Carving New Religious Dialogues in Tana Toraja

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The Sa’dan Toraja are a minority group of approximately 350,000 living principally in the South Sulawesi highlands (Indonesia). They make their living through wet-rice agriculture, coffee planting, gardening, civil service work, and employment in the tourist trade. In contrast to the Islamicized lowland Sulawesi kingdoms of the Buginese and Makassarese, Toraja lived in small mountaintop kin-based settlements and did not envision themselves as a single ethnic group until Dutch colonialization and missionary activities in the early 1900s fostered these sensibilities (Bigalke 1981). Today, Christianity has become a key dimension of Toraja identity (more than 80 percent are Christian), and also serves as a source of feelings of vulnerability in predominantly Muslim Indonesia. Although small communities of Muslim immigrants reside in the Toraja homeland, most residents are Christian, including most Chinese merchants in the regency.

By the 1980s, the Toraja highlanders were “discovered” by domestic and foreign tourists. This flow of outsiders into the Toraja homeland offered new economic possibilities (as well as competitions with neighboring Muslim groups) and enhanced many Torajas’ sense of ethnic pride (Adams 1998; 2006). In the mid-1990s, over 140,000 tourists were visiting the Toraja homeland annually. But in recent years, the tourist flow has been hindered by incidents of terrorist bombs targeting hotels and discos elsewhere in Indonesia, as well as by fears of Avian virus outbreaks.

When I began research in Tana Toraja in 1984, I was intrigued by the relationship between Toraja traditional carvings and ideas about identity and social order. Toraja elders were fond of telling me that all of Toraja philosophy, values, and worldview could be “read” in the carved motifs of traditional Toraja houses, or tongkonan. At that time, most carvings produced for locals and tourists depicted traditional houses, funeral scenes, parading domesticated animals, or geometric Toraja motifs (each with its own name and meaning). When I returned to Tana Toraja in the mid-1990s, however, I found that a new genre of Christianized Toraja carvings had blossomed. In the mid-1980s, I knew only one tourist carver, a pastor’s son, who routinely infused his works with Christian imagery. He was especially gifted at crafting trays depicting tongkonans that had been reconfigured to showcase dimensions of Christian spirituality. These trays highlighted the tongkonan’s cross-shaped front support beams and many included halo-like sunburst motifs (a Christianization of a motif called pa’ barre allo) above these traditional houses. His trays had a spiritual feel and were regularly found on the shelves of local souvenir stands, as they sold well to urban Toraja tourists. Aside from the creations of this carver, however, Christianity was a relatively rare theme in the Toraja handicrafts of the 1980s. In the mid-1990s, as Indonesia’s public terrain grew more Islamicized, a novel genre of Christianized Toraja carvings began to blossom. Many of these new creations took the form of carved pictorial works. In some, the Christian elements, such as crucifixes or Christ’s head, are cleverly worked into larger traditional landscapes: for instance, a carved pastoral scene depicting tongkonans, rice barns, and traditionally clad villagers might feature highlighted pathways forming Christian cross shapes. During the same decade, the living rooms of several of my more devout Toraja acquaintances displayed traditionally embellished carved wall plaques depicting Christ figures and crosses. For instance, one particularly eye-catching image displayed by a Rantepao friend showed a benevolent-faced Jesus cloaked in a flowing brown robe. His arms were extended, as if preparing to embrace the viewer. An open Bible lay at his feet, alongside a wooden pedestal bowl (dulang), the sort traditionally used for ritual offerings to the gods. Three gleaming white candles glowed in the bowl. Off in the background, the carver had depicted a tidy modern church. Most striking, however, was the carver’s framing of Jesus’ head with a whitened tongkonan façade, evoking a halo effect. Behind this, the carver had depicted the profile of yet another large tongkonan rooftop, further enhancing the halo imagery and presumably alluding to the Toraja description of the church as the “big tongkonan.” In this instance, we see an array of traditional motifs conscripted to project Christianized messages about community and spirituality. In tandem with the increased Islamicization of Indonesia’s urban landscape in the 1990s, these carvings and other Torajanized church embellishments seem to be further Christianizing Tana Toraja’s landscape. Muslim Torajas, who constitute roughly 10 percent of the population, noted this Christianization of Toraja motifs.

When I returned in 1998, some Muslim Toraja in Rantepao were drawing on Toraja carving motifs to display their own religious identities. For instance, the exterior rafters of Rantepao’s Islamic school had been Torajanized, incorporating carvings of the Islamic star and crescent, bordered with a fringe of geometric motifs drawn from tongkonans. Rather than adhere to the classic Toraja carving colors of red, yellow, white, and black, however, the white crescent and yellow stars floated on a background of vibrant green, the emblematic color of the Muslim faith. In a sense, a symbolic interfaith dialogue about the nature of Toraja identity was transpiring in these public outcroppings of religiously infused Toraja carvings.

 

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