SYNOPSIS:  About my new home and my guide.  About the peculiar architecture of the Torajans and a bit about their mythology and history.

As Oscar in Makassar had promised, Yussuf, my new guide, showed up at 6:30 AM at the bus station.  After 8 hours on the bus I must not have cut a pretty figure, but he did not seem to care.  As part of my tour package, he took me to my new accommodations:  Riana’s Homestay.  A large clean room, a large clean bathroom with hot water (no sink), a small green garden, available wifi and a very friendly host family — I could not complain.  Many guesthouses around here have views of the mountains and are a bit more traditional, but this would do.  After a quick shower we were off on his motorbike to our first village:  Kete Kesu.

Tonkonan, as the traditional style of home architecture is known, is characterized by swooping boat-shaped roofs.  You see it everywhere.  Unlike Kalimantan and the Longhouses this architecture seems well and alive and is not a mere tourist attraction but a part of daily life, deeply engrained history, part of any Torajan’s identity, and to own a Tonkonan is the dream of any aspiring Torajan.

Torajans are believed to have arrived in this region via the Sa’dan River.  In commemoration of this, traditional houses and rice barns have to be built at a North-South axis, the direction of the river.  And in honor of the boats that brought them there, the preferred roof line is a sweeping upward curve at either end of the roof.  Or could it resemble the horns of the buffalo?  The jury is still out on this.   As these houses are often lined up in multiples, one truly gets the sense of a whole fleet of ships, or perhaps a herd of buffaloes.

Animist traditions survived for millennia until the Dutch arrived in this area of central Sulawesi around 1905 and “cleaned up”.  If Yussuf, my guide, is any indication, nobody here holds a grudge against the Dutch despite a bloody campaign that was waged against their culture and their land.  How is that possible?! 

Perhaps, it was the missionaries that followed the troops that smoothed over the pain?  Yussuf told me that the Dutch are remembered for their knowledge (reading, writing) and their technology as well as their improvement of infrastructure and expansion of crops.  Since the Dutch withdrew with the declaration of Indonesian independence in 1949, their presence here was short enough.  But still…

Since then, Torajans have been devout Christians.  75% of them are Protestant, 15% are Catholics, 5% are Muslims from other regions, and 5% still practice animism.   The only pre-Christian tradition that has survived wholesale is the funerary ceremony, one of which I will attend soon.

Status symbol is the buffalo.  Owning a buffalo and having a buffalo around the house is believed to bring luck and prosperity.  Buffalo are also used in the fields, but I have mainly seen them just standing or sitting around; most likely since this is their “off season”.  They are a main investment and if you feed them well, they will double your money in less than 5 years and they can be raised in some rare cases (albino buffalo) to values of up to $100,000!  They are also indispensable in funeral ceremonies, where they will be slaughtered to accompany the dead person’s spirit into the afterlife.

Other animals of importance are the rooster and the pig.  The rooster is the age-old time keeper and the pig is considered clever and smart.  It is also eaten around here in huge quantities…

Red, white, yellow and black are Torajan colors and are used in specific and appropriate circumstances:  Red-blood and black-death are the choice colors for funerals.  White-bones is the symbol of the rich and also used in certain Christian contexts such as confirmation ceremonies.  Yellow-sun is a sign of good luck and well being and dominates in weddings.

A typical family compound will start with a house to live in (a tonkonan) and a rice barn right across.  As the wealth of the family increases and if they own enough land for rice farming, rice barns will be added; each with a capacity of up to 5 tons.   As the family grows and children marry, additional living quarters may be added right next to the parents’ home or somewhere else on their land.  An extended family may live in a compound of 4 homes and 8 rice barns, for example if they are wealthy, or 3 homes and 3 rice barns if they are not so well off. 

The homes are built on posts to provide space for the buffalo below the living quarters.  The upstairs is divided into three:  A raised area with a wall and a door for the kids to sleep in the North, opposite of which there is a small room for the parents in the South.  In between there is a larger public room for guests and daily activities.  At best you can fit in a 2 feet deep cupboard or closet for belongings in each of the bed rooms.  I pictured all of my belongings to have to fit into something like that…   What would make the cut?

But what happens when you do not have the $7000 for a traditional barn or the $35,000 to build a traditional home?  Bamboo to the rescue!   Round up your family and friends and go into the woods to cut some bamboo and you can have a livable house made entirely out of bamboo that will cost you little to nothing but labor.  It may last up to 10 years.  And when it starts to rot, you just go back into the woods. 🙂

One step up is to build a shelter out of concrete.  It is much less expensive than a traditional wooden house and allows you to add on as needed.  That is the type of house Yussuf built for his family, a wife and two daughters.  Neither bamboo nor concrete homes follow the traditional North-South layout.  Many do not have a rice barn either.  People who live in them most likely earn their living as manual laborers, not rice farmers, or as guides, as in Yussuf’s case.

Truly rich families adopt the traditional wooden structures and expand their living space.  Sizes can be triple of the original layout, and wrap-around balconies add welcome outdoor living spaces.  Even government buildings or churches often sport at least one swoop of the “boat” shape in their facades, indicating Torajan pride and heritage.  Money matters of course, and thatched roofs are expensive.  The cheaper and longer-lasting alternative is red corrugated metal.  When it’s new it is OK.  The rusty ones are a different matter…

All of this may sound really dry on paper, but I have to tell you that I was riding around on the motorbike with my head swinging from left to right:  There was another pretty view, there was another line of picturesque roofs, there was a particularly beautifully aged and overgrown thatched bamboo roof, and over there a not so pretty red tin-substitute.  I could not stop looking.   

Some of the most pretty and best-preserved villages around here are capitalizing on tourists like me and charge a $2 entrance fee used for the upkeep of the village.  In exchange they endure the endless stream of clicking cameras, especially during the high season of July and August.  But many people around here, not on the tourist circuit, have waved a warm welcome when I got off the bike indicating interest in their compound.  Clearly their homes are their pride and joy. 

And that shall be it for today.  🙂

I have to catch up on sleep. 

6 comments so far

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  1. The architecture of these house is amazing and otherworldly. There is also something Bavarian about it. Loved your blog entry!!

  2. Some great images…the sweep of those roof lines is beautiful and impressive. I can understand why you could not stop looking!!

  3. Very beautiful these buildings! I remember reading an article on that region and architecture in the “Spiegel” some years ago. Who can forget a building like that – amazing!

  4. Beautiful pictures!
    Your guide, Yussuf, has a Moslem name. Is he Moslem? Did you get to speak with him about the role of Islam in his area?

    • Islam is not playing any role in Tana Toraja. Yussuf, as everyone else who is native, is a Christian. There are a few small mosques for the people from other regions who are living there; about 5%.

  5. These buildings are so unique and beautiful – I have never seen anything like it and as usual, you capture it all so well with your camera and writings.