Indonesia’s wealth of heritage handicrafts is as diverse as its many cultures. Each month we explore the archipelago’s offerings through a different traditional craft.

Located about 330 kilometres from the Indonesian city of Makassar in the northern mountains of South Sulawesi, Tana Toraja is a vibrant and fascinating destination, where the Torajan people firmly maintain age-old ceremonies as well as traditional arts and crafts.

Among the well-known handicrafts typical of Tana Toraja are sculptural carvings from wood and stone, used as exterior and interior decorative elements, and spiritual symbols as representations of the deceased in the form of effigies.

In houses (tongkonan), decorative geometric sculptural carvings reference human relationships with the universe, fellow human beings, livestock and plants. Embellished with red, yellow, white and black pigments derived from clay and soot, the carvings express religious and social concepts, with each receiving a special name, and each motif symbolising a particular virtue.

Sculptural carvings are also commonly used to honour the deceased by commemorating their likeness, and are known as tau-tau. The Torajans follow precise steps in creating a carving, decorating tau-taus with ornaments and heirlooms for lavish funeral ceremonies. Made of bamboo, sandalwood or jackfruit tree, the carvings are placed over a cliff or the outer part of a cave, where the body is laid. The Torajans believe that a link between the living and the dead is forged after the funeral ceremony, when the spirit of the dead enters the tau-tau and continues to live on.

From Colours November 2018