Tongkonan, Traditional Ancestral House Of The Torajan Living In Celebes, Indonesia

Tongkonan is the name of traditional house of the Torajan, a local tribe living on the southern part of the island of Sulawesi (formerly known as Celebes), Indonesia. The Torajan is widely known not only for their remarkable architecture but also for their unique culture.

The Torajan

The Toraja were initially head hunters. They involved in tribal wars. That’s why they built their village up on high hill surrounded by fortress. Only after Dutch colonization this practice started to change. The tribe moved to valleys and started planting rice and raising buffalo and pigs. The ancient Torajan was animist but

most of them had been converted to Christianity after the arrival of missionaries in the beginning of 20th century. However the tribe still maintains its traditional religion called Aluk Todolo together with its famous animist funeral rite and animal sacrifices.

Philosophy of the Tongkonan

Tongkonan comes from the word “tongkon” or “to sit” as it is a place where family members sit together. The house is the centre of Torajan social and cultural activities. The Torajan believes that the first tongkonan was created in heaven by the creator called Puang Matua. When the ancestor of the Torajan descended to earth, he built exactly the same house as the one constructed in heaven. A big ceremony accompanied the erection of the house.

Historically, tongkonan is the house of the nobles only. All nobles have their own ancestral achievements that can justify their claim to wealth and status. There are four types of tongkonan based on their degree of importance. The grandest, most celebrated one is the tongkonan layuk. This house is the residence of the most important family, the direct descendant of the founding father. It marks the centre of political power of local rulers who hold the highest authority. It is big in size and richly decorated on the outside. The next one is tongkonan pekamberan or pekaindoran. The descendant of the extended families and offspring of the founding father live here. The less important tongkonan is tongkonan batu. Families with lowest social status live in smaller less decorated tongkonan called banua.


Most Indonesian traditional houses are built on wooden piles, so is Tongkonan. The construction work of this elevated house is done manually by the whole family clan. It surely is a time consuming and laborious work. The construction can takes 4 months to build and decorate.

The most distinctive features of Tongkonan are its oversized boat-shaped roof and richly ornamented exterior walls. This exaggerated curved roof reflects some prayer in Aluk To Dolo. The roof used to be constructed with layered bamboo. But today, zinc roofs are more common. Interestingly enough the traditional construction never use nails. The wooden piles and beams are just being tangled together in such a complicated fashion using tongue and groove joinery

Building layout

Tongkonan for the Torajan is a symbol of microcosm. The house always faces north, the sacred “head of the sky” direction where Puang Matua lives. The south of the house is associated with heaven and the ancestor. The east is associated with the world of gods and the west with deified form. Opposite the house is family’s rice barn which symbolized family wealth. In Torajan village houses are arranged in rows. 

Vertically, a tongkonan is divided into

three levels, the space under the floor where domesticated animals are kept, the living floor where family members do their daily activities and the attic where family heirloom and regalia are kept.


The internal space is small and the interior is dark and smoky. The windows are few. It was not a problem for Torajan traditional society as most of their activities are carried out outdoors. The house is intended solely for sleeping and holding meetings. However, the younger generation apparently thinks that this gloomy interior is no longer suitable to accommodate modern day life. 


Most notable ornaments found in a tongkonan house are the horns that decorate the front main pillar of the house. The horns come from water buffalo that were sacrificed during funeral rituals. The animals are believed to have guided the soul of the deceased to heaven. The greater the number of the horns hung in a vertical array on the pillar, the higher the social status of the household. A wooden buffalo head adorned with real horns is hung too on the façade. This last ornament can only be added after the owner of the house celebrates certain rites.

The exterior wall is decorated with colorful different motifs carved on wood. Circular motif is a symbol of the sun, the power. Geometric spiraling symbolizes ritual sacrifices and prosperity, meanwhile pike or daggers represents wealth. The wood carving also serves as the expression of Torajan religious concept, the “Aluk To Dolo”.

The colors use to paint the patterns are usually red, that is a symbol of life; white, the symbol of flesh and bone;  yellow, the color of God and power and black which symbolize death. The coloring is done with natural materials such as lime, colored earth and palm wine. Traditionally, the decorating artist is paid with water buffalo.

The tongkonan today

Though tongkonan is still seen as a symbol of prestige, it has lost its charm on younger generation. More newly weds now choose to live in an ordinary modern more spacious and better ventilated house. To compromise with the tradition, many new houses still maintain the saddleback roof but though room layout, interior and building materials are greatly changed.

The exclusivity of this house is also diminishing. Commoner in modern days are sometimes richer than the nobles and they are able to build larger tongkonan and to fund the expensive compulsory rites that needs to be held in erecting it.

Tongkonan is more than just a place to live. It is a symbol of long-cherished tradition, the centre of political and also religious life. Although modernization had touch the life of the Torajan, it will always become the focus of their ancestral identity.

Article Written By Yovita Siswati

Yovita Siswati is a blogger at

Last updated on 29-07-2016 471 0

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