Tongkonan is the traditional ancestral house, or rumah adat of the Torajan people, in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Tongkonan have a distinguishing boat-shaped and oversized saddleback roof. Like most of Indonesia’s Austronesian-based traditional architecture, tongkonan are built on piles. The construction of tongkonan is laborious work and it is usually built with the help of all family members or friends. In the original Toraja society, only nobles had the right to build tongkonan. Commoners live in smaller and less decorated homes called banua.
Sulawesi (formerly known as the Celebes) is a large island, extraordinarily contorted in shape, lying between Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) and the Maluku Island group (also known as the Moluccas). It is an island abundant in natural resources with a rich and varied array of cultures including some of the most distinctive and anthropologically significant in Indonesia. The dominant groups of the island are the seafaring and once piratical Muslim Bugis and Makassarese in the island’s south-west, and the strongly Christian Minahasa of the northern peninsula. The Toraja, of South Sulawesi are, however, arguably one of the most distinctive of ethnic groups in all Indonesia.
The name Toraja is of Bugis origin and is given to the people of rugged northern part of the south peninsula. The Toraja are an Austronesian ethnic group, speaking various related Malayo-Polynesian languages. Like many Indonesian ethnic groups, the Toraja were head-hunters and participants in inter-village raids; villages were thus located strategically on hill tops and were heavily fortified. The Dutch colonialists pacified the Toraja and led them to build their villages in valleys and changed their agriculture from a slash and burn variety to wet-rice cultivation, and pig and buffalo raising.
The native religion is megalithic and animist. Many of these native practices remain including animal sacrifices, ostentatious funeral rites and huge communal feasts. Their native faith only began to change when Protestant missionaries first arrived in 1909 with Dutch colonists. Today, the Toraja are 60 per cent Protestant Christians and 10 per cent Muslim. The beliefs of the rest are centered on the native religions. The Toraja are largely Christian and animist.
Toraja are divided into different geographic groups, the most important being Mamasa, centred on the isolated Kalumpang valley and the Sa’dan of the southern Toraja lands. Known as ‘Tana Toraja’, Sa’dan has the market towns of Makale and Rantepao. There have never been any strong lasting political grouping within the Toraja. Good roads now reach Tana Toraja from Makassar, the largest city in Sulawesi. This brings in a seasonal influx of foreign tourists who, whilst injecting their money into the local economy, have not yet had much lasting impact on local people’s lives.