Main article: Tongkonan
Three tongkonan in a Torajan village.
Tongkonan are the traditional Torajan ancestral houses. They stand high on wooden piles, topped with a layered split-bamboo roof shaped in a sweeping curved arc, and they are incised with red, black, and yellow detailed wood carvings on the exterior walls. The word “tongkonan” comes from the Torajan tongkon (“to sit”).
Tongkonan are the center of Torajan social life. The rituals associated with the tongkonan are important expressions of Torajan spiritual life, and therefore all family members are impelled to participate, because symbolically the tongkonan represents links to their ancestors and to living and future kin. According to Torajan myth, the first tongkonan was built in heaven on four poles, with a roof made of Indian cloth. When the first Torajan ancestor descended to earth, he imitated the house and held a large ceremony.
The construction of a tongkonan is laborious work and is usually done with the help of the extended family. There are three types of tongkonan. The tongkonan layuk is the house of the highest authority, used as the “center of government”. The tongkonan pekamberan belongs to the family members who have some authority in local traditions. Ordinary family members reside in the tongkonan batu. The exclusivity to the nobility of the tongkonan is diminishing as many Torajan commoners find lucrative employment in other parts of Indonesia. As they send back money to their families, they enable the construction of larger tongkonan.
 Wood carvings
A Torajan wood carving: each panel symbolizes goodwill.
The Toraja language is only spoken; no writing system exists. To express social and religious concepts, Torajans carve wood, calling it Pa’ssura (or “the writing”). Wood carvings are therefore Toraja’s cultural manifestation.
Each carving receives a special name, and common motifs are animals and plants that symbolize some virtue. For example, water plants and animals, such as crabs, tadpoles and water weeds, are commonly found to symbolize fertility. The image to the left shows an example of Torajan wood carving, consisting of 15 square panels. The center bottom panel represents buffalo or wealth, a wish for many buffaloes for the family. The center panel represents a knot and a box, a hope that all of the family’s offspring will be happy and live in harmony, like goods kept safe in a box. The top left and top right squares represent an aquatic animal, indicating the need for fast and hard work, just like moving on the surface of water. It also represents the need for a certain skill to produce good results.
Regularity and order are common features in Toraja wood carving (see table below), as well as abstracts and geometrical designs. Nature is frequently used as the basis of Toraja’s ornaments, because nature is full of abstractions and geometries with regularities and ordering. Toraja’s ornaments have been studied in ethnomathematics to reveal their mathematical structure, but Torajans base this art only on approximations. To create an ornament, bamboo sticks are used as a geometrical tool.
Some Toraja Patterns
(the sun and its rays)
(the legendary designer)
 Funeral rites
A stone-carved burial site. Tau tau (effigies of the deceased) were put in the cave, looking out over the land.
In Toraja society, the funeral ritual is the most elaborate and expensive event. The richer and more powerful the individual, the more expensive is the funeral. In the aluk religion, only nobles have the right to have an extensive death feast. The death feast of a nobleman is usually attended by thousands and lasts for several days. A ceremonial site, called rante, is usually prepared in a large, grassy field where shelters for audiences, rice barns, and other ceremonial funeral structures are specially made by the deceased family. Flute music, funeral chants, songs and poems, and crying and wailing are traditional Toraja expressions of grief with the exceptions of funerals for young children, and poor, low-status adults.
The ceremony is often held weeks, months, or years after the death so that the deceased’s family can raise the significant funds needed to cover funeral expenses. Torajans traditionally believe that death is not a sudden, abrupt event, but a gradual process toward Puya (the land of souls, or afterlife). During the waiting period, the body of the deceased is wrapped in several layers of cloth and kept under the tongkonan. The soul of the deceased is thought to linger around the village until the funeral ceremony is completed, after which it begins its journey to Puya.
A burial site.
Another component of the ritual is the slaughter of water buffalo. The more powerful the person who died, the more buffalo are slaughtered at the death feast. Buffalo carcasses, including their heads, are usually lined up on a field waiting for their owner, who is in the “sleeping stage”. Torajans believe that the deceased will need the buffalo to make the journey and that they will be quicker to arrive at Puya if they have many buffalo. Slaughtering tens of water buffalo and hundred of pigs using a machete is the climax of the elaborate death feast, with dancing and music and young boys who catch spurting blood in long bamboo tubes. Some of the slaughtered animals are given by guests as “gifts”, which are carefully noted because they will be considered debts of the deceased’s family.
There are three methods of burial: the coffin may be laid in a cave or in a carved stone grave, or hung on a cliff. It contains any possessions that the deceased will need in the afterlife. The wealthy are often buried in a stone grave carved out of a rocky cliff. The grave is usually expensive and takes a few months to complete. In some areas, a stone cave may be found that is large enough to accommodate a whole family. A wood-carved effigy, called tau tau, is usually placed in the cave looking out over the land. The coffin of a baby or child may be hung from ropes on a cliff face or from a tree. This hanging grave usually lasts for years, until the ropes rot and the coffin falls to the ground.
 Dance and music
Torajans perform dances on several occasions, most often during their elaborate funeral ceremonies. They dance to express their grief, and to honour and even cheer the deceased person because he is going to have a long journey in the afterlife. First, a group of men form a circle and sing a monotonous chant throughout the night to honour the deceased (a ritual called Ma’badong). This is considered by many Torajans to be the most important component of the funeral ceremony. On the second funeral day, the Ma’randing warrior dance is performed to praise the courage of the deceased during life. Several men perform the dance with a sword, a large shield made from buffalo skin, a helmet with a buffalo horn, and other ornamentation. The Ma’randing dance precedes a procession in which the deceased is carried from a rice barn to the rante, the site of the funeral ceremony. During the funeral, elder women perform the Ma’katia dance while singing a poetic song and wearing a long feathered costume. The Ma’akatia dance is performed to remind the audience of the generosity and loyalty of the deceased person. After the bloody ceremony of buffalo and pig slaughter, a group of boys and girls clap their hands while performing a cheerful dance called Ma’dondan.
Manganda’ dance is performed at Ma’Bua’ ritual.
As in other agricultural societies, Torajans dance and sing during harvest time. The Ma’bugi dance celebrates the thanksgiving event, and the Ma’gandangi dance is performed while Torajans are pounding rice. There are several war dances, such as the Manimbong dance performed by men, followed by the Ma’dandan dance performed by women. The aluk religion governs when and how Torajans dance. A dance called Ma’bua can be performed only once every 12 years. Ma’bua is a major Toraja ceremony in which priests wear a buffalo head and dance around a sacred tree.
A traditional musical instrument of the Toraja is a bamboo flute called a Pa’suling (suling is an Indonesian word for flute). This six-holed flute (not unique to the Toraja) is played at many dances, such as the thanksgiving dance Ma’bondensan, where the flute accompanies a group of shirtless, dancing men with long fingernails. The Toraja have indigenous musical instruments, such as the Pa’pelle (made from palm leaves) and the Pa’karombi (the Torajan version of a Jew’s harp). The Pa’pelle is played during harvest time and at house inauguration ceremonies.
The ethnic Toraja language is dominant in Tana Toraja with the main language as the Sa’dan Toraja. Although the national Indonesian language is the official language and is spoken in the community, all elementary schools in Tana Toraja teach Toraja language.
Language varieties of Toraja, including Kalumpang, Mamasa, Tae’ , Talondo’ , Toala’ , and Toraja-Sa’dan, belong to the Malayo-Polynesian language from the Austronesian family. At the outset, the isolated geographical nature of Tana Toraja formed many dialects between the Toraja languages themselves. After the formal administration of Tana Toraja, some Toraja dialects have been influenced by other languages through the transmigration program, introduced since the colonialism period, and it has been a major factor in the linguistic variety of Toraja languages.