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Indonesian Textile Arts
Sulawesi Island

Dreams from the Gods

The Sadan Toraja are known for their elaborate houses, cliff burials and ancestor effigies, but it is the weavers of the remote Toraja Karataun who make the elaborate architectural textiles for which their neighbors are known, and the women of Mamasa who maintain a fragile tablet weaving tradition. Karataun is the most isolated area Threads of Life visits. Living two day’s travel from the nearest town has made for strong, independent people.

Rice fields scale the hillsides and steeply pitched rooftops peek over the trees in Toraja, the mountainous heart of Sulawesi. Toraja’s sheer cliffs, dramatic ridgelines, and verdant fields form some of Indonesia’s most spectacular scenery. A unique and vibrant culture has sprouted in isolation here, in what the ancestors of the Sadan Toraja people called ’’land of the circle of the sun, land of the circle of the moon.’’

A Sadan Toraja village

The rooftops of traditional Sadan Toraja houses sweep upward at both ends like the horns of the water buffalo. Images of buffalo adorn these houses on every side, grazing, fighting, or stylized into abstraction. All major Sadan Toraja ceremonies feature the sacrifice of buffalo. Families that practice the old alu tadolo religion proudly display dozens of buffalo horns and jawbones on the fronts of their houses.

A decorated front gable

Sadan Torajans of wealth or high standing are buried in graves chiseled into cliffs and boulders. Family members, local government officials, and hundreds of guests from nearby communities stream into the home village of the deceased, and watch the ceremony from temporary bamboo buildings. Traditional funerals last for days. Up to a hundred buffalo might be slaughtered to feed the crowd, and their heads and organs auctioned for charity.

Cliff graves, Lemo

Aristocratic families place a near life-size jackfruit-wood effigy called a tau-tau in a niche near each grave, so the spirit of the deceased can watch over those it has left behind. The hands of tau-tau contain messages for the living. An open palm says to enjoy the blessings of life; a hand held palm down means that one must work for those blessings.

The tau-tau of Lemo

In 2000, Threads of Life staff members I Made Maduarta and Daud Manggalantung set out for the remote northwestern highlands of Toraja Karataun, where locals say that humans first made ba’ba de’ata, the ikat of God. Made and Daud reached the villages of Batuisi and Saluleke only after a harrowing four-day journey along rutted dirt tracks and across rivers impassable for eight months of the year.

A river crossing, Toraja Karataun

The people of Karataun say that the gods sent dreams to the first Torajans, teaching them how to weave and revealing sacred motifs. Karataun textiles consecrate ceremonies all over Toraja. They shroud bodies at funerals, are given as gifts at family occasions, and are often used in creative and unconventional ways; here, a sacred sekomandi graces the hood of a wedding jeep in the Sadan Toraja center of Rantepao.

Ornate beadwork decorates the posts and front

Weaving remains sacred knowledge, and the old masters will not teach it without showing proper respect to the ancestors. Each young Karataun weaver must perform a ceremony called mararai katadan before she weaves her first cloth. In one part of the ceremony, the weavers sacrifice a chicken and touch its blood to the ikat frame. The ritual asks the gods and ancestors to ensure that the tradition will survive.

Teresia performs a mararai katadan, Batuisi

In the 1990s, predatory traders drove textile prices so low that many Karataun women stopped weaving. Threads of Life’s fair trade practices encourage them to pass on their skills to their daughters. In remote communities, where few children receive more than an elementary education, local teachers add cultural activities to the curriculum. Many children learn to spin and dye thread, weave, and bead in their village schools.

Ayu, Batuisi

Over the last century, many Torajan families sold their heirloom textiles to collectors. These heritage pieces were vital points of cultural reference, and without them weavers could no longer recreate sacred ancestral patterns. This motif, called poritonoling, had vanished from Karataun until Threads of Life staff member I Made Rai Artha found it in the Australian National Gallery in Canberra. His photographs helped to reintroduce poritonoling to the Karataun cultural vocabulary.

A poritonoling from the Threads of Life collection

The weavers of Mamasa in southwestern Toraja weave colorful straps and belts on small looms with a square tablet at each end. The tablets were once art objects, carved from tortoise-shell and other fine materials. Today, all the old cards have been sold to collectors, and tablet weaving is fading away. I Made Maduarta and Daud hope to revive weaving in Mamasa as successfully as in Karataun.

A tablet weave in progress