Toraja's Cultural Heritage

The Magic of Papa Batu

It took us a long time to figure out how to get to Papa Batu. The tongkonan we were looking for was located at the end of a walking trail, some 30 minutes from the main road in the centre of the village of Rembon (Saluputti area). The trail is easily accessible, passing a long bamboo hanging bridge, it takes you past lovely paddy fields, great views, and scattered houses and - as everywhere in Toraja - warm and friendly people. After about 20 minutes, you arrive at the bottom of a stairway that leads you up to a truly unique sight in Toraja: the Tongkonan with a stone roof. At first sight, this tongkonan does not seem to be that special. Only after having scrutinised it carefully do you realise that this is something quite unique.
 

Underneath the roof, one can observe how the stone tiles are held together by rattan.
 
Roofing

The rooves of most traditional tongkonans are made of either bamboo or wood (wooden tiles), including the tongkonans in the centre of Makale. Nowadays, the roofs of most tongkonans are made of iron or zinc sheeting, something that is considered as an eye-sore by most tourists. To the Toraja people, however, it is an economic alternative to the laborious and more expensive roofs made of natural materials. The roof of this tongkonan papa batu (Toraja language for 'stone roof') is made of stone that was quarried out of big round rocks that are found all over Toraja. The most beautiful and well-known example of a stone grave in Toraja is Lo'ko' Mata', located just a few kilometres west of Batutumonga'. This type of stone was used to cover the roof of this tongkonan. A hole is made in the carefully sculpted 'tiles', and they are attached to wooden planks by strings of rattan, as you may observe in the photograph on this page. Rattan is said to be stronger than iron rod, since it does not rust or decay, providing that it is not exposed to the rain. Some stone tiles have fallen to the ground and have never been replaced properly. Therefore, the upper part of the roof is now covered with ordinary red roof-tiles.
Four Rooms

Papa Batu is believed to be over 250 years old, which makes it one of the oldest surviving tongkonans in Toraja. Apart from its age and the unique roofing, the feature that makes this a special attraction, is that it is the only known tongkonan with 4 rooms. Usually, the space inside a tongkonan is divided into three rooms. Papa Batu, however, was special and belonged to a royal family called 'rajas'. The king used to live in the 'state' room facing south, the pandung. Next to the royal room you find a room that was occupied by the king's family, the so-called ninan.

As you enter the tongkonan, you see the central and biggest room, which was used for receiving guests or as a place to put the coffin of a dead person before the funeral. This central room is called sali. On the North side, you find the room that was inhabited by what people now euphemistically refer to as the guard, but what used to be the slave(s), the Kaunan-people. This room is the smallest and is called bondon.

The tongkonan seen from the north.

 Magic Skull

In the sali, quite a dark room in the absence of windows, you will find a curious skull of a young buffalo attached to a central pole against the wall. You will also see some rice ears hanging from it, dangling off its horns. The guard from next door, a very sympathetic and helpful old man who still works for the government, informed us that this skull has magic power. Until quite recently, this skull was used to cure headaches. People suffering from headaches came to Papa Batu and offered a few rice ears to the skull. A handful of water was put on top of the skull, and was gathered in the hands below. The water that had passed the skull, had assumed magical powers whereby headache would disappear in an instant.

Kambean

In addition, what makes this an interesting and unique traditional Toraja house, is the fact that this tongkonan has a central "royal" pole, called the Kambean in Toraja language, which is perhaps its most unique feature. Normal tongkonans do not have this support in the centre. This sturdy and grayish pole that supports the entire tongkonan can best be observed from the south side and is said to possess magic powers as well.

There are stories of visitors who felt ill after touching the royal pole and entering the tongkonan without having asked for permission. So, if you decide to venture out to Rembon, and visit the stone roofed tongkonan, you had better call on the neighbour first.

Conservation

As was clear from the state of the roof, this tongkonan desperately needs repair. The stone tiles are not replaced properly - as the tiles break when they fall on the ground - but also the carvings on this tongkonan are withered, look pale and have lost colour. There used to be another of this type of tongkonan just beside it, at the south side, but that one has fallen to pieces. If nothing is done about this, the only remaining stone roof tongkonan will disappear forever.

Fortunately, however, there seem to be initiatives to conserve this tongkonan. Some NGOs within and outside of Toraja have managed to allocate funds for the restoration of Papa Batu. It would be truly shameful if Toraja's heritage is left to the whims of the gods and weather.