type dwelling. Others who are more inclined towards tradition may add an extra storey and a saddleback roof; this provides more living space and room for furniture whilst retaining something of the prestige the tongkonan affords its owner.

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