In Focus

Funerary Figure for an Aristocratic Woman

Tau-tau is the name given to the funeral effigy, smaller than life-size, that is made to commemorate the deceased when a very high-ranking funeral is held, accompanied by the sacrifice of many water buffalo. Only members of the highest-ranking aristocracy (the so-called tana’ bulaan, or “golden stake”) are permitted to have permanent tau-tau. Nobles of the second rank (tana’ bassi, or “iron stake”) are permitted temporary effigies made from bamboo and dressed in cloths, which are discarded after the rituals are completed.

A permanent tau-tau was traditionally made of jackfruit wood, which is very hard and long-lasting, with a rich slightly yellowish tone. Offerings traditionally accompanied every stage of its making, and the spirit of the deceased was thought to linger around it until the mortuary rites had been completed. At night, when the ma’badong circle dance and chants for the deceased were performed, the tau-tau would be placed in the center of the circle, so that the spirit might enjoy the songs performed in its honor. Furthermore, it was believed that the singing itself had the power to assist the spirit to depart on its long journey to the afterlife, Puya, far away in the southwest. To this day, the effigy, at the conclusion of the rites, accompanies the corpse to its final resting place, being installed in a balcony alongside the tomb, from where it can survey the landscape with its familiar rice fields.

This tau-tau is archaic in style and appears to predate even the oldest effigies seen beside Toraja tombs today. It is unusually small (most surviving older tau-tau are about two-thirds life-size) and still more powerfully abstracted in its execution. The bun or hair knot at the back of the head tells us that this is the figure of a woman. In precolonial Toraja society, both men and women wore their hair long, men binding theirs up in a knot on top of the head, while women favored a chignon. The solidity of this figure’s head con­trasts with the effacement of the limbs, weathered by the passage of time. The open mouth, curiously reminiscent for modern viewers of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, creates a height­ened sense of drama.

It is tempting to think that the statue’s mouth might have been intended to receive offerings of betel, since it was customary when seeking the ancestors’ advice or blessing to visit the tomb in order to commune with them through the effigies. More recent surviv­ing tau-tau often have one hand extended to receive the betel quid, the other raised in blessing. However, we cannot verify this expla­nation for the figure’s open mouth, and there is no other extant example known that has this feature. This portrayal of the mouth may have been meant to capture the bearing of an aristocratic woman of authority, accustomed during her lifetime to public speaking and the giving of orders, as she appears to be doing here. In Toraja society, eloquence in public speaking is termed ma’kada muane, “to speak like a man,” but it is not a trait exclusive to men. More important are the rank and personal character of the person concerned.

Excerpt from

Roxana Waterson, "Funerary figure (tau-tau)," 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), 205.

Web Resources

  • Vimeo
    Watch a documentary of a funeral ritual in Tana Toraja, Indonesia.

  • UNESCO ~ Learn more about the Ten Tana Toraja Traditional Settlements.

  • Australian Museum ~ Learn more about burial practices of the Toraja in Sulawesi.