Weavings from the Land in the Cloud
Toraja, South Sulawesi Province
By Nurdiyansah Dalidjo & Cassandra Grant
You’ll always find something interesting when meeting the Toraja people who live in the highest mountains of South Sulawesi in Indonesia. The word Toraja comes from the Buginese language phrase to riaja, meaning “people who inhabit the country above.”
As you take in the sweeping views of ancient limestone outcrops, you’ll notice the uniquely shaped tongkonan houses dotting the landscape. While some say the dramatically curved roofs represent buffalo horns, others say that they resemble the ships that Toraja ancestors arrived in. Real buffalo horns and pig jawbones decorate the walls of the tongkonan, along with intricate hand carvings that offer insight into understanding the community’s kinship systems.
“The tongkonan is a universe or microcosm for Toraja people,” says Arnold, a local youth who also works as a teacher. “If you want to know anything about Toraja, you should see the tongkonan.” Toraja families use tongkonan houses to trace their genealogy and visually represent their lines of ancestral descent. Kinship ties can be observed when Toraja say to each other that ‘our houses meet.’
Some families maintain tongkonan houses and rice barns (alang) that are hundreds of years old and were built by their ancestors. However, the cost of upkeep is more than many can afford, and increasingly Toraja families are letting their tongkonan fall into disrepair.
From a distance the mountains appear to be surrounded by lush green trees. As the day progresses, the sun burns off the early morning fog, revealing a clearer view of the limestone karsts that provide the final resting place for the dead. Toraja people observe elaborate funeral ceremonies that involve burying family members and relatives in cave niches on high ground. The funeral rites, known as the Rambu Solo’, are usually attended by hundreds of people and last for several days.
Arnold had mentioned many Toraja people still adhere to the local religion known as Aluk To Dolo, although many identify as Christians. The Toraja people believe that animals sacrificed at the Rambu Solo’ ritual, especially buffaloes, will carry the spirits of the dead to the world of spirits. As a result hundreds, even thousands of offerings of buffaloes, pigs, chickens, and other animals are sacrificed at this ritual.
Woven fabrics also form an important part of the funeral ceremonies. One of the sacred ikat weavings features a bright orange and blue dominant color, and is decorated with rhombuses, arrows, and diamond shapes in geometric patterns. Known alternately as Rongkong and Galumpang, the pattern represents Toraja ancestors but may be known by different names elsewhere.
Nowadays Toraja customs in South Sulawesi are administratively divided into several districts. In addition to Tana Toraja District and North Toraja District, Rongkong is well known and commonly made in Luwu District, while Galumpang is in Mamuju District. The naming conventions for woven fabrics in Toraja do not always refer to the motif, but can also refer to the place, the techniques used, and the function of the weaving. For example, Suwati Kartiwa writes that Rongkong and Galumpang are used as porisitutu or a coffin covering for a corpse.
The Rambu Solo’ ceremony is both costly and labour-intensive and can take years to prepare. As a result, the Toraja people have developed a tradition of storing and preserving bodies with special ingredients while families collect and prepare all the necessary materials. In the meantime, an unburied body is considered a “sick person.” It is kept in the house and treated like a living person, and invited to take part in conversation and meals with the family. The bodies are also wrapped in layers of woven fabric made from cotton yarn and natural dyes that are imbued with spiritual meaning, and also contribute to the mummification process.
Weaving is an important spiritual activity and is respected by the Toraja people, but only women weave the cloth. They inherit the skills and knowledge taught by their grandmother or mother. From childhood, girls are involved in the fabric-making process, starting with chopping cotton or rolling yarn. Over time they learn the complex stages of weaving.
In Sa’dan, one of the sub-districts of North Toraja crossed by a big river sharing the same name, weavers both young and old are still actively weaving cloths with traditional tools that in Java and Sumatra would be called gedogan or pelantai. Some weave in groups at tongkonan houses or under alang rice barns.The similarities between the tongkonan motifs and the woven fabric show that both art forms have inspired and influenced each other.
While primarily woven for their own needs and ceremonies, the cloth is also sold as tourist souvenirs. Indigenous women in Sa’dan have also worked with Indonesian fashion industry members such as Toraja Melo to produce fabrics for commercial use. Weaving as a spiritual activity is experiencing an economic transformation. It now sustains family income and can cover the cost of school fees for children.
Initially, Toraja woven fabrics use hand-spun cotton threads and natural dyes grown around gardens and in fields and forests. One of those dyes is the tarum plant that produces an indigo blue. Other dyes use noni roots and turmeric. In the distant past, Toraja also sourced a black coloring using katakante leaves and mud sourced from fields where buffalo were kept. According to a Toraja resident, using mud that was mixed with urine or buffalo dung would help lock in the dye. Woven fabrics that have been coloured through this mud-dyeing process are known as pote, and are worn as headbands or hoods by relatives of the dead as a symbol of mourning.
Nowadays in Sa’dan you can find various colours, techniques, and motifs in woven fabric. Fabric variations continue to evolve as tastes change. For Sa’dan weavers, woven fabric is a manifestation of the freedom of expression and represents the individual aesthetics of indigenous women. Traditionally, weaving also affirms the authority of indigenous women to manage both tongkonan houses and the indigenous territories in fields or forests where cotton and natural dye plants are planted.
The technique and motifs of Toraja woven fabric created by indigenous women’s groups in Sa’dan are well documented in two Toraja Melo publications entitled Untanun Katuoan: The Daily Lives of Weavers Sa’dan Toraja, South Sulawesi, Indonesia (2014) and Untanun Kameloan: Wastra Toraja, Mamasa, Kalumpang, Rongkong, Sulawesi, Indonesia (2014).
Weaving activities have experienced a downturn in Sa’dan. The flow of modernisation and the increasing number of Toraja people who move to the big cities has resulted in a decline in the use of, and demand for, woven fabric. There has also been a transition from handmade cotton thread and natural dye materials to synthetic coloured yarns, which initially made woven fabrics easier and faster to produce at relatively affordable prices. Then the events of the ’98 financial crisis and the Bali Bombing Tragedy reduced the number of foreign tourists who are the primary buyers of woven fabric. Since 2008 Toraja Melo has worked to revitalise the local weaving industry through a program designed to empower and organise indigenous women in Sa’dan.
Now, along with the rapid growth of tourism, domestic and foreign tourists can return to enjoy the woven fabrics created by Toraja women. In Sa’dan we can find not only Rongkong and Galumpang ikat, but also plain weavings with warp-float patterning with colorful lines, such as Parramba’, Pamiring, Pa’bunga-bunga, Mata Papa’, and more. There is also a rectangular-looking Maa’ with motifs similar to Indian Patola, and Sarita with lengthy motifs detailing ancestral figures, farm animals, and the geometric patterns seen on tongkonan houses. Both types of fabric are made using hand painting techniques and wood or bamboo stamp (resist dyeing, hand painting, and dyeing with bamboo or wood stamps).
One of the key figures among Toraja’s weaver artists is Grandma Panggau. Without wearing glasses, her eyes are still deftly spinning cotton yarn and weaving. When asked how old she is, she gently answers, “80 years, but I forgot what year I was born.” Her children are at least half a century old and her face is full of fine wrinkles.
“My first grandchild has begun learning how to spin cotton yarn. But she is not yet fluent and it still falls apart.” She’s referring to the exacting skill of spinning cotton wool into thread. “I’ll die sooner or later,” Grandma Panggau says, “and this skill will become extinct!”
What she says reinforces the hope that Sa’dan indigenous women — young and old — continue to preserve Toraja’s weaving practices. But by giving women support and access to resources, they can maintain and develop their knowledge and ancestral traditions.
Achjadi, Yudi and Kusakabe, Keiko (2014) Untannun Kameloan: Wastra Toraja, Mamasa, Kalumpang, and Rongkong, South Sulawesi, Indonesia. North Toraja District, South Sulawesi: Yayasan Toraja Melo.
Jusuf, Dinny, and Melati, Trisa (2014) Untannun Katuoan: Everyday Weaving Stories Weavers Sa’dan, Toraja, South Sulawesi, Indonesia. North Toraja District, South Sulawesi: Yayasan Toraja Melo.
Kartiwa, Suwati (2007) Indonesian Traditional Woven Fabric Weaving. Jakarta: PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama.