In Focus

Door of a tomb (tutu’ liang) with human figure

The Sa’dan Toraja are renowned for their family tomb chambers (liang), cut into the living rock and sealed with an almost square wooden door. Particularly famous is the dramatic cliff face full of such tombs, with their balconies of attendant funeral effigies (tau-tau) at Lemo, a village some miles to the north of Ma’kale, but there are many other such sites, often in egg-shaped granite boulders, dotted around the Toraja landscape. The tombs take months to cut out of the rock with chisels, and the stonemasons take payment in buffalo; at least six or seven large buffalo with well-developed horns are still the going rate today. At an earlier historical period before the making of liang, the Toraja placed the bones of their dead in boat-shaped wooden ossuaries decorated with carvings, called erong, some examples of which still survive. Beginning in the 17th century, the neighboring Bugis sometimes made incursions into Toraja territory. It is said that stone tombs were developed as an alternative to the erong, to deter the Bugis from stealing the gold ornaments that might be buried with the high-ranking dead or sewn into the many layers of cloth in which the corpse is wrapped.

The carving on this door, which originates from the western district of Saluputti, is exceptionally fine. The whole figure and its surround are embellished with sinuous carv­ing, much more fluid in execution than is the tightly symmetrical, geometric style that dominates in house carvings today. The motifs include, in the upper part, trailing water weeds (pa’tangke lumu’), while a close variant of this in the lower part is a protective motif called pa’suletong (fence). The design on the figure’s chest could be a form of pa’talinga (buffalo ears, perhaps suggesting his alertness), while that on his arms is called pa’sulan sirendeng (threads knitted together). On his hips is a band of pa’bombo uai (water boatmen). Water weeds are associated with fertility and well-being, while the long-legged insects called water boatmen that skim across the sur­face of the water without sinking evoke an association with rice fields and are also said to symbolize diligence. Most significantly, the interwoven coils of the other motifs, covering the entire surface of the door, are intended to serve a protective function, just like the forbidding stance of the guardian warrior himself. Since the Toraja believe that the ancestors in the tomb bring blessings to the living, this figure serves the dual function of ensuring not only that the dead rest undisturbed but that the living should enjoy peace and long life, too.

Adapted from

Roxana Waterson, "Door of a tomb (tutu'liang) with human figure," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 206.