Sa'dan Toraja

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Sa'dan Toraja

LOCATION: ndonesia (Sulawesi)
LANGUAGE: Sa'dan Toraja (Bahasa Tae')
RELIGION: Christianity (64% Protestant, 12% Catholic); Aluk To Dolo ("the Way of the Ancestors")
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Indonesians


Since converting to Islam in the 17th century, the lowland peoples of South Sulawesi have applied the term "Toraja" to all highlanders who retained their ancestral animism. Dutch colonial anthropology began to distinguish numerous distinct ethnic groups in the mountains at the heart of Sulawesi, roughly grouping them into "Eastern," "Western," and "Southern" Toraja. Of these groups, only the "Southern Toraja," associated with the valley of the Sa'dan River and the most well known internationally, have taken the originally pejorative term as their own (in this article, "Toraja" will only refer to the Sa'dan Toraja).

While substantial kingdoms developed in lowland South Sulawesi as early as the 14th century or before, the Toraja knew no political units larger than village confederations (tondok) until the beginning of the 20th century. The Toraja remember only one fleeting episode of unity: a common front put up against Arung Palakka, the Bugis ally of the Dutch East India Company in the destruction of Makassar, whose hegemonic ambitions reached even into the highlands. The tondok was an association that could comprise as little as a cluster of two to three houses or encompass as much as a network of families stretching across the highlands; a tondok wove ties of marriage and ritual between often remote settlements while excluding nearby ones. In the highlands, possession of land and the slaves to work it were the key to social prominence, making an individual a to kapua, a "big man." The meat from animal sacrifices was (and remains) the medium that affirmed status and represented relations of obligation.

In the late 19th century, population growth made land ever scarcer, leaving the land-poor and land-less vulnerable to enslavement for nonpayment of debts. The slave trade flourished as labor was needed both in the lowlands and for growing coffee, the new and very lucrative export crop, in the highlands; one estimate counts as many as 12,000 Toraja sold into captivity. Slave raiding and warfare over land rights and trade routes became so intense that villages placed themselves on hilltops encircled by fortifications and connected themselves to neighboring settlements with underground tunnels.

As part of their general pacification of South Sulawesi, the Dutch sent armies into the Toraja highlands, by 1908 overcoming resistance led by the to kapua, Pong Tiku, master of the coffee traffic to Bone via Luwu (his only rival was the master of the alternate Sidenreng-to-Pare-Pare route to the west). The colonial peace ended the slave trade and introduced schools, clinics, and imported cotton cloth. In a pattern repeated all over the archipelago, the to kapua collaborated with the Dutch as officials in the newly imposed bureaucracy.

The years since World War II have transformed Toraja society. The lowland Kahar Muzakkar rebellion of 1950-1965 [seeBugis ] washed up into the highlands. Under the fear of forced Islamization, thousands of Toraja sought the legal protection of conversion to Christianity (a trend accelerated under the New Order's "anti-communist" suspicion of paganism). In recent decades, voluntary emigration, including of educated professionals, has replaced the old efflux of slaves and has brought new wealth back into the Toraja homeland. Beginning in the 1980s, the Indonesian government heavily promoted the Toraja region as a destination for international tourism (even putting traditional Toraja noble houses, tongkonan, on the 5,000 rupiah note, about as common as sight to Indonesians as Lincoln on the $5 bill is to Americans, signaling that Torajan culture, like Balinese culture, had come to be viewed as emblematic of the national identity). Attracted to the dramatic landscape and to "exotic" rituals, mass tourism has also created new opportunities as well as problems for the Toraja.

Since the end of the Suharto regime in 1998, political instability in Indonesia, including internationally publicized inter-ethnic/sectarian violence in neighboring Central Sulawesi has caused a sharp decline in tourism to the Toraja homeland, challenging a local society that had become dependent upon it. Torajans have stood against the spread of ethnic violence to their region as when, soon after anti-Chinese rioting had burned down a thousand homes and businesses in Ujungpandang (Makassar), the capital of South Sulawesi in September 1997, Torajans linked arms to block Muslim agitators from outside the Toraja region from attacking Chinese shops in the major tourist town of Rantepao. At the same time, Muslim transmigrants, as elsewhere in Indonesia, started to consider returning to their homelands, fearing persecution by Toraja and Chinese for what other Muslims had attempted to do. In 2001, Toraja identity received international validation when the Ke'te' Kesu', the village showcasing the finest examples of tongkonan, was nominated to join the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites, alongside the monumental architecture of Java's Borobudur and Prambanan, also non-Muslim icons of identity for the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.


The Sa'dan Toraja's mountain homeland lies in the extreme north of Sulawesi's southwestern peninsula. The highlands begin at 330 m (1,080 ft) above sea level, with the major towns of Rantepao and Makale at above 700 m (2,300 ft) and the highest peak (Mt. Sesean, abode of Suloara, the legendary first priest of the Toraja) at 2,000 m (6,560 ft). Paddy fields cover what patches of flat land there are, usually along the many small rivers, and rise in terraces up the thickly forested mountainsides.

The Sa'dan Toraja number over 650,000, of whom most still live in their homeland in South Sulawesi's Tana Toraja residency (2005 population: 437,000). As many as 200,000 Toraja have migrated, most settling in the provincial capital Makassar and in the national capital Jakarta. These migrants maintain close ties with their ancestral places. Their money has permitted commoner families to hold ritual celebrations that only aristocrats were permitted to perform in previous times. Indeed, the new wealth has increased the frequency and elaborateness of ritual activity to an unprecedented level.


Linguists have reconstructed the Austronesian language, Proto-South-Sulawesi, which is ancestral to Sa'dan Toraja, Bugis, Mandar, and Makassarese. Particularly close to the Sa'dan Toraja language is the speech of people in the neighboring Luwu and Duri regions; the latter are generally regarded as Bugis because of their adherence to Islam. The Sa'dan Toraja language is called Bahasa Tae', "tae'" being the word for "no." The traditional greeting is "Manasumorekka?" ("Have you cooked rice yet?"), to which the standard reply is "Manasumo!" ("The rice is cooked already!).


One of a number of origin myths tells that the Toraja ancestors arrived in eight canoes (lembang) from an island in the southwest. According to the Bugis tradition, the Toraja descend from one of the lesser cousins of the supreme god Batara Guru, whose own descendants are the Bugis royalty. For their part, the Toraja claim that the Toraja Laki Padada was the ancestor of 100 noble lines, including the lowland kingdoms of Luwu, Bone, and Gowa; despite their adherence to Islam, surviving Luwu royalty sent pigs to the renovation of Laki Padada's house in 1983.

One tale offers the origin of one of the differences between the Toraja and their Muslim neighbors. The Toraja hero Karaeng Dua' was born of a pig mother. Karaeng Dua' traveled down to Luwu and there married a female chief (datu) of Luwu. A mischievous fellow highlander informed the chief that her mother-in-law was a pig. Infuriated, the chief scooped up all the sunlight into her house, leaving Luwu dark for three days, during which the people indulged in unlimited feasting on pig. After the three days, the chief released the light and all the remaining pigs were let loose in the forest, now taboo for Luwu people to eat.


Since Indonesian independence, Christianity has grown rapidly among the Toraja, claiming 64% as Protestants and 12% as Catholics. The remaining population practices Aluk To Dolo, "the Way of the Ancestors." Before the 20th century, the Toraja had no separate word for religion, aluk meaning the totality of the correct ways of behaving and working, including those that outsiders would consider secular. The Indonesian state tolerates Aluk To Dolo by classifying it as a variant of Hinduism, one of the recognized five religions under Pancasila.

The Toraja distinguish between "smoke-rising rituals" (rambu solo), directed to the gods for the benefit of agriculture, and "smoke-descending rituals" (rambu tuka'), dedicated to the welfare of the dead. As Dutch missionaries condemned the former but tolerated the latter, funerals have increased in relative importance in modern times. Leading aluk rituals are a range of religious specialists: to minaa (priests, conversant in a special ceremonial language); to burake (priestesses and "hermaphrodite," i.e., transvestite, priests); funerary experts; healers; and heads of the rice cult.

Traditional cosmology divided the cosmos into three worlds. The upperworld, associated with the direction North, is ruled by the grandson of the supreme god Gauntikembong, Puang Matua, the creator and the giver of aluk.The middle-world (where humankind lives) is under the jurisdiction of Pong Banggairante. The underworld, associated with the direction South, is governed by Pong Tulakpadang, who has a fearful but not otherwise important wife, Indo Ongon-Ongon.

While the East is connected to the gods in general, the West is the direction of the spirits of the dead who are specifically believed to reside on Puya, an earthly island far to the southwest. Another god, Pong Lalondong, cuts the thread of life that determines each individual's fate. He guards the peril-fraught path running through the gravestone to Puya. The dead in Puya are sustained by burial offerings.

"Smoke-rising rituals" include offerings to the gods in paddy fields, at the roadside, and in front of houses. To thank or appease the gods, major animal sacrifices are held every 10 or 12 years on special ceremonial fields, highlighted by the exploding of bamboo stalks in bonfires. Mabugi rites are performed to request rain or deliverance from epidemics; going into trance, participants stab themselves with daggers without harm. Other rites such as the bua' kasalle ensure the welfare of humans, animals, and crops.


See the article entitled Indonesians .


After a child is born, the father buries the placenta (the child's "twin") in a woven reed bag on the east side of the house; because many placentas are buried by it, a house should never be moved.

Weddings are not as elaborate as funerals, only requiring the slaughtering of pigs and chickens for the feast, not the sacrifice of water buffalo.

If a person dies at sea or in a distant land, the family must still perform funeral rites, using a length of bamboo as a surrogate. The burials of low-status people are very simple; children dying before teething are buried in a tree to ensure the strength of the next child. High-status people, however, receive elaborate two-part funeral rites. The first part (Dipalamabi'i) takes place immediately upon death. Treated as merely "sick," the body is given food, spoken to, and put in a sitting position facing east-west. The mourning family fasts, wears black, makes an effigy of the dead (out of wood or bamboo, according to wealth), and sacrifices water buffalo and pigs. After time elapses, the body is considered officially dead and is reoriented north-south. The body is wrapped in cloth, traditionally of pineapple fiber, and banners are hung outside the tongkonan (ancestral ceremonial) house.

The second part (Diripa'i) takes place only after the deceased's kin have amassed funds for the ceremony and arranged for the arrival of even the most distant relatives. As this requires months and sometimes years, nowadays formalin is used to delay the decomposition of the corpse, which remains in the tongkonan. The funeral proper begins with the sounding of a gong and the beating of a drum that officially announces the death. The surviving spouse fasts for several days. Through the night, a circle of men chants ma'badong, dirges that commemorate events in the deceased's life, express grief, recount happenings during the funeral celebrations, tell how the deceased will be fashioned in gold like the first human, and describe what the journey to Puya and the life there will be like. At the same time, women chant separately (ma'londe).

Extending over several days or weeks, the major celebration takes place in a rante, a large field marked with large commemorative stones. A sizable procession brings the body, now in its coffin, to the rante, and, jostling it about a bit, installs it on a high tower, the lakkean. Singing, dancing, water-buffalo combats, and cockfights follow (the last were officially banned in 1981 but continue, nonetheless, amid furious gambling). Representing social ties and the payment of debts, water buffalo and pigs are brought and sacrificed (the former slaughtered with a single machete blow to the jugular vein); a to mentaa distributes cuts of meat to the guests according to their status and the indebtedness of the deceased's kin to them.

Images of the deceased are made; the simplest ones are temporary and made of bamboo and cloth. In some localities, high-status deceased are represented by statues (tau-tau) made from the wood of the jackfruit tree, the men dressed in a European shirt and a batik sarong, the women in a kebaya blouse and sarong; these tau-tau are displayed in cliff-side galleries. However, theft for the international market has forced many Toraja to store their family tau-tau under lock and key, leaving only crude concrete stand-ins in the galleries for tourist eyes.

In the final stage, the body is rewrapped amid further pig sacrifices and martial dancing; it is then put into an ornate casket and placed under the family rice barn. From there, a procession carries it to the gravesite, which may be a cave crypt at the bottom or on the side of a cliff, or a boat-shaped coffin suspended from an overhang. The spirits of the dead are believed to become the constellations that indicate phases of the agricultural cycle.


The traditional social order distinguished three classes: the "big men," to kapua (semi-monarchical puang in the south, and free farmers, makak, elsewhere); the tobuda, the unexceptional majority; and the kaunan, landless slaves. The nobles possessed the privileges of leadership and the most elaborate types of house decoration and funerary celebration, though now wealthy commoners can enjoy them, too.


Early in the 20th century, the Dutch forced the Toraja to abandon their fortified, hilltop villages and settle in the plains. Toraja villages divide into "high" and "low" halves, each a unit for ceremonial purposes. The poor live in bamboo huts, but the wealthy have elaborate houses raised 2.5 m (8 ft) off the ground on wooden pillars. These dwellings are oriented east- west and consist of several parts: on the north side, a raised floor where guests sleep; on the east, a low floor for the kitchen; on the west, a low floor for the dining area; and on the south, a raised floor higher than the northside floor for the sleeping area of the owner of the house. Animals are kept in the space under the floor. The entry ladder, once on the long side, is now at the short side. In front of the house, facing south, stands a rice barn, raised off the ground on round pillars that rats cannot climb; its decoration consists of carved scenes of death rites and of daily life, such as pounding rice, going to market, and hunting. The platform on which the barn stands provides shade for napping.

The tongkonan, an ancestral house (distinct from the banua, an ordinary house), symbolizing the living and dead members of a lineage, is the place to discuss important family matters (including upkeep of the tongkonan itself) and hold ceremonies. Representing water buffalo horns (but resembling a boat), the front and back ends of the roof project far beyond the house itself, often needing poles for support. The house front is ornately decorated, the center post (tulak somba) being hung with buffalo horns. The most prestigious tongkonan sport a kabongo (a carved buffalo head with real horns) and above it a katik bird, representing death and fertility. Carvings on the outside walls are painted in black, white, yellow, and red and consist of geometrical patterns, basket motifs, buffalo horns, animals, and the rooster-and-sun, all signs of prosperity; trailing plants symbolize many descendants. Building (particularly the raising of the tulak somba, the first step) and renewal of a tongkonan are occasions for sacrificial rituals and require the contributions of all families tracing descent from it.

As traditional houses tend to be cramped and dark, modern people prefer to live in concrete Western-Indonesian bungalows or Bugis wooden houses, though they may add a tongkonan-style saddle-roof.

Tana Toraja regency has a Human Development Index (combining measures of income, health, and education) of 69 (2005 score), higher than that of South Sulawesi province as a whole of 68.1, thus more closely approaching Indonesia's national HDI of 69.6. This is the case despite the fact that, in terms of GDP per capita, Tana Toraja (at us$2,335) is among the poorest regencies in South Sulawesi (the provincial figure is us $6,913, itself relatively low for Indonesia, cf. us$9,784 for West Sumatra and us$8,360 for North Sulawesi, but us$6,293 for Central Java and us$6,151 for West Nusa Tenggara). In 2000, the rate of infant mortality, on the other hand, stood at 34.73 deaths per 1,000 live births, little over half the rate for South Sulawesi as a whole (65.62) and among the lowest in the country.


Kinship is traced back to the tongkonan as the "origin house." As kinship is bilateral, an individual may belong to several tongkonan, though his or her strongest ties will be with parents, grandparents, and in-laws. An individual activates lineage connections when rebuilding a house, staging major rituals, or deciding inheritance (the portion of the inheritance matches the number of water buffalo an heir contributed to the funeral). Tongkonan membership includes right of burial at the ancestral gravesite.

A newlywed couple lives with the wife's family. Early ethnographies reported that divorce was easy and premarital sex common (if a child was born out of wedlock, the father would be obliged to marry the mother). After a divorce, the man must leave the house, though he may claim the rice barn.


Toraja everyday dress follows the Indonesian pattern of alternating sarongs with Western-style clothes, such as trousers. For ceremonial occasions, women wear long, single-color (dark red, green, etc.), short-sleeved dresses with beadwork belts, headbands, necklaces, and other jewelry.


Toraja food tends to be simpler than that of their lowland neighbors. Rice is the preferred staple, although because of its expense, the poor must supplement their diet with maize and tubers. Meat (water buffalo, pig, chicken, and, more rarely now, dog) is largely reserved for feasts. Some Toraja specialties are papiong (rice, meat, vegetables, and coconut milk stewed in a bamboo section), songkolo (a mixture of glutinous rice, chili, and coconut milk), and baje (fried coconut with brown sugar). Carried in bamboo tubes, balok is a popular palm wine whose taste ranges from sweet to sour; a bark extract gives it a red color.


Because of the considerable missionary presence in recent years, many Toraja have had greater access to modern education than (particularly rural) lowlanders in Sulawesi, a fact of which the Toraja are proud. In 2005, the level of literacy in Tana Toraja stood at 79.2%, significantly lower than the South Sulawesi provincial average of 84.6% (itself low by Indonesian national standards), but higher than several other South Sulawesi regencies with higher GDPs per capita (See also the article entitled Indonesians .)


Traditional instruments include the flute, water-buffalo horn, drum, gong, geso-geso (a two-stringed vertical fiddle), and the karombi (Jew's harp). For such occasions as funeral vigils, singing is mournful and monotonous, the chorus forming a circle linked by their little fingers or by arms around shoulders. One singer leads, and the chorus repeats the verses verbatim. By contrast, church singing in Western harmonies is spontaneous and lively. At funeral and other ritual feasts, boys and girls socialize by taking turns singing to each other (kalinda'da', sengo, londe), including riddles in the verses. Contemporary Toraja songs derive from storytellers' refrains and are accompanied by guitar or the Mandar/Bugis zither (katapi).

Noteworthy among traditional dances is the Magellu, a ceremonial dance in which several young girls in beaded costumes sway and flutter their fingers; and the Maganda, in which men attempt to dance wearing a black velvet headdress heavy with silver coins and buffalo horns, usually giving up after a few minutes.


In their homeland, the great majority of Toraja farm for a living. Wet-rice paddies have progressively replaced the traditional swidden (shifting-cultivation) farming; maize, tubers, and vegetables are grown. Coffee, especially the fine local arabica, has been an important export crop since the mid-19th century, now joined by pepper and cloves. Pigs and water buffalo are largely kept for ritual sacrifice, rather than for daily consumption.

Education has allowed many Toraja to become bureaucrats, soldiers, business owners, and scientists, mostly employed outside the homeland. Migrants, known for their energy and ambition, also include mechanics, and shoe- and furniture-makers, for which occupations the Toraja enjoy a high reputation in eastern Indonesia's cities. Less esteemed are the many Toraja domestic servants in Makassar city, whom the Bugis and Makassarese point to as evidence for the "natural servility" of the Toraja (the Toraja region was once the lowlanders' main source of slaves). Tourism has provided new opportunities for employment as guides, hotel and restaurant staff, and makers and sellers of crafts.


Although officially banned in 1981 for their association with gambling, cockfighting (for major ceremonies) and kick-fighting (for the harvest festival, in particular) are still enthusiastically pursued, betting and all.


See the article entitled Indonesians .


Bamboo carving (flutes, tube containers, belts, necklaces, hats, and baskets) is a major craft, producing the most common souvenirs. Others are ikat (tie-dye) weaving and blacksmithing (local smiths make machetes from scrap metal such as automobile springs). Carved wooden panels integrating Christian iconography into traditional Toraja scenes and adapting traditional Toraja design motifs (such as the pa' barre allo sunburst motifs) to Christian uses have become popular in recent years as Indonesia's secular identity faces challenge from assertions of Islamic identity; Toraja Muslim artists (10% of the Toraja are Muslim) have responded by integrating Islamic symbols, such as the crescent and star intro their carvings.


See the article entitled Indonesians .


Tana Toraja's Gender-Related Development Index (combining measures of women's health, education, and income relative to men's) is 60.9, substantially higher than South Sulawesi's provincial GDI of 56.9 and slightly surpassing Indonesia's national GDI of 59.2. The regency's Gender Empowerment Measure (reflecting women's participation and power in political and economic life relative to men's) is 50.8, also higher than the province's (45.6), but lower than the national GEM of 54.6.


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—revised by A. J. Abalahin