Peoples & Societies

The Toraja of Sulawesi

The whole of the Indonesian archipelago is characterized by an astounding cultural diversity, and Sulawesi, whose peoples speak sixty-two distinct languages, is no exception. Those of South Sulawesi, with whom we are mainly concerned, are broadly divisible into three groups: the Bugis and Makassar of the lowland areas and the Toraja of the mountainous north. Most of the items in the Dallas Museum of Art collection come from the Toraja regions or from neigh­boring areas immediately to the north, such as Seko, Rongkong, and Kalumpang. The collection includes some of the finest known examples of sacred cloths locally produced by the Sa’dan Toraja. These textiles were the precious heirlooms of noble houses, care­fully stored in attics inside tightly woven baskets and taken out only to be displayed during major rituals. There are also some splendid examples of ikat weaving from Kalumpang.

The Toraja occupy the northern highlands of South Sulawesi, a distance of around 185 miles from the provincial capital, Makassar, on the southwest coast. Numbering around four hundred and fifty thousand, they are mostly subsistence farmers, growing rice in rain-fed or irrigated hill terraces, along with cassava, maize, and a variety of vegetables, as well as cash crops of coffee, chocolate, cloves, and vanilla. Nowadays most families also hope to have members working outside the homeland, whose remittances provide an important source of extra cash.

The name “Toraja” derives from the Bugis to ri aja, or “people of the mountains” (as opposed to to luu’, “people of the coast,” from which the name “Luwu’” derives). Dutch linguists and missionar­ies applied the name “Toraja” to several groups in Central Sulawesi as well, but it is only among the Toraja of South Sulawesi that the name has stuck. These people are sometimes called the Sa’dan Toraja (after the Sa’dan River that flows through their lands from north to south). Their territory became known only in the 1930s as Tana Toraja (Land of the Toraja). Since 2008, the Kabupaten, or Regency of Tana Toraja, has been split into two parts. The name now refers to the southern part, with its main town of Ma’kale, while the north, centered around the town of Rantepao, has taken the name “Toraja Utara” (North Toraja). But most Toraja will insist that, in spite of minor variations, both halves still share the same culture. Immediately to the west live the Mamasa Toraja, whose lan­guage and culture are closely related, though with some variations.

All of the peoples of South Sulawesi are Muslim, except the Toraja. Islam was introduced here in the early 17th cen­tury, by which time the lowland Bugis and Makassar peoples had become divided into a number of small centralized polities. These kingdoms became Muslim in the 17th century. In the rugged territories of the Toraja highlands, however, people contin­ued to live in scattered autonomous settlements under their local chiefs. They had successfully resisted the formation of any central­ized state and remained unreceptive to Islam. In the precolonial era, Toraja nobles picked their own quarrels and competed among themselves for power and influence. Local feuds were common, in pursuit of which the warriors (to barani) of either side would wage pitched battles with limited casualties. War dances (pa’randing) are still a feature of some high-ranking funerals today.

In the late 19th century, several powerful chiefs formed alliances with Bugis mercenaries who were competing to control the Toraja coffee trade, and who also traded in slaves. There was an escalation of warfare as the Bugis supplied rifles to some headmen who cooperated with them in raiding weaker villages, seizing lands, and capturing people to be sold as slaves in the lowlands. These predations devastated some outlying regions, while the most powerful chiefs became locked in a struggle to expand their own territories, a process abruptly halted by Dutch colonization in 1905. The fact that the Dutch imposed peace after such a chaotic period in Toraja history is perhaps one reason the colonial period is not remembered here with as much bitterness as in many other parts of the archipelago.

The Toraja had their own religion, which until recent times was so much a part of the everyday rhythms of life and cultivation in their mountain valleys that it needed no name of its own. Since the 1950s, this religion has become known as Aluk To Dolo (Way of the Ancestors), or simply Alukta (Our Way). Ironically, however, this Way is acknowledged by fewer and fewer Toraja, as the vast majority have by now chosen to convert to Christianity. Calvinist Christianity was first introduced by the Dutch, in the form of the Dutch Reformed Church Mission, in 1913. South and Central Sulawesi were among the last parts of Indonesia to be incorpo­rated into the Dutch colonial empire; hence the period of colonial rule for the Toraja was a short one, lasting a mere thirty-seven years, until the Japanese Occupation of 1942. At the time of Dutch intervention, some of the Toraja nobility, having had long historical contacts with lowland courts, were considering becoming Muslim. Concerned to check any such expansion of Islam, the Dutch sought (as elsewhere in the archipelago) to convert this highland region to Christianity. The pace of conversion during the decades of Dutch rule was exceedingly slow; by 1930, only about 1 percent of Toraja had accepted the new religion, and the figure was still only 10 per­cent in 1950.

The impact of the Christian Mission took a long time to be felt, but its pioneering contributions to education and the provision of health services in the region had an impact far beyond what these meager statistics would suggest. Today, in addition to the Toraja Church (Gereja Toraja), long independent of the Mission, there is also a minority of Catholics, and as many as twenty or so more recently established Pentecostal churches. Nearly all schoolteach­ers are Christian, while the indigenous religion, Alukta, has no place in the school curriculum. As a result, children are very much influ­enced in favor of Christianity, and conversions have accelerated tremendously in the past few decades. From its first introduction by the Dutch in the early 20th century, Christianity has been aligned with modernity, such that most young people today per­ceive their indigenous beliefs as old-fashioned, if indeed they still know anything about them. However, it is within this context of the Way of the Ancestors that we must make sense of the won­derfully vibrant objects in the DMA collection, because that is the world in which they were created and used, and within which they had meaning.

The indigenous Toraja cosmology envisioned the world as divided into three main layers—the earth, underworld, and upper world—all of them inhabited by the immanent powers of the deities (deata). When sky and earth first separated out of chaos, the deities of these three layers came into being: Puang Banggairante (Lord of the Broad Plain) ruled the middle world, and Pong Tulakpadang (Lord Who Supports the Earth) dwelt at first in the sky but later descended to become the deity of the underworld, while Gaun Tikembong (Cloud That Expands by Itself) was the deity of the air.

There is no consistent pantheon or dogma associated with the Aluk To Dolo; every area had its own particular pattern of beliefs giving greater or lesser importance to these beings, their wives, and a multitude of other deities. One deity in particular was widely rec­ognized and gained much greater prominence when the Christian Bible was translated into Toraja, for his name was chosen as the translation of “God.” This is Puang Matua, the Old Lord of the heav­ens, who according to myth created humans and many other things in his forge in the sky and lowered them down to earth.

The dramatic and complex rituals of Alukta are broadly divided into two categories, those of the East and the West. Rites of the East (also referred to as Aluk Rambu Tuka’, Smoke of the Rising [Sun]) encompass all those connected with the enhancement of life and fertility, including celebrations for the building or rebuild­ing of ancestral origin houses (tongkonan), agricultural rites, and rituals to ward off sickness, which customarily involved trancing. Rites of the West (Aluk Rambu Solo’, Smoke of the Setting [Sun]) are mortuary rituals, of many levels of complexity depending on the rank and wealth of the deceased. Ancestors are associated with the West, deities with the East. On the one hand, the Christian Church has been particularly opposed to the Rites of the East, and a large part of these have now all but disappeared, except for house ceremonies. Mortuary rites, on the other hand, continue to be vigorously performed, albeit in Christianized form, and have even become more and more elaborate and expensive. The prices of livestock (buffalo and pigs) required for funeral sacrifice have undergone staggering inflation over the past few decades, fed by ever spiraling demand and the wealth transmitted to the home­land by those who have made successful careers in Jakarta, and remittances from the many Toraja who are now earning their living in other parts of Indonesia.

Adapted from

  • Roxana Waterson, "The Art of Sulawesi," 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), 173-178.