Cultures & Traditions

Toraja Ancestral Origin Houses (tongkonan)

The focal point of Toraja kinship organization and social life is the ancestral origin house. These houses are pile-built structures, with characteristically curved and extended roofs, so cantilevered that the eaves must be supported on special free­standing posts at the front and the rear. Those of the nobility are especially imposing, being covered with elaborate carved designs painted in black, white, red, and yellow. The house comes to have a life history of its own, as special ornaments are added to it in rec­ognition of high-ranking ceremonies that have been performed there.

For example, among the Sad'an Toraja, a sculpted buffalo head with horns (kabongo’) in the center of the façade indicates that the highest-ranking form of funeral rite has been carried out for one of its members; if this is surmounted by the katik (a long-necked bird representing a hornbill or mythical cock), which may also appear transformed into the head of a naga or underworld dragon, it means that the highest level in the Rites of the East has also been achieved. These rites 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 of sickness. Among the Mamasa Toraja to the west, houses were built in a massive style, often with very fine carving. While the roof is given less upward curve and the eaves are less pointed, the extensions to the roof can be so huge as to require not one but two freestanding posts for their support. The facades of these houses also figured the motif of the buffalo. One of the buffalo sacrificed at high-ranking funerals is said to become the deceased’s mode of transport on his or her journey to the afterlife; the figures thus commemorate the holding of this prestigious rite and, at the same time, serve as ancestral guardians, protecting their descendants. All these motifs, and their combination, have a wide distribution in Southeast Asia, indicative of their great antiquity. While generally associated with rank and prestige (and also in many instances with headhunting), they have at the same time acquired quite specific meanings among the Toraja.

Genealogies always begin from a married couple who founded a house. Most people cannot trace their family trees very far back, but those who are descendants of politically important noble houses may be able to recount their genealogy to a depth of thirty gen­erations or so. The founding ancestors of these houses are often mythical beings, the “descended ones,” or to manurun, or, to give them their full name, “ones who descended from the sky, ones who rose up out of a pool,” since of these couples, the man is said to have descended from the sky and the woman, equally mysteri­ously, to have risen out of a deep river pool before meeting to found their house on the earth.

The former ruling houses of the aristocracy are fixed in number, but even a more ordinary house may over time acquire the status of “origin house” for its descendants. This happens with the birth of many children, whose placentae are buried on the east side of the house, and also with repeated rebuilding, which, if the family can afford it, is undertaken every twenty years or so, even if the house is still in livable condition. Completion of rebuilding is marked by the celebration of a ritual called mangrara banua; this is one impor­tant Rite of the East that continues to be celebrated today, often in Christianized form. Toraja trace their descent bilaterally from both parents, and all children have equal rights of inheritance. A man most commonly moves to live with his wife at marriage, which means that, as well as inheriting land, a woman often has rights over the house, which is built on her family’s land. If there is a divorce, the husband is then the one who has to leave, though he may be permitted to take the rice barn as his share.

People maintain ties to the houses that were the birthplaces of their parents and grandparents, and potentially to numerous other houses where more distant ancestors were born. These ties entail ritual responsibilities, especially to give help at funerals and to contribute to the costs of periodic rebuilding, with its accompany­ing sacrifices and final celebration. When a man and woman marry, they are enjoined to maintain a balance in their contributions to the rituals of both sides of the family.

Houses are closely linked to land and to the rock-cut family tombs called liang, which form another remarkable feature in the Toraja landscape. Some are cut into cliffs, while others have been chiseled out of egg-shaped granite boulders. Beside these tomb chambers are balconies in which the tau-tau, or effigies of the deceased, are placed. Only those whose funerals are celebrated at the highest level are entitled to have such an effigy. At the present time, liang are increasingly being replaced by tombs cut in the earth (patane), topped with a miniature house in concrete. In some cases, this is because the liang has become full after generations of use, and this latter type is cheaper to make; in others, it is because some Christian Toraja now declare themselves uncomfortable at the thought of interment alongside their pagan ancestors.

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.