Houses That Reach for the Sky

On the seemingly endless bus ride from southern Sulawesi, you know you’ve reached Tana Toraja (Land of the Torajans) when the houses start to look unlike anything that came before. Rectangular wooden houses, set high on pillars, are carved and elaborately painted in shades of black and ochre and are crowned with improbably large curved roofs that angle sharply upward at both ends. These are tongkanons, the traditional houses and ceremonial centerpieces of the Torajan people.

According to some anthropologists, the Torajans came to the island of Sulawesi from the Tonkin area of northern Vietnam. Some people say the curved roof of a tongkanon looks like a boat and recalls the Torajans’ seafaring origins. Others say the roof resembles the horns of a water buffalo, an animal that plays a vital role in Torajan life. That resemblance is heightened by the fact that a tongkanon typically has a carved buffalo head on the front and stylized buffalo symbols painted on its exterior (along with roosters, suns, and various geometric shapes). The horns of buffaloes sacrificed at past family funerals are stacked on the central pole in front of the family’s tongkanon.

Some anthropologists say the structure of a tongkanon mirrors Torajans’ view of the cosmos, which is divided into an underworld inhabited by animals, a middle world inhabited by humans, and a heaven above. In a tongkanon, the bottom area among the pillars is traditionally used for stabling buffaloes, while people live in the house above, and the roof gables reach toward heaven.

Smaller versions of tongkanons are used for storing rice (the Torajans’ main crop), though they’re also built as status symbols. A collection of five or ten rice barns and one or two big tongkanons denotes a very wealthy family. Even-smaller versions of tongkanons are used as carriers to transport coffins for burial. The soaring roof is such an important symbol of the Torajan people that it appears on buildings all over Tana Toraja, including schools, government offices, and restaurants.

The tongkanons we were able to go into—some that are open to tourists plus the family tongkanon of our local guide—were surprisingly small inside. The space under the immense roof is decorative rather than functional. The living area is divided into a raised sleeping room at each end and a slightly lower room in the middle, which was traditionally used for cooking (on a small hearth) and eating. Tongkanons are fairly dark inside, with only a few small shutters that can be opened to let in light. Traditionally, the dimness and lack of living space didn’t matter because most of Torajans’ daily life was spent outside.

The room in the middle was traditionally the kitchen and dining room. But this family has an outdoor kitchen, so the middle of the tongkanon is the TV room. (Most Torajans are now Christians, hence the decorations.)

Today, though, some Torajans are enclosing the areas under their tongkanons to provide more space or a bigger kitchen or an indoor bathroom. Others build modern cement houses next to the tongkanon and live there. But the tongkanon is still used to house visiting relatives, and it’s where the body of a deceased family member is kept—embalmed and wrapped in cloth, sometimes in a coffin—until the funeral can be held. (Interestingly, the body is not left there alone. A surviving spouse sleeps in the same room, and other family members sleep in the second sleeping room, reinforcing the idea that the dead person is still part of the family.)

Tongkanons can last for centuries. The oldest ones we saw were about 300 years old. Back then, roof gables were much shorter, but as tastes have changed and building methods have improved, roofs have been getting taller and taller. The traditional bamboo roof on a tongkanon lasts about 30 to 40 years before rain and vegetation rot it enough that it needs replacing. Many tongkanons now have metal roofs, which are easier to construct and much more durable. However, because tongkanons are an attraction for tourists, the local government offers subsidies to Torajans willing to rebuild their bamboo roofs.

A set of brand new tongkanons, complete with enclosed lower levels.

A tongkanon belongs to an extended family and is handed down from generation to generation, but usually only one branch of the family lives in or takes care of it. Our guide explained that the family members chosen to take care of the tongkanon must be upstanding and hospitable people because they represent the honor of the entire extended family. Decisions about whether to renovate a tongkanon or build a new one are made by the whole family, with everyone contributing to the project. Because the house is the focus of a family’s ceremonial life, past and present, even a Torajan who lives far away still feels connected to his or her family’s tongkanon.

Looking out the windows of the front sleeping room

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