Sulawesi is a large island, extraordinarily contorted in shape, lying between Kalimantan and the Maluku Island group. Tana Toraja is located in the South Sulawesi Province and the traditional culture of the Torajans rivals any in the archipelago, making this area one of the most popular tourist destinations in Indonesia.
Believing that their forefathers descended from heaven in a boat some twenty generations ago, the Torajans have a unique Christian animist culture. Their ancestral worshiping includes elaborate death and after life ceremonies, which are essentially great feasts. A strict social hierarchy is followed in the villages and an important wedding or funeral can take days to perform. Water buffalo and pigs are sacrificed in numbers appropriate to social rank, and the deceased's remains are placed in a coffin and interred in caves hollowed out in high cliffs. The mouth of the cave is guarded by lifelike statues, called Tau Tau, who look out from a balcony near the burial caves, watching over the families and friends they have left behind.
Tongkonan, the family houses, are built on stilts with the roof rearing up at either end, representing the prows of the first ship to arrive in the area with the Torajan ancestors. The houses all face north and some say that this is because it was from the north that the ancestors of the Toraja came. Others however will say that the north is regarded as the realm of the gods, on the compass of life.
A large tongkonan can take a crew of ten about three months to build and another month to carve and paint the outside walls. Bamboo scaffolding is erected for the duration of the construction phase. The distinctive curved roof shape is obtained through a series of vertical hanging spars supporting upwardly angled beams. A vertical free-standing pole supports that portion of the ridge pole extending beyond the ridge. In larger Tana Toraja villages, houses are arranged in a row, side by side, with their roofs on a north-south alignment with the front gable facing north. Opposite each house is the family's rice barn, or alang customarily a symbol of family wealth, and together they form a second row of parallel buildings.