Experience Toraja Culture, Architecture

Sulawesi is one of the most interesting destinations in Indonesia. It’s known for its world-class scuba diving, but inland adventures are equally as rewarding.

For example, Toraja land is a mountainous region of South Sulawesi. There are approximately 650,000 Torajans. Most of them still live in Tana Toraja (Toraja land).

Prior to the 20th century, Torajans were largely untouched by the outside world. Dutch missionaries converted many Torajans to Christianity in the early 1900s. By the 1990s, Toraja society and culture evolved rapidly. Many Torajans still follow traditional beliefs, called aluk.

Aluk is a combination of law, religion and life. It governs social life, agricultural practices and ancient rituals. The practices vary from one village to another.

The Toraja people grow rice and raise buffalo. Like most Indonesians, they balance work and religion on a daily basis.

Harvest festivals and house warming festivals are times for feasting and a gathering of the clan. They wear their best costumes and jewelry and drink tuak (a local brew). The parties last for days.

Family is the primary social and political grouping in Torajan society. Each village is one extended family, the seat of which is the tongkonan, a traditional Torajan house. Each Tongkonan has a name, which becomes the name of the village.

Once, there were three social classes—nobles, commoners, and slaves (slavery was abolished in 1909 by the Dutch East Indies government). Class was inherited through the mother. It was taboo, therefore, for a man to marry down in class. On the other hand, marrying a woman of higher class could improve the status of the next generation.

Nobles lived in Tongkonans, while commoners lived in bamboo huts. Slaves lived in even smaller huts. Some nobles married the nobles from other cultures on the island, including Bugis and Makassarese nobles. Commoners and slaves were prohibited from having death feasts. A marriage or change in wealth could affect an individual’s status. Wealth is counted by the ownership of water buffaloes.

Slaves in Toraja society were family property. Sometimes Torajans decided to become slaves when they incurred a debt, pledging to work as payment. Slaves could be taken during wars, and slave trading was common. Slaves could buy their freedom, but their children still inherited slave status. Slaves were prohibited from wearing bronze or gold, carving their houses, eating from the same dishes as their owners, or having sex with non-slaves.

Among the so-called commoners, Toraja society is very community oriented. Families helps each other farm, share buffalo rituals and pay off debts.

The ethnic Toraja language is known as Sa’dan Toraja. Although bahasa Indonesia is the official language and is spoken in the community, all elementary schools in Tana Toraja teach the language and its local dialects, including Kalumpang, Mamasa, Tae’, Talondo’, Toala’, and Toraja-Sa’dan. These dialects are derivatives of Malayo-Polynesian language.

Grief is a prominent theme in Toraja language. The language contains many terms referring to sadness, longing, depression, and mental pain. They believe that communicating and sharing emotions is part of kinship and healing.

In Torajaland, they eat rice at every meal. If there is enough money to buy vegetables in the market, or if the family is growing them at home, they are eaten on the side with the rice. Chickens are occasionally killed and eaten. After funeral or other ceremonies, there is usually pork or buffalo meat. Fruit trees, including mango, papaya, pineapple, bananas, are part of every community.

Pork, chicken, and fish are cooked for about an hour in a bamboo tube over an open fire. Chicken bamboo is made of sliced bamboo, chicken pieces, ginger, onion, garlic, and ground coconut. Pork and fish bamboo is made of the meat, green vegetables, and onion and garlic. Vegetables are always peeled and cooked before they are eaten. In Toraja culture, they usually eat with their hands. Traditionally, men and women do not eat together. Women and girls serve the men and boys first, and after they are finished eating, the women and girls eat. Guests are always served first, as well. Traditional bowls are made of wood.

In Torajan culture, people perform dances on several occasions. Torajans dance and sing during harvest time to celebrate the annual event. A dance is performed while Torajans are pounding rice. There are several war dances performed by men, followed by a similar performance by women. The aluk religion governs when and how Torajans dance. A sacred dance called Ma’bua can be performed only once every 12 years. In the Ma’bua performance, priests wear a buffalo head and dance around a sacred tree. A traditional musical instrument of the Toraja is a bamboo flute, which is played at many dances.

In Toraja culture, everything is shared, including food, clothes, and money. Once you are in the community, you are expected to share what you have. At the same time, people will share everything with you. There is no such thing as privacy. Everyone knows everything about everybody. The community and the family are more important than the individual. Whatever money one member of the family earns, she/he must share with the rest of the family. Children who make money share it with their family members.

Tuak is a local alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap from a palm tree. Tuak, it is extremely crude, but it works.

In the past, parents arranged most marriages. People were not allowed to marry someone from another caste. Now, some marriages are still arranged, but marriages based on love are much more common. Although marriage between members of different castes is permitted, it is still not common, because of the economic factor. Traditionally, the husband’s family had to give the bride’s family a number of buffaloes. During wedding ceremonies, the bride and groom are supposed to look as serious as possible. After marriage, the couple lives in the wife’s village. Women own the homes.

Animals are a symbol of wealth. Torajans work to have as many chickens, pigs, and water buffalo as possible. Chickens are treated like pets. They are coddled and carried around. Goldfish and ducks are kept in the rice fields. Dogs run free and guard the village from outsiders. Cats live in the kitchen to keep the mice away.

Torajans have a very unique burial ceremony called rambu solo. In the beliefs of aluk, the dead must be prepared and buried properly in order to reach heaven. Without the rambu solo ceremony, the soul of the deceased is lost. Until the funeral is held, the dead are treated as though they are merely sick or weak. The family keeps the corpse at home. Although embalmed, they still give the deceased food and drink. Some corpses are kept for years until the family can afford a rambu solo ceremony.

Funerals are a reflection of social status and social status requires animal sacrifice for the funeral of the deceased. A noble family will slaughter up to 100 buffalo when a family member dies. Middle status families will slaughter eight buffalos and 50 pigs.

Torajans believe that the sacrificed buffaloes lead the deceased to their afterlife. After the buffalo are sacrificed, the deceased person is ready for burial. Funerals last all day and include buffalo fighting, dances and music. At the climax of the event, they wrap the corpse and place gold and silver ornaments on the chest of the deceased.

The noblemen are often buried in a stone grave carved into the stone cliff. A carved figurine is placed in the grave and placed so that it looks down on the villagers below. Some of these cave graves are large enough to accommodate an entire family.

Tourists are welcome to Tanah Toraja. When funerals are scheduled, tourists are encouraged to participate in these unique celebrations of life and death.

Indonesia is the fourth-largest nation in the world with more than 267 million people. The country has more than 17,500 islands, including Bali, Borneo, Java, Lombok, Sumatra and Sulawesi. Learn more about Indonesia.

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