Since the seventeenth century, the Toraja have buried their elite dead in vaults chiseled in the face of steep limestone cliffs. Hardwood doors, carved with the image of a water buffalo’s head or, less frequently, a human figure, seal the tombs and protect their contents.
On this door, a figure emerges from a field of interlocking scrolls. Elaborate tattoos cover the torso and stylized arms. These tattoos and the knot of hair at the top of the head suggest the warrior status of the figure on the door and the occupant of the tomb.
As part of the traditional Toraja religion, the spirits of the natural world and ancestors play an important role in the daily lives of people. Because of the importance of ancestral spirits, funeral ceremonies are long, elaborate, and very expensive affairs that can take many months or years to prepare and involve the work of entire villages. Rice crops, water buffalo, and pigs are raised to feed the many guests and pavilions are built to house them. The funeral festivities include processions, dances, and rituals performed by priests.
Since the 17th century, the Toraja have buried their elite dead in tombs chiseled high in the face of steep limestone cliffs. The Toraja refer to these tombs as “the house from which no smoke rises,” since the tomb is a place without the cooking fires of daily life. The tomb may hold more than one burial, and the interior is often protected by a hardwood door. Sometimes the door to the tomb is decorated with the carved image of the head of the water buffalo or, more rarely, a human figure.
The name Toraja, deriving from the Buginese To-ri-aja meaning “Men of the Mountain,” refers to both of the ethnic groups who inhabit the island of South Sulawesi: the Mamasa Toraja and the Sa’dan Toraja. The Toraja were once warlike peoples who practiced headhunting out of revenge, or following the death of a chief. On Door with human figure, the man depicted has the traditional tattoos and hair knot of Toraja warriors.
The Toraja were practically unknown to Americans and Europeans until the end of the nineteenth century when Dutch and Swiss explorers first discovered the region where they live. This door comes from the Sa’dan Toraja peoples. The Sa’dan Toraja, who now number approximately 340,000, come from the mountainous southern part of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Today, nearly ninety percent of the Sa’dan peoples work on farms. The farms primarily grow rice; however coffee is also an important cash crop for the Sa’dan peoples. Most of the Toraja population avoided the Islamization that took place in many areas of Indonesia. However, while some in the Sa’dan population still uphold traditional beliefs, others have converted to Christianity.
Traditional Indonesian Religion
Spirits abound in the traditional religions of Indonesia. A mysterious energy animates the entire universe. Human beings and animals, trees and plants, the ancestral dead, stones, man-made objects, even traditional houses—all share in this vital force. The peoples of Indonesia have been inspired to give many of these spirits tangible form to make the unseen visible.
These creations often reflect the duality that is basic to many Indonesian belief systems. Order and harmony depend upon the balancing of opposing forces: light and darkness, good and evil, male and female, hot and cold, life and death, upper world and underworld. Ancestor figures are often carved in pairs. In many rituals, textiles, which are considered female, are paired with metal objects such as gold ornaments and weapons, which are considered male.
Sulawesi is in the island chain known as Indonesia. Made up of 17,000 islands (most of which are uninhabited), Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago. For over 2000 years, Indonesia’s islands have been important centers for trade and commerce. Some of the earliest traders to visit Indonesia were from Vietnam and India. Muslim traders first entered the region during the sixteenth century followed by the first Dutch and Spanish trading missions in the final decade of the sixteenth century. By the nineteenth century, Indonesia became a Dutch colony when the Muslims and Portuguese were ousted from their trading centers in Southeast Asia. After World War II, Indonesia gained its independence.
Though there are over three-hundred different ethnic groups in Indonesia, today nearly ninety percent of Indonesians are Muslims. Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism (the belief that everything lives and has a soul) are also practiced by the Indonesian peoples. Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world.
1. The presence of ancestors is an important force in Toraja beliefs. Interaction between the living and the dead remains a part of day-to-day life in rituals and ceremonies. How does this door connect the living and the dead?
2. Tattoos, to the Toraja peoples, carry with them deep symbolic significance. The tattoos on this door’s central figure identify him as a warrior. Why do you think a warrior might be heavily tattooed? What is your opinion and view towards tattoos in our society? Consider and discuss similarities and differences that may exist between cultural ideas about tattoos.
3. How are important public figures mourned in our society? How do we choose which public figures merit large public funerals? What does this say about the priorities or values of our society?
Compare the figure on Door with human figure
with the figure on Plaque with single figure.
serves to enclose and protect a tomb, while the Plaque
serves to decorate the interior of a palace. How does the design of each emphasize the figure? Each artwork presents a warrior. What similarities and differences do you notice between these warrior figures?
2. Works of art sculpted in relief combine elements of two-dimensional art with elements of three-dimensional art. Examine Door with human figure. In what ways does it resemble sculpture and in what ways does it resemble a painting or drawing? How does it create a sense of depth? Create your own relief sculpture using a flat surface and clay.
3. Write about an ancestor. Consider the following questions:
o How is this person related to you?
o What is the relevance of this person in your life?
o What qualities does this person have that you would like to have?
o What accomplishments did this person achieve in life?
o If applicable, how is this person a part of your life now? (i.e. photographs, family heirlooms, names, physical features, memories, etc.)
4. Consider something you would want to protect with a special door. Create a sketch for this door that is beautiful, has patterns, and honors what is being protected by the door.
5. Many of us may never get to visit Indonesia in our lifetime. Make a class list about what you know about Indonesia. Then begin a class research project to learn more. Make travel brochures for each of the major islands. Include a drawing of a work of art that comes from Indonesia and consider the following topics in your brochure:
o What time is it in Indonesia compared to where you are?
o What are the landscape and weather like?
o What major cities should you visit?
o How long does it take to get there?
o What kind of money is used there?
o What are some important natural and cultural sights to see?
Adams, Kathleen M. Art As Politics (Re-crafting Identities, Tourism, And Power in Tana Toraja, Indonesia). University of Hawaii Press, 2006.
Art of the Archaic Indonesians. Genève: Musée d’art et d’histoire, 1982.
Banua Toraja : Changing Patterns in Architecture and Symbolism Among the Sa’dan Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia. The Netherlands : Royal Tropical Institute, 1988.
Barbier, Jean Paul. Indonesian Primitive Art : Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines. Dallas, Tex. : Dallas Museum of Art, 1984.
Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas, 1997. Page 65.
Parinding, Samban C. Toraja: Indonesia’s Mountain Eden. Singapore: Times Editions, 1988.
Taylor, Paul M. Aragon, Lorraine V. Beyond the Java Sea – Art of Indonesia’s outer Islands. Washington: The National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, 1991.
Waterson, Roxana. Paths and Rivers: Sa’dan Toraja Society in Transformation. KITLV Press, 2009.
Books for Students:
Burton, Tristan. Indonesia (Countries of the World). New York: Facts on File, 2006.
Lim, Robin. A Ticket to Indonesia. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 2001.
Suyenaga, Joan. Martowiredjo, Salim. Indonesian Children’s Favorite Stories. Periplus Edition, 2005.
This resource discusses the burial and death customs of Toraja people.
This resource contains the description of a Toraja ceremonial hanging, sometimes used for funerals.
This website includes the presentation and description of ten Toraja traditional settlements.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”