A Trip to Sulawesi: Toraja Patterns

This uniquely patterned wood headboard found on Pinterest yesterday reminded me of an “online trip” I took to Sulawesi a few years ago, to the villages and homes of the Toraja people. It’s not just coffee that comes from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. There is pattern and design too. You should see. You must see! So come, let’s go to Sulawesi …

Patterned Wood Headboard via Christina Watkinson

First, see the houses these panels come from:

Toraja Houses

You can see the headboard up above has the remains of these colorful patterns:

Toraja Patterned House via Indonesia Traveler

Toraja House Patterns via Incito Tour Flickr

Here is a view of the arching architecture of these homes, surrounded by rice paddies:

Toraja Village in Sulawesi photo by Peter Connolly

The house style is called tongkonan, the Toraja tribe’s traditional house. The height and ornamentation communicate the owner’s social status.

Toraja Home

Here you can see how deeply carved the patterns can be. Sometimes the paint colors fade, but the carvings hold the pattern forever:

Carved Toraja House Shutter

What’s interesting to me is how other societies will take the decorative pieces of these homes and display them as a sign of wealth and the owner’s social status. That’s not a conscious move — “I’m gonna use a Toraja panel as a headboard to show you how well my investments have done! Hear my mighty wealthy roar!” — sounds pretty silly! But it takes being in a certain circle, usually involving a well-traveled interior designer, to even know these things exist. They wind up in settings like this and published in Elle Decor:

Toraja House Panel

You don’t find Toraja style knock-offs at Target. And it costs to source and ship these things around the world.

This is part of a huge 8-foot architectural panel on 1stdibs priced at $11,200:

Toraja Panel at 1stdibs

The dealer explains that the auspicious patterns carved into this panel include the Pa’tangke lumu or “moss branch” motif with five stylized buffalo heads. The ornamentation was meant to drive away evil influences. But the buffalo is also a symbol of wealth and prosperity. When funerals are held, families sacrifice buffalo and keep the horns. Wealthier families can sacrifice more buffalo. So houses that have more buffalo horns displayed on them are a sign of higher status and wealth.

This painting by French painter and sculptor Emmanual Michel captures a Toraja woman:

Femme Toraja by Emmanual Michel

The patterns they carve and draw have meanings. As with many cultures, they wish for fertility, good fortune and happiness and harmony for family.

Remnants of these panels can be turned into mirrors:

Toraja Panel Mirror

Mounted for tabletop display:

Toraja Panel Remnant at Andrianna Shamaris

Crafted into tables:

Toraja Panel as a Table

Framed as wall art:

Toraja Panel Framed at Andrianna Shamaris

I hope you enjoyed this trip to another world of patterns!

Sources: 1. Christina Watkinson, 2. Ronrada at TrekEarth, 3. Indonesia Traveler, 4. Incito Tour, Flickr, 5. Peter Connolly, Flickr, 6. Jakarta Post Travel, 7. Unknown, 8. Elle Decor, 9. 1stdibs, 10. Emmanual Michel, 11. One Kings Lane, 12. Andrianna Shamaris, 13. Jenny Bigio, 14. Andrianna Shamaris


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