Four long arms stretching outward into the sea make up the orchid-shaped island of Sulawesi. Once known as Celebes, this island’s massive size and ruggedly mountainous topography have led to a remarkable diversity of cultures that developed in isolation from each other, from the Minahasa warriors of the north to the seafaring Buginese of the south.
Sealed away by a curtain of mountains along the central spine of Sulawesi are four major Torajan groups: the To Mangki in the mountains near the western coast, the To Mamasa in the gentler hills to the south, the Sa’dan Toraja who occupy the fertile lands surrounding the rziver valley in the east and to the north the To Rongkong. Most Toraja people are Protestant or Catholic, but the ancestral religion, known as Aluk To Dolo (the way of the ancestors), has left a powerful legacy of ritual, sacrifice and community obligation.
The lavish funeral rites, striking traditional houses and majestic fields of rice terraces of Toraja have continued to pique interest since the area was first penetrated by Dutch colonial forces in the early 1900s. Yet with little but treacherous dirt roads leading to the heartland where many Torajan groups live, much of the interior still remains largely unexplored.
The symbolic visual language of Toraja is present in every type of craft, whether etched into the wood of traditional houses or woven into their spectacular textiles. Each motif is defined by a long tradition, and each element in the design carries a culturally symbolic meaning. These patterns comprise a sophisticated variety of geometric, curvilinear and pictorial forms that express the important relationships to the ancestors, society and the earth. The textiles can be as much as twelve meters in length and are used as architectural hangings or processional cloths for elaborate funerals.
The sekomandi textile may be made as two ikat panels sewn together as a wide single textile or a single wide panel. There may be additional side panels sewn on to the sides to increase the width and enhance the aesthetic of the textile. These side panels are called lete.
Sekomandi textiles are used to decorate the traditional houses during ceremonies as a sign that the entire ritual cycle had been performed such as weddings. Before conversion to Christianity in the early 1900’s it was used to wrap the body of a deceased person and was called a Tokape. After the conversion people shifted to only using it as a house decoration. Traditionally it was only used by people of a higher caste.
A sarita cloth is used by the people of Karataun of Central Sulawesi as a ceremonial decoration hung houses. Sarita may be hung on the wall of the room where the deceased is kept. It may as well also be used as a shroud.
The Peo Puang textile is one of the most unique textiles made by the To Mangki Karataun people. When it is used to decorate a traditional house during ceremonies, a buffalo must be sacrificed. Peo means loin cloth and Puang refers to nobility. It is thought that these strips of cloth were originally loin cloth of a nobleman but with Christian influence the long cloths were sewn into ceremonial banners. The colors and structure of this cloth, white, red, black stripes, are characteristics of some of the earliest cloths made. With the join of each of the strips a chicken must be sacrificed. This textile uses batik and tie and dye techniques rather than ikat.
Morilotong is the name for the black and white architectural ceremonial hanging used by the people of Bulo, who live on the western mountain range of Toraja and call themselves To Mangki Karataun. The striking black and white textile using mud dyes. The threads are soaked in a tannin from a Homolanthus sp tree, dyed in particular types of mud and then washed repeatedly in the river to achieve the distinct and clear white.
The black and white morilotong cloth predates the sekomandi textile which uses red and blue dyes. Morilotong textiles symbolises duality or heaven and earth with humans seeking harmony between these two dimensions.
Selendang or shoulder scarf is a single panel textile that is made with ikat motifs using the red, blues and blacks of a sekomandi made by weavers in central Sulawesi who call themselves To Mangki Karataun.
The shoulder scarf became used throughout the Indonesian archipelago when the woman’s top called kebaya became nationalized. Prior to this many traditional communities did not have this as part of their traditional dress.
Sambotanete is the longest single panel ikat textile made on a continuous warp traditional loom found in Toraja. It contains all of the motifs that are found in the sekomandi textile; ulu karua lepo, ba’badeata, lelen sepu, tobo alang, totandun, dappu, tonoling, tosso balekoan, kokkong, titutu.
It is used for decoration for important ceremonies such as weddings. In funeral processions it will be suspended from the body of the deceased and held by all the family members over their heads as they process their family member from the traditional house to the funeral grounds. Many of these long cloths were made by the To Mangki people in Karataun are ordered by the To Sa’dan to the east in the Rantepao area for ritual use.
Tannun suppu is woven as a single panel using a continuous warp process which is later finished so that the warp threads are entirely woven into a full circle which means some of the final weaving must be done off the loom.
This cloth is worn by a man as a shoulder sling. If it is left open and not made into the sling it is called pori londong or “ a long ikat cloth”.
Tablet weaving is a technique practiced in south Sulawesi to make ceremonial belts, ties for hats and borders on clothing. The warp yarns are threaded through small square tablets which were made of bone or tortoise-shell in the past. These tablets are rotated to form the sheds and the resulting textile will be a narrow warp faced band called pallawa.
Threads of Life works with a few remaining tablet weavers in Mamasa Toraja using threads dye by the Bebali Foundation which are brought to the women for weaving these unusual textiles.