The Torajan people had little notion of themselves as a distinct ethnic group before the 20th century. Before Dutch colonisation and Christianisation, Torajans, who lived in highland areas, identified with their villages and did not share a broad sense of identity. Although complexes of rituals created linkages between highland villages, there were variations in dialects, differences in social hierarchies, and an array of ritual practices in the Sulawesi.
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.
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.
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’s 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.