Tongkonan in South Sulawesi: Research of Kinship System and Politics

Published: 2021-06-17 08:29:08
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Situated in the highlands of South Sulawesi, Indonesia are the Toraja people. These people live in two different Austronesia type houses – banua tongkonan and banua barung-barung. This paper is concerned only with banua tongkonan, the houses for noblemen. In this category, Tongkonan is further divided into 3 different models, ranked from the highest to the lowest in terms of their individual significance. The mentioned 3 models are the Tongkonan Layuk, Tongkonan Pekaindoran and Tongkonan Batu A’riri. Tongkonan Layuk, being placed at the highest rank is not only the oldest but is also the “highest” where customary rules and regulations were made. It is followed by Tongkonan Pekaindoran, which overall form resembles that of a Tongkonan Layuk.
However, despite the similarities, these two have different functions and serve different purposes. Lastly, placed at the lowest rank, is the Tongkonan Batu A’riri where its appearance in terms of decorations differs fairly significantly from the previous two. Unlike them, it is not well decorated with colourful carvings. Moreover, it too, does not have other forms of symbolic decorations such as the middle pillar lined with row of water buffalo horns. Clearly, this shows the Toraja people’s emphasis on the display of rankings and statuses where they are articulated through the decorations of the architecture. To clueless outsiders and tourists, these decorations, however, could be regarded as a common style that characterise the Tongkonan, where this style has become the identity of the Tongkonan and of the Toraja people. It is also through the Tana Toraja’s infamous kinship system and rituals that the subtle differences between ranks were ‘hidden’. Like what Edwin de Jong mentioned in his book, ‘Making a Living between Crises and Ceremonies in Tana Toraja’ (2013), “It is as much about the established kinship system as it is about the politics. This paper discusses this ‘issue’ in greater extent.TORAJAN’S KINSHIP SYSTEM
The kinship system is highly respected by the Toraja people whereby their houses, Tongkonan, are the centre points of it. The whole idea of the Tongkonan, from the layout, to the form, revolves around this kinship system.
The Toraja settlement, usually exists as an independent entity, consists of a row of compound houses (Tongkonan), another row of granaries (alang), built opposite the Tongkonan and a ceremonial ground in between these two rows of buildings. For a typical settlement, the form of a rice granary (alang) is the direct replication of the house opposite (Tongkonan) but quarter in size. The rice granaries have platforms underneath the buildings’ bodies which serve as gathering spots on ground level, allowing the ceremonial ground to extend inwards. When a group overgrows and exceeds the size limit a settlement can accommodate, it splits and expands outwards to the nearby areas, establishing its own cluster of Tongkonan.
However, the unique thing about the kinship system is that the ties with the origin are present via the Tongkonan despite the separation. Through this, there is always a relationship between the past and present, allowing the present to trace back to their ancestors. This entwined yet complex networks between different groups have allowed them to share similarities when it comes to the celebration of rituals. Marriages, too, occur between kin alliances. Kin alliances are formed via activities shared between communities and this form of inter-marriages have effect in strengthening the ties between the various communities. [footnoteRef: 6] This points out the importance of ancestral ties and kinships to the Toraja people, as a whole community. On the flipped side however, this form of ties also means that the new generations will take over the ranks and statuses of the previous generations. Despite the similar understanding of the kinship system and the adoption of this kinship spirit, the different levels in their statuses will eventually divide them based on one settlement’s importance over the other. This ‘component’ that exists within the kinship groupings, which will be further elaborated in the later paragraphs is the social ranking system. Its underlying social stratification changes the way things work, such as the celebration of rituals and the way architecture are represented.
In the Toraja society, people are divided into 3 basic strata. [footnoteRef: 8] At the highest level are the nobles (puang), who are responsible for administration works and the passing of rules and regulations. They hold the greatest power among all, which is very significant in the highly stratified Toraja society. Below the noblemen are the freemen (to makaka) and at the lowest level are the servants (kaunan). The presence of this social stratification signifies the importance of class and status in the society which explains the huge effect it has on the Toraja people’s lives.
Tongkonan is often or always being associated to certain styles such as its dramatic roof, colourful carvings of roosters and unique funeral rituals. These have become the common identity of a Tongkonan. However, many of these seemingly ‘normal’ styles are symbolic and they carry deeper meanings, which is the main concern of this paper. The subsequent paragraphs will discuss the different styles that were reflected on the Tongkonan alongside with the underlying meanings that they hold in reference to the Toraja social stratification as these two are closely related. By doing so, it hopes to highlight that these ‘glorified’ identity of the Tongkonan is in fact, the result of the presence of the ranking system.
The Tongkonan has a distinctive form that singles it out from the rest of the Austronesia type houses. It has a massive dramatic upswept roof that is evidently bigger that the body of the architecture. The roof is believed to reflect the meaning of the word – Tongkonan, which means “to sit, to settle, to reside with some permanence. ” The roof has always been an important feature of a Tongkonan. Judging from its evolution and development through the years, the roof has always been a distinctive form of the architecture. In fact, the roof has increased in its size throughout the years while the body becomes narrower. Further emphasising it is the disproportionate increase in the Tongkonan’s horizontal length and the vertical height which has undoubtedly dramatized the entire form, giving the overall a more spectacular look. As roof size matters in the display of one’s power, this evolution is efficient in showing the current influence politics have on the architecture and how it plays a part in Tongkonan’s identity.
The Tongkonan has symbolic decorations that can be found all around its façade. Although ubiquitous, these elements vary from one Tongkonan to another as they change according to one’s status and one’s status changes when specific events such as marriages occur. Again, these elements which represent Tongkonan’s style (identity) are a result of its politics. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the display of wealth and power is a common tradition in the Toraja society. Thus, the complexity of these decorations indicates the wealth of the family, which clearly explains the absence of these elements on the Tongkonan of the lowest rank (Tongkona Batu A’riri).
Carving designs are metaphorically representational and were done with great emphasis. The Toraja people take this process very seriously as the designs were supposed to be the manifestations of not just their power, but also kin ties with their descendants. It again, highlights the importance of the kinship system to the Toraja people, which in this case, even at the smallest details of the house. This concept applies to the other elements too. Most of the designs were rendered in specific colours, according to Tana Toraja’s 4 main colours – white, black, red and yellow. Each of the colours represents different meanings in the Toraja ritual system. Black is for funerals, yellow for gold and rice while red and white are associated with the life rituals. The meanings that these colours hold further extend their influences towards the internal layout of the Tongkonan, which will be touched upon in the later paragraphs.
Middle pillar, tulak sumba is another style that has always been associated with a Tongkonan though they can only be found in the two models of higher ranking Tongkonan – Tongkonan Layuk and Tongkonan Pekaindoran. In each Tongkonan of either model mentioned, there are 2 of such pillars at both ends of the building. These pillars are supports for the water buffalo horns. Since the pillar is located right at the middle, directly in front of the house, it shows the necessity of this form of display for whatever the water buffalo horn signifies. As a background, water buffalos are precious to the Toraja people as those animals grow vigorously specifically in the highlands of Tana Toraja. They are sacrificed during rituals where the horns will later be painted in white and black. Using that as a backdrop, having these horns lined up against the pillar, displayed in the front of the Tongkonan, is a form of remembrance towards the significant funerals and important ceremonies that have happened in the past. Toraja people take this as a way of knowing the size of any other family’s kinship networks, which gives a depth to this style that it is not merely just an identity of the Toraja people. There are greater meanings beyond that. The display of these water buffalo horns that carry such meaning is basically an equivalent to wearing one’s achievement on the neck for the rest of the people to judge. It could then potentially lead to an unhealthy form of competition among the different Tongkonan, which would change everything. Although the beginning intention of doing so was to ‘promote’ the remembrance of the ancestors and the kinship networks, the irony is however, the possibility for it to cause tensions among the different households.
Moving on to the architectural perspective on the pillars, they are great examples of how culture and architecture can unite and work together as an integrated system. Apart from its symbolic meanings, these middle pillars at both ends help to support the Tongkonan’s exaggerated roof by carrying the extra weight of the extended portions. However, some pillars hold meanings beyond their structural function. One such example would be the granary of the Toraja people. The number of pillars holding the granary up are linearly proportionate to one’s wealth and rank. Normal granary stands on 4 pillars while granary belongs to a wealthy person stands on 12.
In the midst of all the differences, one common feature across all different models of Tongkonan is the layout of the spaces inside them. These spaces were arranged based on the 4 directions (North, East, South and West) the Toraja people believe have significance in. Primarily, the houses in Tana Toraja face Northeast, due to their beliefs in cosmology. For the Toraja people, each direction signifies different things and it is important that their architecture planning reflects it. At the North is where the Sa’dan River is. River is often being associated to life where the flow is believed to bring life. This explains the orientation of the granaries (alang) where they are seen as the Northeast extension Tongkonan. East is where sun rises each day where threatened crops are ‘restored’. It also has to do with the wellbeing of the people. On the other side, west is where sun sets. For such reason, funeral rituals are often associated to west. Lastly, South is where the Sa’dan River ends.
These beliefs have strong impact on the internal spatial organization of the Tongkonan where they were served as design references. Each house has a division of 3 spaces, tangdo, sali, and sumbang. Following the meaning of each direction, north is where the house entrance is at. East is where the kitchen, middle room (sali) is while the west is where corpse of family member was stored prior to the ritual. Bedroom, rear room (sumbang) occupies the southern part of the house.
The Tongkonan’s similarities in orientation however, does not indicates the equality in the ritual’s privileges. Due to the fact that ritual histories of the ancestors contribute to the statuses of the Tongkonan, not everyone gets to participate in these rituals. This itself, is already a clear example of how statuses play a part in the curation of the Toraja community’s identity. For big rituals, one out of the 12 nobles (potoktengan) will be selected as the titleholder to precede the ritual. Selection process includes one’s wealth as a compulsory requirement. Such phenomenon contradicts with the kinship system when it comes to the understanding of rituals. As almost all Tongkonan have pasts, hence the existence of ancestors and kinship networks, the new generations have duty to be aware of the origin and actively participate in rituals held by other communities in the network. Participation of such has shown Tongkonan being the anchor point of the kinship system, hence the opportunity it has created that promotes formation of relationships through ceremonies and rituals. Behind the glorious rituals that could be seen in many pictures, the position one stands or the actions one performs are representations of their ranks in the society. People of higher class sit under the rice barns while the ordinary make shift with the ground. Moreover, the people of the lowest class perform more labour works such as the slaughtering of animals during the ceremonies. Concern for ranks and statuses extends further to marriages. Intermarriages are often practiced among the people with statuses to ensure a full closure of the family by avoiding the interference of outsiders. By doing so, resources and fortunes stay within the family.
The lists can go on and on as it is a proven fact that one is inescapable of another. Internal politics such as the emphasis in the ranking system are just too heavily intertwined with the existing kinship system framework. The effect it has on the environment, such as the architecture is thus inescapable. This then questions the ‘real’ identity representation of the Toraja community.

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