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Tongkonan, A Unique Traditional House From Tana Toraja

by Rosidin Ali

Tana Toraja is a village located in South Sulawesi with its downtown located in Makale. It has around 2000 km2 in width and 260.000 people living there. Torajan people live mostly in the mountain and they still keep their ancient tradition running among them.

As Austronesian descendant, Torajan people still practice its lifestyle which resembles Nias culture. Thus, it makes Tana Toraja an interesting place to visit to spend a vacation.

Among those Austronesian culture, it’s a housing system and architectural element that attract tourist from all over the world. The house of Torajan people is called Tongkonan. It has specific and unique shape from bottom to the top and it will be highlighted below:

1. Philosophy of Tongkonan

Tongkonan is traditional house from Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi. It has unique form corresponding to the shape of a boat that you can see from its roof. Many believe that Tongokonan also resembles traditional house from Padang, Rumah Gadang.

Tongkonan gets its name from the word Tongkon which means to sit. Tongkonan relies heavily on a social status of its owner, thus Torajan people usually use it as government office. Other than that, it defines its owner’s power and social strata among society.

This house cannot be owned privately because it’s an heritage from their ancient family that they want to preserve as cultural element in Tana Toraja.

2. The Function of Tongkonan

For Torajan people, Tongkonan it’s not a simple house to rest and doing daily activity. They believe that Tongkonan is a mother for them. While the Alang Sutra (granary) is a father for Torajan people.

The line up between Tongkonan and Alang Sutra is also placed to face each other as a sign of a couple. Alang Sutra directs to south side and Tongkonan directs to north.

3. Unique Parts of Tongkonan

Torajan people build Tongkonan adapting to where it’s established. There might be another factor that influence the process of building the house. However, the philosophy and the rules to build the house are kept tightly to respect its traditional value.

4. Layer of Tongkonan

Tongkonan has three layers in square shape that represent four steps of life: born, life, worship, and death. The square shape also refers to four wind directions. Every Tongkonan house should orient to north to refer to birth and its south side signs the end of life, death.

5. Architectural Structure of Tongkonan

Its architectural structure of Tongkonan divides in to three layers, which is upper layer (Rattiang Bauna), centre layer (Kale Bauna), and lower layer (Sulluk Bauna).

The upper layer or Rattiang Bauna is used to save ancient and sacred weapons. The roof is built upon structure of bamboos that’s shaped in a specific format. Then it’s arranged and tied with rattan and palm fibre. The bamboo roof can last for hundred years.

The centre layer has three different functions. First, the north Tengalok is where Torajan people greet their guest and where the children sleep. However, sometimes they use this part to serve offerings.

Then, there’s Sali where the house activity is held. Torajan people spend their time together here. They also cook and eat in Sali. It’s also where the deceased person is kept. Other than Sali, in centre layer there’s Sambung. It’s private area for the leader in the house.

Lastly, the bottom layer is Sulluk Banua where livestock lives. It’s also the place where Torajan people keep their farming tools.

6. Walls Artistry

There are many symbols that tells stories in Tongkonan house. Most of them is created using clay with four basic colours: black, red, yellow, and white. For Torajan people, those colours has holistic meaning about life lesson. Yellow represents God’s will, black represents death, white represents the colour of a bone or holiness, and red represents the life of human.

7. Buffalo Horn

In Tongkonan house, you can find many Buffalo horn line up in the wall. You might think this is an accessory but it’s actually not. Tongkonan is built based on pride and social hierarchy and the symbol that represents those social status is Buffalo horn.

The more Buffalo horn a Tongkonan house has, the higher social status its owner has among Torajan society. Other than Buffalo horn, there’s also additional accessory like rooster head or dragon head to give more adjustment regarding a family social status.

8. Museum Ne’ Gandeng

Tongkonan house is not only used as common housing for a family. One of its other function is to be a museum. This museum is named after a founding father of Torajan tribe, Ne’ Gandeng.

This museum was established to honour Ne’ Gandeng virtue towards Torajan community right after Ne’ Gandeng deceased in August 3rd, 1994. This Tongkonan was intended to be a burial ground for Ne’ Gandeng, but local people transform this building to be a museum.

9. Megalith Site of Kalimbuang Bori

Other than Tongkonan, Tana Toraja also has megalith site from ancient world of Indonesia in Kalimbuang Bori. Here, you can find Bori Parinding, a megalith catacomb and Rante, a special field to hold a burial rite ceremony.

Moreover, In Kalimbuang Bori, there are many Menhir stone or standing stone. The purpose of Menhir is to honour the ancient people of Tana Toraja, aristocrat, and clerics. Some of the stones is believed to have been existed for more than hundred years.

10. The Centre of Tongkonan Village

If you look for village in Tana Toraja that has many Tongkonan house, there are two villages in the Tana Toraja that can please your soul, Pallawa and Ranteallo.

Pallawa is where the people value the buffalo horn decoration which means they honour social hierarchy high. While in Ranteallo, people value the philosophy of the house direction more than social hierarchy.

So, in Ranteallo, you’ll fing many Tongkonan house facing each other as a sign of a mother and father.

11. Ma’nene Ceremony

Torajan society is known for their respect to their ancient society. As Tongkonan house is a method to honour them, they also do the same thing in a ceremonial way. That ceremony Is called Ma’nene.

In this ceremony, Torajan people go to the cemetery to clean the body of the deceased and change their clothes. Torajan people doesn’t necessarily bury the deceased people to the ground. They mostly just lay their body on a specific cemetery.

Unfortunately, this ceremony is only held once in three years, specifically in August. If you want to have this experience, you can check in August for the best schedule.

12. Rambu Solo

Rambu Solo is a burial ceremony in Tana Toraja. Torajan people believe that if a family don’t hold Rambu Solo in their family member’s burial rite, the soul of the deceased will haunt the family and terror them with bad luck here and there.

For Torajan tribe, deceased people should be treated such the one who’s sick, which makes the family needs to treat them like a life person by providing foods and beverages, changing its clothes, and offering some offerings to the soul.

Those are some facts and informations regarding Tongkonan house and rituals surrounding the Torajan tribe. They are indeed very unique and traditional tribe, yet captivating. Most of tourist is attracted by its exotic and beautiful tradition that’s hold for centuries which are good for Indonesian tourism activity.

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