During my brief visit to Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, Indonesia, I got the opportunity to see the megalithic Tongkonan, which are the magnificent homes of the reclusive Torajan People.
The houses here in Tana Toraja are called Tongkonan, and the Torajan People have been living in them for an age. These Tongkonan are large, raised shelters built on stilts, with an oversized boat-shaped roof. The villages I visited in my stay here were rather large, and as such there were many Tongkonan lined side by side, although I am told that in smaller villages there may only be a small handful of structures. I saw many similarly designed buildings – called Batak houses – around Lake Toba in Sumatra, although those architectural wonders have more standard roofs than the ones here at Tana Toraja, and obviously the resplendent Minangkabau architecture of Padang is also on the same impressive level as the Tongkonan.
The architecture of the Tongkonan is somewhat megalithic, and this matches the culture of the Torajan People, who routinely celebrate life and death in equal measure, often sacrificing animals in so doing, and preserving human remains in the aftermath. The Tongkonan are usually built facing North to South, and can take up to 4 or 5 months to build from scratch from the local materials found here in central Sulawesi. The interiors of Tongkonan are more often than not very small in comparison to their extravagant exteriors. I found it fascinating to learn that Tongkonan are at the centre of people’s social lives, and these structures are built in differing ways as if to highlight the social status of each occupant.
Within each community, there are 3 types of Tongkonan:
The Tongkonan Layuk – the house of highest authority and used as the centre of government
The Tongkonan Pekamberan – belong to family members who have authority in Torajan traditions
The Tongkonan Batu – the residences of all other members of the community
One of the things I enjoyed most from my 2 night stay here in Tana Toraja was marvelling at the intricate carvings and decorations on the exterior of each Tongkonan. I noticed designs with buffalo motifs, cock motifs, and those of snakes, so I guess the Torajan People here place emphasis on respecting the legend of local livestock (after death). I also learned that as times change and as modernisation affects us all, the Torajan people from these villages will often go and look for lucrative work elsewhere in Indonesia. This newfound “disposable income” will be sent back to their families here in Tana Toraja and because of this there is becoming more tendency to add ornamental and decorative designs to the Tongkonan, as if to emphasise each the wealth and prosperity of its occupants.
Food in Tana Toraja is not very varied, but each Tongkonan household has their own traditional recipes on classic dishes. Our hosts for the evening were a charming family or around 8 or 9 people, who invited us to enjoy a meal of Pa’pion, which is hearty pork cut up and stuffed into bamboo canes. These bamboo canes are then burned over an open fire for what seemed like an eternity, at which point the bamboo can be cut open and the meat can be consumed. Some Torajan families encourage tourists to drink traditional palm wine known as Ballok, which can be sipped straight from a bamboo cane. All in all, I learned that Torajan families are very hospitable people, as well as being a very proud group of people. I just wondered if they still respected the pigs as they were eating them…
To see what else I got up to in Tana Toraja, check out the traditional Torajan funeral processions!