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  • Writer's pictureNigel Wakeham

In Tana Toraja

Updated: Apr 19, 2019

Nigel Wakeham: Consultant Architect

In December 2003, I was in Indonesia supervising a World Bank community-based junior secondary school construction project (I will write this project up in more detail later).

South Sulawesi was one of the provinces where the project was in progress and I visited several districts there with my Indonesian architect counter-part (and very good friend) Pak Ahmed Zufar, to review the progress of school construction.


One of the districts that we visited was Tana Toraga in the mountainous centre of the province. This district is one of several that are occupied by the Toraja, an indigenous ethnic group who traditionally were animists but who are now largely Christian although they retain many of their animist beliefs and religious practices. While visiting one of the schools we were invited to a traditional funeral ceremony by members of the school committee. These funeral ceremonies are very elaborate and do not take place very often and therefore this was an opportunity that we felt we could not miss.

The Toraja's traditional belief system was a form of polytheistic animism, called ‘aluk’ or ‘the way’ (sometimes translated as ‘the law’). In the Toraja creation myth, their ancestors came down from heaven using stairs which were then used as a communication medium with ‘Puang Matua’, the Creator. The cosmos, according to aluk, is divided into the upper world (heaven), the world of man (earth), and the underworld. Aluk is not just a belief system; it is a combination of law, religion and habit and governs social life, agricultural practices and ancestral rituals and its earthly authority is represented by aluk priests whose words and actions should be followed in both life and death. The details of aluk may vary from place to place but one common requirement is that death and life rituals be separated although the two rituals are equally important. During the time of the Dutch missionaries, Christian Torajans were prohibited from performing life rituals (which have largely disappeared), but were allowed to perform death rituals and consequently these are still practised today.

In Toraja society, the funeral ritual is a very elaborate and expensive event and the richer and more powerful the individual, the more expensive is the funeral. The funeral rites of a nobleman are usually attended by thousands of family members and guest and lasts for several days or even weeks. A ceremonial site, called ‘rante’ is prepared in a large open space where temporary accommodation, shelters for audiences, rice barns, and other ceremonial funereal structures are constructed by the deceased's family. The funeral rites are accompanied by ceremonial dances, flute music, funeral chants, songs and poems and crying and wailing.

The funeral ceremony is often held weeks, months or even years after the death so that the deceased's family can raise the significant funds needed to cover the expenses. Torajans believe that death is not a sudden, abrupt event but a gradual process toward ‘Puya’ (the land of souls or afterlife) and during the waiting period the body of the deceased is wrapped in layers of cloth and kept under the ‘tongkonan’ (the traditional house; see below). The soul of the deceased is thought to linger around the village until the funeral ceremony is completed, after which it begins its journey to Puya.

Another component of the funeral ritual is the slaughter of water buffalos particularly albino buffalos that are particularly valued; the more powerful the person who died, the more buffalos that are slaughtered. Torajans believe that the deceased will need the buffalos to make the journey to Puya and that they will arrive more quickly if they have many buffalos and the slaughter of the buffalos as well as that of hundreds of pigs is the climax of the funeral ceremony. A cockfight is another integral part of the ceremony and, as with the sacrifice of the buffalos and pigs, this is considered sacred because it involves the spilling of blood on the earth.

The tongkonan are the traditional Torajan houses. They are constructed of timber and stand on tall columns (with the living accommodation raised off the ground) and thick, split-bamboo roofs shaped in sweeping curved arcs and with red, black and yellow carvings, many depicting buffalos, on the outside walls. There is some dispute as to whether the shape of the roof comes from the shape of a pair of buffalo horns or that of a traditional boat. The tongkonan are the centre of Torajan social life and the rituals associated with them are important expressions of Torajan spiritual life. According to Torajan myth, the first tongkonan was built in heaven on four poles, with a roof made of Indian cloth. The construction of a tongkonan is laborious work and is usually done with the help of the extended family.

The funeral rites that we attended were for two highly placed nobles, a man and a woman (they might even have been siblings). The funeral rites therefore had to be very long and elaborate (and very expensive) and I cannot remember if they lasted for a week or two weeks. The funeral rites were taking place a long time after the deaths of the two people because the family had taken a long time to raise the necessary funds; again I cannot remember the exact length of time but it was certainly years rather than months. An estimated 5,000 people attended the funerals and a large temporary village had been constructed for the guests using mainly bamboo. There were also large kitchens and dining areas (all food and drink was provided including a pretty lethal local spirit brewed from rice; the people are mainly Christians not Muslims!) and viewing platforms. All of the buildings were beautifully constructed and decorated.

Large numbers of buffalos (including many albino ones) and pigs were slaughtered for both food and ceremonial purposes and all-in-all the funerals must have cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Unfortunately we only had time to attend for a day but what we saw was unforgettable. The photos below are of the participants and guests and of the temporary village, dancing and other rituals.

We also visited a village where there were many tongkonans. They are very impressive structures, beautifully built and with intricate coloured carving internally and externally. The habitable areas are quite small and are probably be used mainly for sleeping with most other activities, given the tropical climate, happening externally. The very thick thatched roofs, large roof overhangs together with the elevated position of the main part of the house keeps them cool, especially at night. Traditionally the houses sit on timber columns (interestingly with no cross-bracing) resting on small, stone slabs but the more modern ones have concrete bases and columns. There are also smaller rice barns and communal sitting areas with similar roofs to those on the houses. The photos below are of the tongkonans in the village that we visited.

After the funeral rites are completed there are three methods of burial: the coffin may be laid in a cave (sometimes in a cliff), in a carved stone grave or hung on a cliff and it will contain any possessions that the deceased will need in the afterlife. In some areas a cave may be found that is large enough to accommodate a whole family. A wood-carved effigy of the dead person, called ‘tau tau’, is usually placed at the front of the cave looking out over the land. In a ritual called Ma'Nene, that takes place each year in August, the bodies of the deceased are exhumed to be washed, groomed and dressed in new clothes and the effigies are then walked around the village. The photos below are of the burial area that we visited.


Architecture in Developing Countries: A Resource

The design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health in rural areas of the developing world.

Nigel Wakeham is an architect who lived for 23 years in Southern and West Africa and the SW Pacific working on education, health and other projects. He has since worked for over 20 years as a consultant for national governments and agencies such as the World Bank, DFID, ADB and AfDB on the implementation of the construction components of education and health projects in many countries in the developing world.​

​The objective of this website will be to provide the benefit of more than 45 years of experience of working in developing countries to architects and other construction professionals involved in the design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health. It will provide reference material from the projects that Nigel has worked on and technical information on the design, construction and maintenance of educational and health facilities and other relevant topics and these will be added to from time to time.

I am happy to be contacted by anyone requiring further information on any of the projects or resources referred to in this website or by anyone wishing to discuss work possibilities.



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