TONGKONAN – Traditional Architecture and Motifs


I love the traditional houses of Tana Toraja – Tongkonan – partly due to the mystery behind the architecture style and partly due to symbolic motifs that are intricately carved on the exterior of the houses. Let’s take a closer look…

Toraja legends claim that the people arrived on the island of Sulawesi from the north by sea. They were caught in a violent storm, which damaged their boats so badly that they were unseaworthy, so they used them as roofs for their new homes in Tana Toraja where they settled.

Tongkonan always face north {the direction from where the people came}, with the peaks of the roof facing north and south. The tongkonan are lined up in rows, with their granary either directly next to the house or opposite the house, this differs in different villages within Tana Toraja.

TONGKONAN side view of roof

The tongkonan are build on wooden piles. The roof is constructed with layered bamboo and the wooden structure of the house is assembled in tongue-and-groove style, without nails! The construction of the tongkonan is complex and takes much time and many men.

But not only the actual construction of the tongkonan must be considered, there is also the carving and painting to take into consideration. The gables and the wooden wall panels are covered with geometric, spiralling designs and motifs such as; buffalo heads and roosters painted in red, white, yellow and black. These colours represent the various festivals of the indigenous Toraja religion called ‘Aluk To Dolo’ meaning ‘the Way to the Ancestors’.

Symbolism of the colours:

Black – death and darkness

Yellow – God’s blessing and power

White – flesh and bone {representing purity)}

Red – colour of blood {representing human life}

The majority of the carvings on tongkonan and granaries signify prosperity and fertility, and the motifs used are important to the owner’s family.

Circular motifs represent the sun – the symbol of power. A golden ‘keris‘ symbolizes wealth and buffalo heads symbolize prosperity and ritual sacrifice. Many of the designs are also associated with water, which symbolizes life and fertility.

TONGKONAN Motif designs

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