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New ethnical awareness

In the early 17th century, islam was introduced in the lower parts of South-Sulawesi. Before that the religious traditions of the Toraja and Buginese had lot in common. In the 19th century the Dutch adapted the Buginese name of to ro aja ('population of the mountains') for many of the populations in Central-Sulawesi, as well as those for the highlands of South-Sulawesi. Groups in Central-Sulawesi rejected this name, but in the area of Sa'dan it was adapted with love, when they discovered a new feeling of ethnical identity to the outside world.
The current borders of Tana Toraja are about the same as the old Dutch district borders; formerly the highlands of Toraja didn't have borders nor political unity. A centralised state had never formed here, however the southern states of Ma'kale Sangalla' and Mengkendek had a federation named 'Tallu lembangna'. Aristocracy had more authority than elsewhere.

Traditional relations

Most people put their loyalty to unmeaning leaders of 'great men', which ruled separate villages or small groups of villages. The population was split up in classes. Many Toraja-aristocrats married with the rulers of small kingdoms in South-Sulawesi. Traditionally parts of Toraja were paying to the kingdom of Luwu', however the gifts were more a sign of respect than subjection. The relative independence is reflected in myths, which tell about the sole ancestor of the ruling families in the kingdoms of Gowa, Bone and Luwu' together. They are said to be descendants of the common Toraja ancestor of Laki Padada. Upto the abolishment of kingdoms in the 1950's, an aristocrat of Toraja took part in the inaugurational ceremonies of a new ruler in Luwu'. The ruling families of the old kingdoms in South-Sulawesi still send representatives to Toraja to take part in the rites of the house where Laki Padada is said to be born.

Towards the 19th century, Luwu' was an economial failure, and there were more important contacts with the southern buginese and Makassarese kingdoms. Between 1880 and 1890 these contacts faded when the kingdoms of Bone, Luwu'and Sidenreng sent troops to Toraja to take over the precious trade in coffee. In trade for their arabica-coffee of high quality, the Toraja received mainly firearms and fabrics. In weak periods the trade in coffee was extended with trade in slaves. The Buginese and Makasarese kingdoms were in desparate need of labor forces for the cultivation of rice, and in the 19th century the trade in slaves went rampant in certain parts of Toraja. Aristocrats with expansionist ambitions tied up with Buginese hitmen and attacked remote districts to get their slaves. Several of these aristocrats had captured vast quantities of estate and were consolidating their new political power when the Dutch halted the process.
The Dutch troops entered the highlands in 1905, due to heavy resistance of a number of Torajan leaders the entire area came under direct Dutch influence in 1906. Pong Piku, the military leader of Toraja which had defended the area around Pangala' with cannons and cayennepepper guns, was captured and later killed in Rantepao on rumours that he was trying to escape. He is remembered as one of the national heroes of Indonesia.


The new colonial government determined borderd, demanded taxes, introduced Christianity and founded schools. Education was in the first place used to educate the children of the aristocracy, but because they distrusted the Dutch motives they sometimes send the children of their slaves. The Dutch reformed church send it's first missionary in 1913. According to colonial rules, churches were appointed specific areas to work around direct competition.
The Dutch also stopped the unrest of the coffee- and slavewars, so it became more easy to travel across the island. It was the first time that some Toraja left the highlands to follow education or to work. These widening horisons in the 1920's and 1930's stimulated a new feeling or ethnical identity among the Toraja, as they used to name themselves by now.
The mission of the reformed church, in this case the 'Gereformeerde Zendingsbond', had little success in converting, because the aristocracy feared that Christianity would undermine their traditional authority. In the 1930's there was a small flow of conversions, partially due to education to the children of the aristocracy. When children of aristocracy were converted, the parents, family members and servants sometimes followed as well. This number lowered during the crisis at the end of the 1930's, when local communities said that the difficult times were caused by not practicing traditions by those who had converted. This was encouraged by the Second World War and the Japanese occupagion, when all means of life were hard to get.


After the independence in 1950, lower and higher education started to really kick off. There were little possibilities however to to anything with such education inside the area, which is branded by self-sufficient agriculture. Because of the bad infrastructure it was hard to travel outside the highlands. Guerilla-wars between islamic rebels and the just settled government made travelling in the 1950's dangerous as well.
Population continued to grow, which caused more pressure on local ricefields. Education had opened the eyes of the youngsters. When peace returned in the 1960's, thousands of young Toraja started to migrate from the area, they were motivated by the lack of jobs and land, and intrigued by the storied of the wealth in the city.
The exodus was taken to a higher level by the new Jakarta politics to open up Indonesia for foreign investment. A big number of international companies settled in neighboring Kalimantan, Papua and elsewhere to exploit the rich supplies of oil, wood and minerals. Many Toraja travelled far from home to look for a job. Young men became worker, young women housemaid. The flow of migrants became very large when they heard the stories of success and the money that flowed back with it.
This migration still continues today. Probably there are 300.000 Toraja living outside their area of birth. This has a dramatic influence on the villages, where grandparents and little children are often the majority. In a community, which still appreciates strong family relations, the absence of an entire generation can be disasterous. The downfall is more than just symbolic: elderly don't have anything and no daily aid; everywhere people complain about shortage of workers on the fields.

Bad social order

Almost all Toraja migrants become Christian because aluk, the traditional religion, is almost impossible to be practiced outside the community of priests and fellow believers. Leaving the highlands however, doesn't mean that they give up their social and cultural connection. Experiences in a multi-ethnic environment far away from home stimulate the awareness of the Toraja-identity.
The Toraja society was traditionally separated into three classes: aristocracy, civillians and slaves. What these classes meant varied per region, but the level of rites which you could work for, was determined by someones class. A combination of heiritage, marriage, political skills and luck determined the class you end up in. The Dutch started to break down this structure when they abolished slavery at the start of the 20th century, and later when they allowed in missionaries which preached equal people. The start of common education for aristocracy as well as slaves broke down the system even more, as well as new sources of wealth and status. The most radical changes were possibly made possible by migration, because slaves could now get extreme wealth when working in remote countries where no one knows about their status in their homeland.
Even among migrants with lower status the relations with the highlands are strong; most return for funerals and other important tiruals. Especially during these ceremonies the gathered wealth is used, this in contrary to the discouragement of these traditional rites by the colonial authorities, except among the highest class elite. Against this background, the Toraja rituals have become slightly doubtfukll. It has increased clearly in the last 20 years of the 20th century, or should we say that this is inflation? It's nothing more than spoiling or just a good way of devide wealth? Does it cultivate new forms of competition for status, which causes the old order to be undermined? Or is it the most important part of the chain in Toraja traditions, a confirmation of the rich and characteristic culture on which people used to look down? Whatever the answer may be, the rites are, in their execution as well as their discussion about their meaning, an important institution for the Toraja.

Renaissance of the ritual

When the Dutch missionaries started working in the highlands of South-Sulawesi at the beginning of the 20th century, the forbade most of the traditional rites. The use of 'raising smoke' for example, with an explicit demand to spirits, were seen as unacceptably pagan. They were more ambivalent against ceremonies related to death. It was clear that Christianity would not make any progression when rites were to be abolished completely, and the Dutch Protestants had to give in with the fact that death had to be related with some kind of ceremony.
The remarkable result of this colonial action was that aluk (roughly the elements of the ritual life which Westerners call 'religious') was separated from adat. This caused a slide in the balance in which the ritual cycle and ritual funerals became more important when Christian missionaries converted more people. A Christian rite could be adapted, so only the 'habitual' aspects were kept. Now most of the Toraja is Christian, the burial rites still flourish while the rites of the 'rising smoke' are relatively scarce.
It sounds ironic, that Christianity seems to have caused an increase in ritual activity. While the basic principals of aluk limit the participation to rituals by social status, Christianity doesn't acknowledge this traditional hierarchy. All Christians among the Toraja are now even allowed to participate to the highest and most extensife rites; they have managed to keep their most important traditional rituals. This caused a raise in prite and prestige, as well as increasing awareness of the Toraja identity in a multi-ethnical Indonesian state.

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