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ETHNONYMS: Sa'dan Toraja, South Toraja, Tae' Toraja, Toraa, Toraya


Identification. The Sa'dan Toraja reside in the highlands of the province of South Sulawesi in Indonesia, speak the Sa'dan Toraja (Tae' Toraja) dialect, and are predominantly Christians. As these Sulawesi highlanders have never developed their own writing system, most early references to the Toraja derive from the written records (lontara ) of neighboring lowland Buginese (Bugis) and Makassarese kingdoms. There is general agreement among scholars that the name "Toraja" derives from Buginese, probably from "To-ri-aja," to meaning "people" and ri-aja meaning "upstream" or "above" (Sa'dan is the name of the region's major river). The Toraja began to adopt this externally imposed name only in the twentieth century.

Location. Most of the Sa'dan Toraja reside in the Indonesian regency of Tana Toraja. This district on the island of Sulawesi is 3,657 square kilometers in area and lies between 2°40 and 3°25 S and l19° 30 and 120° 25' E. Tana Toraja Regency ranges from 300 to 2,884 meters above sea level. The climate is tropical, with a rainy season lasting from November until April.

Demography. In 1987 the population of Tana Toraja Regency was estimated as 346,113. Population density averages 84 per square kilometer. Figures are not available for the number of Sa'dan Torajans who have left their homeland to reside in the larger cities of Indonesia (the one exception is a 1973 estimate of 30,000 Toraja in Ujung Pandang).

Linguistic Affiliation. The Sa'dan Toraja speak Tae', an Austronesian language that is thought to be related to the neighboring languages of Duri and Buginese. Tae' has two levels of speecha daily language and a high language of the priesthoods. Today, as citizens of Indonesia, most Toraja also speak Bahasa Indonesia.

History and Cultural Relations

It is speculated that the Toraja migrated to Sulawesi from Indochina some 4,000 years ago. There is evidence of relations with the coastal Buginese and Luwunese as early as the sixteenth century. By the late nineteenth century, trade between Toraja highlanders and Muslim lowlanders intensified: coffee and slaves were exported in return for guns, salt, and textiles. Toraja traditionally resided in autonomous and at times mutually hostile mountain villages. It was not until the arrival of the Dutch colonial forces in 1906 that the Toraja were united under a single political authority. By 1913 missionaries from the Calvinist Reformed Church had arrived, precipitating dramatic sociocultural changes. Scholars suggest that the activities of these Protestant missionaries stimulated a unifying sense of Toraja identity. The region was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. Following that war, in 1949, the region was declared a part of the new nation of Indonesia. Today, Tana Toraja Regency has become a major tourist destination (in 1988 179,948 tourists visited the area).


Toraja traditionally resided in isolated mountaintop settlements; however, the Dutch relocated many of these villages into the major valleys for administrative convenience. Today the population of villages averages 4,170, although there is variety in size and constellation. Traditionally villages consist of clusters of elevated plaited bamboo houses, rice barns, and kindred houses (tongkonan ). The tongkonan is a most significant aspect of Toraja culture. The tongkonan is more than a physical structureit is a visual symbol of descent (see under "Kinship"). According to ritual prescriptions, the tongkonan must face north. Tongkonan are constructed of wood, without nails, and are raised on stilts; they also have arched bamboo roofs, although today these are being replaced by corrugated iron. In precolonial times, elaborately carved tongkonan were associated with the nobility. Commoners were restricted to carving only specified sections of their tongkonans and slaves were strictly forbidden to carve their tongkonans. In front of the tongkonans one finds a plaza that is used for ritual occasions. Across this ritual plaza is a row of rice barns. They vary in construction, but all rice barns have a lower deck area that is used for receiving guests and socializing. Rice barns may be constructed of wood with elaborate stylized motifs or they may be of simple plaited bamboo. Surrounding the village are gardens and rice fields. Today villages also have Buginese-style houses elevated on stilts, and modern cement homes. Most villages also have a church and a school nearby.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Most residents of Tana Toraja Regency (90 percent) are subsistence agriculturalists. Rice, grown in terraced paddies, is planted and harvested by hand. Single metal-blade plows drawn by water buffalo or men are still in use. Toraja farmers also grow maize, cassava, chilies, beans, yams, and potatoes. Cash crops include coffee and cloves. The Toraja also gather snails, eels, and small fish from unplanted wet-rice fields. Domestic animals include pigs, chickens, and water buffalo, which are sacrificed on ritual occasions.

Industrial Arts. A number of Toraja supplement their income by carving (for traditional or touristic purposes). Certain villages are known to specialize in particular crafts: knife forging, pottery making, mat making, and hat plaiting.

Trade. Most villages have a couple of tiny stores that may sell only two or three items (cigarettes, sweets, instant noodles, soap, etc.). Markets rotate on a six-day cycle. Women bring fruit and vegetables to sell at the market. Men bring livestock, palm wine, hand-forged knives, or carvings. Full-time market vendors tend to be Buginese or from Duri, rather than Toraja.

Division of Labor. Both men and women fish and tend the fields. Men and children care for water buffalo, while women generally feed the pigs. Women are occupied with the traditional home tasks, although men often cook meat and tend babies.

Land Tenure. Although remote mountain slopes are still being converted into new terraced wet-rice fields, changes in agricultural technology have been minimal. Steady population growth has resulted in land shortage. Rice fields are highly prized and the majority of court cases in Tana Toraja involve land-tenure disputes. By the 1960s land shortage and limited local economic opportunities began to drive many Toraja to seek wage labor away from the homeland. Today many Toraja work in a variety of professional and blue-collar jobs in Indonesian cities. Still others work for lumber and oil companies as far away as Irian Jaya, Kalimantan, or Malaysia.


Kin Groups and Descent. As noted earlier, Toraja kinship is organized around the tongkonan (kindred house). Each tongkonan has its own unique name and history. A given tongkonan belongs to all male and female descendants of its two founding ancestors (husband and wife). As Toraja descent is bilateral, an individual may claim links to a number of tongkonan on both the mother's and father's side. A group of kin who trace their descent to a common pair of tongkonan-founding ancestors is called a pa'rapuan. In some areas, smaller, splinter branches of pa'rapuan are called rapu. Pa'rapuan members come together for ritual occasions and share in the expenses of rebuilding the tongkonan.

Kinship Terminology. There is some confusion as to whether Toraja kinship terminology should be classified as Hawaiian or Eskimo. Although terms for different degrees of cousins (first, second, third, etc.) exist, in everyday practice these are avoided and sibling terms are substituted. The system is generational in nature and kin terms tend to convey the relative age (and sometimes gender) of individuals.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Today Toraja marriages are monogamous, although in the past polygyny was sometimes practiced by the aristocracy. Some marriages continue to be arranged by the parents; however, most contemporary Toraja select their own mates. Marriage with first and second cousins is prohibited (although in previous times one could circumvent this taboo through ritual offerings). In certain regions the nobility were the exception to this rule, often marrying first cousins to keep wealth within the immediate family. Residence is ideally neolocal, but many couples reside initially with either the husband's or the wife's family. Divorce is frequent, and divorce compensations are determined prior to marriage (to be paid by the divorcing party). There are no prohibitions on remarriage.

Domestic Unit. The people who cook and share meals around a hearth are considered the most basic family unit. The average size of this household group is five persons, although grandchildren, cousins, aunts, etc. are frequent overnight visitors. As a household member, one is expected to share in the tasks of everyday livingcooking, cleaning, farming, or contributing part of one's wages to the family.

Inheritance. One's surviving children and grandchildren have the right to inherit property. To claim such rights one must sacrifice water buffalo at the funeral of the deceased.

Socialization. Children are reared both by parents and by siblings. Adoption is common: family ties are extended and strengthened by adopting infants out to relatives and friends. Often children will move back and forth between the households of their adoptive and biological parents. Emphasis is placed on respect for one's elders, diligence, and the importance of the family over one's individual needs.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Toraja society is hierarchically organized on the basis of age, descent, wealth, and occupation. In traditional times there were three basic ranks: the aristocracy (puang, to parengnge' ), commoners (to makaka, to buda ), and serfs/slaves (kaunan ). Women were prohibited from marrying down, and the eating utensils of slaves were considered polluting and were carefully segregated from those of the nobility. Today slavery is illegal and the topic of rank is particularly sensitive. Wealth is much respected in Tana Toraja, particularly as it allows one greater visibility in ritual contexts. Tongkonan leaders also have a great deal of prestige and are chosen on the basis of their intelligence, charisma, bravery, descent, and wealth. Government officials and the clergy are also afforded high status.

Political Organization. The head of Tana Toraja Regency is called a bupati and is appointed by the Indonesian government. A council of local representatives (DPRD) assists the bupati in decision making. The regency is divided into nine smaller administrative districts called kecamatan, each overseen by a camat. Each kecamatan consists of several villages (desa ), each with a village head (lurah ). The Indonesian government provides the basic range of services including schools, police, health posts, tax collection, and road maintenance.

Social Control. Gossip and shaming are important means of social control. Personal disputes are often mediated by tongkonan leaders. When traditional leaders are unable to resolve such disputes, the state apparatus (police, military, etc.) is called upon.

Conflict. Prior to the twentieth century lowland Buginese periodically raided the Toraja highlands for coffee and slaves. Relations between Toraja settlements were often tense as well. Headhunting raids to avenge the death of a kinsman were common until the beginning of this century.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Christianity is central to contemporary Toraja identity, and most of the population has converted to Christianity (81 percent in 1983). Only about 11 percent continue to practice the traditional religion of Aluk to Dolo (Ways of the Ancestors). These adherents are primarily elderly and there is speculation that the "Ways of the Ancestors" will be lost within a few generations. There are also some Muslims (8 percent), primarily in the southern areas of Tana Toraja. The cult of the ancestors plays an important role in the autochthonous religion of Aluk to Dolo. Ritual sacrifices are made to the ancestors who, in turn, will protect the living from illness and misfortune. According to Aluk to Dolo the cosmos is divided into three spheres: the underworld, the earth, and the upperworld. Each of these worlds is presided over by its own gods. These realms are each associated with a cardinal direction, and particular types of rite are geared toward particular directions. For example, the southwest represents the underworld and the dead, while the northeast represents the upperworld of the deified ancestors. The dead are believed to voyage to a land called "Puya," somewhere to the southwest of the Toraja highlands. Provided one manages to find the way to Puya and one's living relatives have carried out the necessary (and costly) rituals, one's soul may enter the upperworld and become a deified ancestor. The majority of the dead, however, remain in Puya living a life similar to their previous life and making use of the goods offered at their funeral. Those souls unfortunate enough not to find their way to Puya or those without funeral rites become bombo, spirits who threaten the living. Funeral ceremonies thus play a critical role in maintaining the harmony of the three worlds. Christian Toraja also sponsor modified funeral rituals. In addition to the bombo (those who died without funerals), there are spirits who reside in particular trees, stones, mountains, or springs. Batitong are terrifying spirits who feast on the stomachs of sleeping people. There are also spirits that fly at night (po'pok ) and werewolves (paragusi ). Most Christian Toraja say that Christianity has driven out such supernaturals.

Religious Practitioners. Traditional ceremonial priests (to minaa ) officiate at most Aluk to Dolo functions. Rice priests (indo' padang ) must avoid death-cycle rituals. In prior times there were transvestite priests (burake tambolang ). There are also healers and shamans.

Ceremonies. Ceremonies are divided into two spheres: smoke-rising rites (rambu tuka ) and smoke-descending rites (rambu solo' ). Smoke-rising rites address the life force (offerings to the gods, harvest thanksgivings, etc.), whereas smoke-descending rites are concerned with death.

Arts. In addition to elaborately carved tongkonan houses and rice barns, life-sized effigies of the dead are carved for certain wealthy aristocrats. In the past these effigies (tautau ) were very stylized, but recently they have become very realistic. Textiles, bamboo containers, and flutes may also be adorned with geometric motifs similar to those found on the tongkonan houses. Traditional musical instruments include the drum, Jew's harp, two-stringed lute, and gong. Dances are generally found in ceremonial contexts, although tourism has also prompted traditional dance performances.

Medicine. As in other parts of Indonesia, illness is often attributed to winds in the body or the curses of one's enemies. In addition to traditional healers, Western-style doctors are consulted.

Death and Afterlife. The funeral is the most critical lifecycle event, as it allows the deceased to leave the world of the living and proceed to Puya. Funeral ceremonies vary in length and complexity, depending on one's wealth and status. Each funeral is carried out in two parts: the first ceremony (dipalambi'i ) occurs just after death in the tongkonan house. The second and larger ceremony may occur months or even years after the death, depending on how much time the family needs to amass its resources to cover the expenses of the ritual. If the deceased was of high status, the second ritual may last more than seven days, draw thousands of guests, and entail the slaughter of dozens of water buffalo and pigs, buffalo fights, kick fights, chanting, and dancing.

See also Toradja


Koubi, Jeannine (1982). Rambu solo', "La fumée descend": Le culte des morts chez les Toradja du sud. Paris: CNRS.

Nooy-Palm, C. H. M. (1979). The Sa'dan Toraja: A Study of Their Social Life and Religion. Vol. 1. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Nooy-Palm, C. H. M. (1986). The Sa'dan Toraja: A Study of Their Social Life and Religion. Vol. 2, Rituals of the East and West. Dordrecht and Cinnaminson: Foris Publications.

Volkman, Toby (1985). Feasts of Honor: Ritual and Change in the Toraja HigHands. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.