In Focus

Male figure and water buffalo head from a house façade

This hardwood carving is one of a pair that came from the façade of an aristocratic ancestor house (tongkonan) in Osango, Mamasa Toraja. It was positioned on the left-hand corner post below the gable triangle. The whole is painted in red and black; the figure appears to be wearing on his upper chest a beaded collar or heirloom ornament (kandaure). Beads were considered to be powerfully protective objects and were also a mark of nobility. The disk-shaped object pendant from his waist represents his betel-bag (sepu’). The zigzag patterns on the legs suggest that he is also wearing seppa, traditional knee-length trousers, though it is also possible that these patterns represent tattoos formerly worn by warriors.

The matching figure from the right-hand post is now in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Between the two figures, in the center of the façade, was a third figure astride a ship’s prow that rested on the back of a naga or water serpent, the latter a widespread symbol of the underworld in Southeast Asian cosmologies.

The sculpting of three-dimensional human figures on the façades of houses is not found among the Sa’dan Toraja, but is a feature unique to Mamasa. One of the buffalo sacrificed at high-ranking funerals (those divided into two stages, called rapasan sundun) is designated to become the deceased’s mode of transport on his or her journey to the afterlife; therefore these figures are a way of indicating that the house descendants have succeeded in celebrating a funeral at this level. In this sense, the figures are com­parable in function to the three-dimensional buffalo head called kabongo’, mounted in the center of the tongkonan façade, which marks the same achievement among the Sa’dan Toraja. They may at the same time be read as ancestor figures, guarding the corners of the house and protecting the present-day inhabitants.

Adapted from

Roxana Waterson, "Male figure and water buffalo head from a house façade," 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), 186.

Web Resources

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: See the matching figure from the right-hand post