Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Boats on Torajan land

A tongkonan is much more than a house, it is a meeting point, a bridge between generations, a way of life, a meeting point, a philosophy and a book of symbols.

The word tongkonan means ‘to sit in’ and it describes the place very well. Built on sturdy wooden piles, the tongkonan has a huge roof and is not built for comfort, having very little space devoted to its inhabitants. This is also the reason why many Torajans opt for building a modern house behind the tongkonan. But should there be something important to discuss or a ceremony to be prepared, the tongkonan will be the venue.

According to the Torajan myth of origin, the Torajans lived in the north and the god left a ladder permitting them to move south. So did they, but they got shipwrecked on their way. As they could not move any more, they used the hull of their boats to build the first houses, thus giving the Tongkonan roof its recognizable boat shape.

The Torajan cosmos has both a vertical and a horizontal order. Vertically, it is divided in three parts. The sky (langi) is the upper world. There are several levels in the sky and Puang Matua, the old god, lives in the upper one. He is associated to the sun and daylight. He is maintaining the balance between night and day. The ancestors for whom elaborated funerary rites have been performed and who turned into deities are also living in the sky. From there, they care for their family and for rice. The earth (lino, padang) is the middle world, the world of the people. Before, stairs led to the sky. Now, the rainbow remains the only link between earth and heaven.

The lower world, under the earth, also has several levels. This world is haunted by malevolent spirits.

On the horizontal level, the cosmos is organized as follows: the earth is a kind of huge animal whose head is at the north and whose tail at the south.

The points of the compass are sacred and associated with the human body: north for the head, south for the feet, east and west for the hands. The tongkonan also relates to these points, and colors are attributed to the four cardinal points.

North (white) being home to the creator god, it is the most sacred direction, and all tongkonans are oriented to face north and to face the rice barns (alang). The rice barns are a miniature of the house. Since rice is associated with life and riches, rice deserves to stay in a house as beautiful as that of humans. The number of rice granaries gives information on the size of the rice fields, and is therefore also a sign of status. Sitting on the platform of a rice granary is an honor reserved to guests. The main pole holding the roof on the north side is the most sacred part of the roof. The higher part of the north face of a tongkonan is the most sacred place, being the place where the gods from the upper world can enter the house.

South (yellow) is the place of ancestors and afterlife, and decorations on the south side show it.

East (red) is associated with life, so birth ceremonies and burying of the placenta (the act establishing the roots of a family) take place there. In the house itself, the hearth is on this side, food being associated to life.

West (black) is the side for the burial rites.

The multiple decorations of the tongkonan relate to Torajan philosophy, and to the social status of the family. The north face of a house is the most decorated, being the one the gods see when they look down on earth.

Buffaloes represent strength and wealth. The number of buffalo horns decorating the front post of a house denotes the fortune and the prestige of the family.

The cockerel is a symbol for bravery and greatness, and so Torajans see themselves. It is used as food and offering to the gods, and also in burial ceremonies for cock fighting. Cockerels are regarded as clever and wise. A Torajan saying goes: ‘Tulan Didiq’s cockerel knows when evening comes and dark ends’, meaning that we have to be wise and adapt to any situation in life.

The star and the sunrise symbolize greatness, and as such the Torajans.

The katik, a strange bird with a long neck representing the mythical bird of the creation, is a sign of nobility.

Spiraling motifs and tendrils symbolize creeping plants or weeds growing in the rice paddies. The express the wish for many children growing around the house.

Leaves from the banyan tree, symbolizing life and riches, symbolize the connection to the upper world.

Betel leaves, given to guest as a sign of hospitality, thank the gods for their goodness.

Symbols associated with water (tadpoles, worms, crabs) represent life, fertility and good crops.

... and traditions continue!
Tana Toraja, May 2009.

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