Introduction

Having a rich history in tribal culture, Indonesia has one of the largest tribal settlements scattered across the country on various islands. To understand the vernacular architecture of the region, which is the prominent vernacular architectural style, known as the Tongkonan style house or the Toraja houses built by the Torajan people. These houses have a rich history and symbolism that still thrives. Their style makes this traditional house a marvel to see by tourists who come and visit the region. The symbolism behind the form of the houses and residential design is built around their personal beliefs that make the house appear so distinct. 

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An overview of Toraja Houses - Sheet1
Torajan Houses_©Broeder, H. 2019.

Toraja Houses- What makes them so different?

An overview of Toraja Houses - Sheet2
Toraja House_©Hemis. 2018.

These traditional houses are famous for their unique shape. The curved shape of the roof which resembles a boat along with the use of vernacular materials such as bamboo makes this house stand out as a national emblem of Indonesia. Although these houses have very simple spatial layouts, what makes them stand out is the conceptual history behind their construction. The symbolic reverence that the households have is what makes it so sacred for the tribal settlements of Indonesia. 

The Toraja House has a unique shape that resembles the shape of a boat. This type of house is a pile-built structure with cantilevered roofs and eaves that are supported on freestanding posts located at the front and rear sides of the curved roof. The house has a life history of its own as it is a symbol of Indonesian minorities. As it is a traditional housing unit, the house has a specific focus on ritual activities as well. 

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As the house has a very imposing roof structure that gives the house its distinct individuality, the dramatic saddle-backed roof is decorated with ornamental panels with traditional motifs. These houses are usually built next to rice granaries and are scattered settlements across a sea of green rice. 

The symbolic elements of the Toraja Houses

An overview of Toraja Houses - Sheet3
Household in Toraja Village with rice field_©Rigamonti, A. 2010.

Being ancestral structures in the 21st century, these houses act as symbolic anchors that served as focal points of the congregation over the years for various traditional rituals such as the celebration of birth, death, and harvest. These Toraja houses also serve as rice storehouses and reception platforms for their traditional ceremonies. 

An overview of Toraja Houses - Sheet4
Hamlet with Tongkonan House and rice granary in the mountains of Tana Toraja_©GmbH, Z.

A very important design element for these houses is their orientation. Symbolically, these houses were placed in a north-eastern direction on the façade and for the rear of houses, it was placed along with a south-west orientation. This placement denoted important elements of the spirit world according to their traditional beliefs. For the Toraja people, the cardinal directions used for the placement of the house are revered in their spirit world. The north is associated with the ‘life-giving waters of the Sada’an Rivers’ whereas the east resonates with the concept of a rising sun that favors an agrarian settlement.  Since the front of the house opens on the north-east side that overlooks the rice granaries, this is also symbolic of well-being and prosperity. The rear of the house facing the south side is associated with death and the realm of spirits. 

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An overview of Toraja Houses - Sheet5
Toraja House wall pattern_©rickDsign, 2016.

The decorative panels that are used to decorate the roof of the Toraja house are another design element that gives these houses their distinct character. Ornamental patterns are carved in wooden panels decorating the roof. Most of these geometric patterns relate to traditional social relationships and customs. Common motifs used include the water buffalo that denotes strength and social status. The other motif which dominates these wooden decorative panels is ‘rice’ which depicts prosperity and longevity. 

Color is another visual element that gives these heritage homes a unique outlook. The colors used to decorate these houses are the four primary colors of the Toraja tribes i.e., Red, White, Black, and Yellow. These colors generically represent life and death as per their local customs and ceremoniously decorate the houses. 

Internal layouts and their functionality

An overview of Toraja Houses - Sheet6
Interior space of Tongkonan_©Manurang, P. 2017.

The internal planning of the Toraja house is also mapped along with these abstract concepts of the Tongkonan tribe. Compared to the overpowering external structure with the sweeping roof, the internal structure of the house is very minimalist. Interior spaces are mostly intended for sleeping, storage, meeting, and shelter. 

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An overview of Toraja Houses - Sheet7
Toraja House, Rantepao Area_©Hemis, 2018.

All in all, these dwelling units are reflective of the rich cultural history that is preserved for the modern-day people to see as a global icon of Austronesian-based indigenous architecture. It is a reinforcement of preserving ethnic identity and working towards conserving the historical architectural landmarks to inspire future generations. 

References

Manurang, P. (2017). Daylighting and architectural concept of traditional architecture: The Tongokonan in Toraja, Indonesia. 

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Hemis, 2018. Toraja House, Rantepao Area [Photograph]

rickDsign, 2016. Toraja House wall pattern. [Photograph]

GmbH, Z. Hamlet with Tongkonan House and rice granary in the mountains of Tana Toraja. [Photograph]

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Rigamonti, A. 2010. Household in Toraja Village with rice field.

Hemis. 2018. Toraja House. [Photograph]

Broeder, H. 2019. Torajan Houses. [Photograph]

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Author

Sidra is an aspiring architect who is deeply fascinated by the influence of architectural writing on the designing capabilities of future architects within the creative industry. She has a particular interest in Landscape Architecture and seeks to investigate its remarkable potential within her motherland- Pakistan.

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