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The Tongkonan
Large 'Houses of Origin'

Toraja houses give more than just shelter; they are very important points in the network of relations: the reference points which determine someones relations. People can be vague about their genealogic relations with far family, but they can also name the houses in which their parents and ancestors are born, and they can usually name some houses of relatives further away. They often remember the names of the houses, while they have forgotten the names of the people living there, and when they are talking about 'relationships', they often talk about houses. To express their relations with others, they say that 'their houses are united' or that they are 'brothers and sisters in a certain house'.
There are two words for 'house'. Houses in common are named banua, while houses of relation or origin are named tongkonan (tongkon means 'sitting'). Tongkonan points at the place where members of a family gather to discuss important affairs like marriage, heiritage, to arrange things for maintanance of the house or to attend ceremonies. A house in which someones father, mother and other relatives are born can be seen as the house of origin. As well as among many other communities in western Indonesia, the origin is decided from two directions, by the father as well as the mother. In this way, they don't belong to one single house, but to several, however they don't go and live in one of those necesarily. The size of the group in a random house, which only meet under rare circumstances, is hard to track down. This also explains why it's possible for a member to stay in another house. The membership only activated when there is heirloom to devide or when plans are made to rebuild a house or to hold a ceremony.
When a house is rebuild, the ascendants are ought to claim their membership by contributing to the total cost; if they are very poor, a symbolic sacrifice is enough. Some say a single grain of rice, put in a piece to connect pillars and beams, is enough to claim your membership. Others bring a pig for sacrifice as well. Sometimes people can try to make a false claim to the membership in this way. Acknowledgement could lead to claims on the tongkonan later on. When the pig is refused this also means a refusal of the claim. When you look back only eight generations, you will see that there are 256 houses in which a person can claim membership to. Aristocrats can go back infinitely sometimes. Normally people only maintain membership to the house of the direct parents and those of their wife or husband.
Husband and wife are ought to merge their posessions and help eachother to pay for the cost of rites, which are performed by both sides. This means that both of them has to bring a pig as sacrifice. The contribution to the family ceremonies at both sides should be in balance with eachother. This is the only point that limits the claims for membership. It would simply be too costly to pay for the claims at rites of many houses.
The tongkonan has it's own stone grave (liang) and the membership of a house gives someone the right to be buried there. In ritual poetry the grave is described as 'the house without smoke, the village which doesn't have fire'. Because people belong to many houses they also have a reasonable choice in graves.

House to rank

Not all houses are allowed to be named tongkonan. In some parts of Tana Toraja the relatively unimportant houses are named tongkonan and people say that 'even the birds have their tongkonan'. This means that people of lower rank as well have relations which can be traces through houses.
In areas like Saluputti the term tongkonan is reserved exclusively for houses for nobility. Painted and woodcarved houses used to be their privilege; most people lived in simple bamboo huts.

Tongkonan can simply be houses of origin, which are only important for a certain family, but not for the community. In case of important aristocratic tongkonan, the long genealgies are learned. They date back that far, that they even conclude the names of some mythical characters.
Traditionally the houses of aristocratic leaders were visible representations of their wealth, power and ritual superiority. It was forbidden to people of lower classes to imitate these houses and they could only add special ornaments to their house after expensife rites were performed. This ought, as a thank you to the spirits, to attratc supernatural aid: fertility, prosperity and common welbeing. Because strict rules of social classes determined which rites were to be held, the system was used to enlarge the prestige of the ruling elite and their houses.


Everywhere in Tana Toraja there are houses which are being build, rebuild or redecorated. The needed money often comes from migrated family members, which have done a good job in remote cities. The Toraja don't only renew their houses because they need to be repaired; often a house has to be broken down and rebuild, in which the same wood is used. Rebuilding gives prestige to the house; a house that is build in one generation and renewed in the next one, starts to get tongkonan-qualities already. At each following rebuilding, it's position against other houses gets higher. This process can get together with the appearance of a man with special forces or verbal skills, which is acknowledged by the representative of the family. Such a person can convince the members of the family to enlarge the prestige of the family by enlarging the house they don't even live in.
All tongkonan have a couple of founders, a husband and wife. People usually remember the original founders of the estate and can appoint them as founders. The well-known tongkonan of Nonogang in the district of Kesu' is said to be founded by a woman, Manaek, because her house was built on her ancesteral estate. When married, men usually live with their wife, and that's the sign for the man to rebuilding the house which belongs to his wife. When divorced, he's also the one which has to move out, maybe he get's a riceshed as compensation.
Ricesheds are easily broken down and build up at another location, houses are not allowed to be replaced. When a child is born, the father buries the placenta in a woven basket at the eastern side of the house, the direction that is associated with life and the rising sun. Maybe the strongest reason not to replace a house is that a big number of placentas is buried there. How far a Toraja may live away from his homeground, they will eventually return to their house.

House ceremonies

Traditionally, every phase of the construction of a house has it's own rites, from chopping down the trees to placing the bamboo roofs. Due to the current lack of wood, caused by deforestation, most is bought in shops in Palopo. During the entire construction the owners should provide food, coffe and cigarettes to the workers. Sometimes the money is just finished and houses are left unfinished for a while.
Sacrifices made and the side of the inaugural party depend on the social position. The inaugurational ceremoney, the mangrara banua, (banua means 'house', rara means 'blood'), the poorest people give chicken, while the people from the middleclass supply pigs. The biggest, three-day aristocratic ceremony is named ditallu rarai, 'three kinds of blood'. This represents the ritual sacrifice of chickens, pigs and dogs. In 1983 a huge ceremony was held south of Rantepao for the tongkonan of Nonongan. Many noble families have a relation with this tongkonan: there were more than a hundred branches of descendants from this house, which all brought huge pigs. The mythical ancestors Laki Padada, whose children are said to have founded the Buginese and Makasarese kingdoms of Gowa, Bone and Luwu', are present in the genealogy of Nonongan. Al these rich people sent their own representatives from their royal families to the ceremony. However they are muslem themselves, the representatives from Luwu' brought a huge pig. The house was decorated with expensife heirlooms, which were put at the walls of the houses: ikat fabrics, swords from ancestors, golden keris, and ornaments of beads (kandaure). When they welcomed the guests they were wearing a kandaure as well.

New wealth, new styles

The traditional saddle-shaped tongkonan look very impressive from the outside, but from the inside they are rather small and dark. Nowadays people want to live in a larger and lighter house with more space for furniture. A bungalow built on the ground is modernity. A wooden house in Buginese style, built on pillars with big doors and windows is cheaper but often offers a number of these benefits. Recently the people that build houses have developed a transitional style in which the profits of modern living are combined with the prestige of the traditional tongkonan. This is a two-storey house. Downstairs is square, in Buginese style, and the upper floor is built in the real tongkonan-style, decorated with traditional woodcarving.
When you ask about the meaning of this woodcarving in Toraja, they will answer with a variety of answers, which are sometimes inspirations of the moment. However you will probably not get an explanation which has anything to do with the woodcarving as an integral part, there still are several common themese to be distinguished.
Some say that the stylized buffalo head (pa'tedong) represent hope for wealth in the form of buffalos, while others say that it represents the nobility which keep together the community, like the supporting roof beams keep the smaller wood together. Many of these woodcarvings are motives of flowers: water flowers which grow in the ricefields, or maybe pumpkin. Crawling plants point at the hope that the numerous descendants of the house, no matter how many, will stay together, just like the branches of a crawling plant keep being attached to the stem.
Other motives on Toraja houses are related to water. The association with water suggests life, fertility and good ricefields while the little frogs and plants also represent the birth of many descendants. Some designs are ritually important, like the waringin (pa'barana), young loots of the cordyline (pa'lolo tabang) or sirih leaves (pa'daun bolu).
The last, always used with sacrifices, are to be found at the top of the wall, below the design of cocks and rays of sunlight (pa'barre allo). This part can be seen as the representation of the heavens. Some Toraja interpret this location as an entire presentation of the meeting of the descendants of the house to bring sacrifices to the gods.
The cock plays the role of negotiator between the earth and the heaven, because when the cock makes sound, the day is starting. In several myths the cock has the power to revive a dead hero and to make a wish come true. The cock is also known in Torajan cosmology. The walls of the most important aristocratic tongkonan often have a realistically woodcarved buffalo head, on which real horns are fixed. They are called kabongo'.

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