Toraja Religion

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TORAJA RELIGION . The Sa'dan Toraja, a people numbering about 325,000, live in Tana Toraja, the mountainous northern part of the southwest peninsula of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (formerly Celebes). The name Sa'dan is derived from the Sa'dan River, the main stream in the region. Toraja is a contraction of To-ri-aja ("men of the mountains"), a name given the people by their Bugis neighbors. Following local customs, we refer to these people as Toraja.

The region of approximately 3,180 square kilometers, originally heavily forested, has been changed by cultivation. The few remaining forests cover slopes unsuitable for cultivation. The principal means of subsistence is agriculture. Rice, cassava, and maize are the staples; coffee and cloves are the principal cash crops. Animal husbandry is practiced on a large scale, but only the breeding of pigs is of economic importance. The buffalo, a status symbol, is rarely used for work in the fields. The animal has primarily a ritual function, for the superior type of death feast demands the sacrifice of about a hundred buffalo.

Social change began with the introduction of coffee growing and the coffee trade in the last quarter of the previous century. The subduing of the Toraja country by the Dutch (1906), the period of the Japanese occupation (19421945), and the independence of Indonesia (1945) accelerated this process. Tourism, a recent development, has brought further change. The school system introduced by the Dutch government and missionaries opened a new world for a people who had known only an oral tradition. Tana Toraja became the missionary field of the Reformed Alliance of the Dutch Reformed Church and half of the population has been converted to Christianity.

The "Belief of the Old"

The autochthonous religion of the Toraja is called Aluk To Dolo (to dolo literally means "people bygone"), that is, "belief of the old," or "rituals of the ancestors." In this religion, ancestor cult, myth, and ritual are intertwined. During the celebration of major rituals, the to minaa, a priest well versed in tribal lore and history, recites the lengthy litany of the tribe's origins. He tells of how the cosmos and the gods came into being, how man, his food plants, and animals had originated in heaven and were brought down when the first nobleman descended to earth, landing on a mountain. The to manurun, that is, the person of status who descended from heaven, brought with him the entire social order and a complete heavenly household, including a house, slaves, animals, and plants. With the to manurun also came priests: the to minaa, the to burake (the highest rank of religious functionary), the rice priest, and the medicine man. The death priest, however, is not mentioned. The descent of a nobleman was believed to have occurred several times in Toraja history. With regional variations these main themes are found throughout Tana Toraja.

The Tripartite Cosmic World

In the Toraja view, the cosmos is divided into three parts: the upper world, the world of mankind (earth), and the underworld. In the beginning, however, heaven and earth were one expanse of darkness, united in marriage. With their separation came light. Several gods sprang from this mythical marriage. Puang Matua ("the old lord") is the principal god and the deity of heaven. Pong Banggai di Rante ("the master of the plains") is the god of the earth. Gaun ti Kembong ("the swollen cloud"') resides between heaven and earth. Indo' Belo Tumbang ("the lady who dances beautifully") is the goddess of the medicine that cures the sick in the Maro ritual. Pong Tulak Padang is the Toraja Atlas; he carries the earth, not on his shoulders but in the palms of his hands. Together with Puang Matua in the upper world he keeps earth, the world of mankind, in equilibrium, separating night from day. His bad-tempered spouse, Indo' Ongon-ongon, however, upsets the equilibrium by causing earthquakes when she is in a bad mood. She is much feared, as is Pong Lalondong ("the lord who is a cock"). Puya ("the land of souls") lies in the southwest under the earth's surface. The underworld and upper world have other deities, and there are also deata (deities, ghosts) residing on earth and in rivers, canals, wells, trees, and stones. Eels are revered as fertility symbols.

The Bipartite Division of the Rituals

By observing the rules of deities and ancestors, man observes his part in maintaining the equilibrium between the upper worlds and the underworlds. He does so by means of rites and rituals. Rituals are divided into two spheres, one of the east, the Rising Sun or Smoke Ascending (Rambu Tuka), and the other of the west, the Setting Sun or Smoke Descending (Rambu Solo'). The north is associated with the east, the south with the west. Rituals of the Rising Sun are those celebrating joy and life. This category includes birth, marriage, rice ceremonies, and feasts for the well-being of the family, the house, and the community. Ceremonies for healing the sick are also rituals of the Rising Sun; yet to the extent that sickness poses a danger to the community the rituals of healing share some traits with those of the Setting Sun. The Setting Sun ritual is associated with darkness, night, and, of course, with death. With the exception of the healing rituals, the ritual spheres of east and west are kept quite distinct from one another.

The most important ritual of the eastern sphere is the Bua' feast, a ceremony for a whole territory, the Bua' community. During this feast the burake in some districts a priestess, in others a priest who is considered a hermaphroditeimplores the gods of heaven to bestow their benevolence on the community. Another feast of importance is the Merok, held for the welfare of a large family. At the center of the Merok is the tongkonan, the dwelling founded by the family's first ancestor. The most important of these houses are the ones considered to have been founded by a to manurun. These major rituals of the east have their ritual counterparts in high-ranking death feasts. Ritualizing the dead is a major focus of Toraja culture. A ranking order in funerals exists that corresponds to the status of the deceased. Toraja society is a stratified one, with much emphasis laid on the display of wealth. By the efforts and the devotion of the family, and through the expenditure lavished on buffalo, entertainment, and care of the death priest, the deceased of rank will reach Puya. After being judged by Pong Lalondong he climbs a mountain and reaches heaven. There he will occupy a place among the deified ancestors, who form a constellation that guards mankind and the rice. Thus the spheres of death and life, notwithstanding an apparent opposition, meet each other.

See Also

Southeast Asian Religions, article on Insular Cultures.


Bigalke, Terance Williams. A Social History of Tana Toraja, 18751965. Ann Arbor, 1981.

Jannel, Claude, and Frédéric Lontcho. Laissez venir ceux qui pleurent: Fête pour un mort Toradja (Indonésie ). Place and date of publication not given. Includes translations of Toraja poems by Jeannine Koubi.

Koubi, Jeannine. Rambu Solo', la fumée descend. Paris, 1982.

Lanting, H. Th. "Nota van den Controleur van Makale/Rantepao." In Memorie van Overgave, Archives of the Netherlands Ministry of Home Affairs. The Hague, 1926.

Nobele, E. A. J. "Memorie van Overgave betreffende de Onderafdeeling Makale." Tijdschrift/Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen 60 (1926): 1144.

Nooy-Palm, Hetty. The Sa'dan-Toraja: A Study of Their Social Life and Religion. 2 vols. The Hague, 1986.

Veen, Hendrik van der. Tae' (Zuid-Toradjasch ) Nederlandsch Woordenboek. The Hague, 1940.

Volkman, Toby, "The Riches of the Undertaker." Indonesia 28 (1979): 116.

New Sources

Chambert-Loir, H., A. Reid, and Australian National University. The Potent Dead: Ancestors, Saints and Heroes in Contemporary Indonesia. Honolulu, 2002.

Klass, M., and M. K. Weisgrau. Across the Boundaries of Belief: Contemporary Issues in the Anthropology of Religion. Boulder, Colo., 1999.

Kobong, T. Evangelium und Tongkonan: Eine Untersuchung über die Begegnung zwischen christlicher Botschaft und der Kultur der Toraja. Hamburg, 1989.

Kotilainen, E. M. When the Bones are Left: A Study of the Material Culture of Central Sulawesi. Helsinki, 1992.

Yampolsky, P., and Masyarakat Seni Pertunjukan Indonesia. Sulawesi Festivals, Funeral and Work. Washington, D.C., 1999.

Hetty Nooy-Palm (1987)

Revised Bibliography