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The Toraja people live in the mountainous region of south Sulawesi. Now predominantly Christian, they still practice, especially in rural areas, some elements of their ancient animist belifs and ceremonies - aluk to dolo - 'the Law of the Ancestors'. A good example is the funeral, in which sacred textiles are prominently used.

As one of the most important ceremonies in a person’s life-cycle, the funeral is elaborate and can take weeks, months or even years to complete. The Toraja people believe that the person does not die when their body dies, but death is a gradual process by which their spirits travel to the Island of Souls. The funeral is to assist in this journey to afterlife.

E077747 Ikat Cloth - Front, Toraja Region, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, Southeast Asia. Sekomandi - funeral shroud. Image: AM, Materials Conservation Dept
© Australian Museum

During the waiting period, before the start of the funeral ceremony, the body is not considered to be dead. It is wrapped in several layers of cloth, assisting the soul as it lingers before departing to the afterlife. The cloth used in this stage is often the sekomandi, symbolising the brotherhood of the villagers. These ikat cloths are the largest and probably most valuable textiles of the Toraja. They were only produced in the villages of Ronkong and Kalumpang and traded south to the Sa'dan Toraja. Now increasingly rare, sekomandi shrouds are handed down within families, and must be kept separate from other personal objects, as they are used to wrap corpses. The abstract zigzagging pattern represents the life journey of that particular person.

IT-1452, Row of funeral houses
Row of funeral houses on the rante, Toraja region, 1972 Image: -
© Australian Museum

During the waiting period, the widow sits in the death house, beside the corpse, until the funeral begins. She has to wear black cloth and a poté or widow's hood, until the close of funeral rites, a few days after burial. The poté, a darkened shawl worn over the head, was traditionally coloured black with natural pigments.

The sarita, a long rectangular cloth, also becoming rare, was hung from long poles in front of the ceremonial house where the corpse was kept and often represented the social status of the deceased’s family. The designs usually included doti langi - small crosses at the ends, which represented the spots from heaven, symbolizing abundance and wealth. A buffalo symbol implied the wealth of the owner. The concentric circles or pa'barre allo are sunbursts, indicating high rank and spiritual power.

The pori lonjong – long cloth - was used as a funeral banner. It was hung on the walls of the funeral house. This cloth symbolised a pathway, along which the soul would continue its journey from earth to puya - the Island of Souls, in the afterlife.

Some textiles were locally made according to long-established traditions; others were imported and adopted to local cultural use. Sometimes plain, imported fabric was decorated with local designs using natural dyes. Many textiles show influence from other regions, including India and China. Such cross-cultural contact originated in ancient, pre-colonial times and spread via the extensive trading networks.

See also Burial - Toraja, Sulawesi