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The Toraja people - 'men of the mountains' are just one of many hundreds of ethnic and cultural groups in Indonesia. They live in the mountainous region of south Sulawesi. In the 20th century most Toraja people became Christians, and some Muslims, but they preserved many former animistic customs and beliefs, known as aluk to dolo - 'the Law of the Ancestors'. The cosmology includes the four major spheres - North, South, East and West. The North is associated with deities, heaven and light, while the South with darkness and the world below. The East is associated with life, the well-being of humans and animals, with fertility and food; while the West with death and funerals. The Toraja people practice fascinating and elaborate ceremonies, of which the funeral rites seem to mesmerise the foreigners. Renowned for unique architecture and carvings, the Toraja also use a variety of textiles. As in the other regions of Indonesia, their textiles were influenced, and often obtained, via trade networks reaching to India, China and later to Europe. Interestingly, since the 1880s, some of the classical Toraja fabrics - saritas - were manufactured in Dutch factories.

The Toraja make their own textiles, and hand-woven cloths are an essential part of their traditions. Sometimes local designs are produced on imported cotton fabric. Different types of textiles are used in various rituals. Family groups have sets of sacred cloths, such as scarfs and headdresses as well as wall hangings displayed at ceremonies. Some of the distinct types include sekomandi, sarita, pori lonjong and poté.

E077752 Batik Cloth - Detail, Toraja Region, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, Southeast Asia. Sarita - funeral banner. Mirror image of previous section depicting buffalo ears and sunbursts. Image: AM, Materials Conservation Dept
© Australian Museum

The sekomandi signifies the brotherhood of the villagers. The abstract zigzagging pattern represents the human life journey. These cloths are the largest and most valuable ikats of the Toraja. Now very rare, they were woven only in the villages of Ronkong and Kalumpang and traded south to the Sa'dan Toraja. The sekomandi shrouds are handed down within families, and must be kept separate from other personal objects at home, because of their use as a wrapping for corpses. Recently they are also used as wedding gifts and decorations in marriage ceremonies.

The sarita is an important, but increasingly rare, ritual cloth in Torajan culture. It is a long rectangular textile, decorated with designs often depicting doti langi - small crosses at the ends, which are the spots from heaven, implying abundance and wealth. A buffalo symbol indicates the wealth of the owner. The concentric circles, or pa'barre allo, are sunbursts, symbolising high rank and spiritual power. When used in funeral ceremonies, the sarita banners are hung from long poles in front of the house where the corpse is kept, reflecting the social status of the family.

The pori lonjong – is a long cloth used in ceremonies. When used as a funeral banner, it is hung on the walls of the funeral house. This cloth was believed to make a pathway, along which the dead could journey from earth to the afterlife.

The poté is a darkened shawl, worn over the head by the widow until the close of funeral rites, a few days after burial. It was traditionally coloured with natural pigments.

Explanation: Ikat – the word, borrowed from the Indonesian language, describes the method of weaving that uses dyed threads to produce coloured patterns, as well as the type of fabric made

See also Burial - Toraja, Sulawesi