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Cultural Commoditization in Tana Toraja, Indonesia

In 1984 the Indonesian director general of tourism declared Tana Toraja Regency the touristic "prima donna of South Sulawesi." In a little more than 15 years the Toraja people of upland Sulawesi had gone from anthropological obscurity to touristic celebrity. Known for their spectacular funeral rituals, effigy-filled burial cliffs, and elaborately carved architecture, the Sa'dan Toraja people of Indonesia number some 346,000. Although they continue to adhere to the traditions that so intrigue tourists, the Toraja are a predominantly Christian minority in a Muslim country. The ever-increasing flow of tourists to Tana Toraja has precipitated a number of new issues for the Toraja. Certain aspects of these problems have been discussed elsewhere (Adams 1988; Crystal 1977; Volkman 1982); this article focuses on conflicts that have emerged between local leaders and Indonesian government officials involved in tourism planning and tourism zoning.

In our attempts to full understand these clashes and find constructive solutions, we must take several issues into consideration. First, we need to appreciate Toraja conceptions of ownership and authority and examine how they contrast with the notions put forth by outside tourism developers. Second, tourism planners' tendency to approach living villages as "objects" must be curtailed; many of the conflicts in Toraja stem in part from the way in which consultants treat tourist attractions, such as Toraja houses and graves, as objects divorced from living traditions. Third, we must recognize that development is often superimposed on a preexisting structure of ethnic and local rivalries.

Tourism in Tana Toraja

Heralded as the "second tourist stop after Bali," Tana Toraja Regency has attracted growing numbers of international and domestic tourists. In 1972 only 650 foreigners visited the Toraja highlands; by 1985 more than 15,000 foreigners and almost 80,000 domestic tourists the region annually, and in 1987 a total of 179,948 tourists traveled to Tana Toraja. Twenty years ago, carved Toraja Kindred houses (tongkonan) and cliff-side graves were known only to Indonesians, anthropologists, and missionaries. Today no Southeast Asia travel log is without at least a paragraph devoted to the Toraja. As a recent Sunset article declared, "Here [in Tana Toraja] you can get an anthropologist's glimpse of an ancient culture, fantastic building styles, unusual burial customs and possibly witness a festive funeral" (Holdiman 1985). Through tourism, then, these images are quickly becoming international icons of a seductively exotic culture.

Writing on the impact of tourism in northern Thailand, Cohen (1979) notes that "tourism, projects a fixed an attractive image on a locality, thus giving visitors certain expectations... but at the same time the introduction of tourism changes that locality, removing its physical appearance and way of life even more from the touristic image." When I arrived in Sulawesi in 1984, government officials were starting to discover the truth of Cohen's observations. The tourist stampede was beginning to transform the Toraja landscape: local vendors had set up souvenir stands on the porches of their kindred houses, newly poured cement sidewalks meandered through traditional villages, and gateway arches and tin-roofed viewing stands sprung up by the famed cliff-side graves. Tourists were starting to complain that the things they had come to see (traditional villages and limestone burial cliffs) were too commercialized.

The Tourism Zoning Meetings

With these tourists' murmurings of discontent came a new push to institute formal tourism zoning policies in the region. By 1985 the provincial government had deemed 18 Toraja "traditional" village and burial cliffs as official "tourist objects" (obyek turis). A team of consultants from the provincial head-quarters was sent in to evaluate these "tourist objects" and to make zoning recommendation. Ironically, the team did not have a single Toraja member: the consultants were Buginese, Javanese, and Mandarese. The Christianized Toraja have a long history of ambivalent relations with the Buginese, their lowland Muslim neighbors who dominate the provincial government. Toraja rivalry with the Buginese was particularly fierce in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when there was intense competition over the local coffee and slave trade (Bigalke 1981). Furthermore, the Toraja have long felt misunderstood by the Javanese, who dominate the Indonesian government. For the Toraja, then, the tourism consultants were clearly outsiders who were meddling in their affairs. In the eyes of some Toraja, an age-old rivalry was being played out on a new stage: whereas in the past those from neighboring kingdoms had come seeking highland coffee and slaves, today the coveted Toraja resources they sought were rich foreign tourists.

In early 1985 the planning team held its first meeting to discuss zoning with regional government officials and local Toraja elites. After describing how zoning would preserve Toraja culture by protecting tourist sites and guarding against artificiality, the outside consultants solicited local responses. Somewhat to their surprise, the nobles began vying to get their particular villages added to the list of tourist objects; in fact, many of the nobles had come armed with lists of reasons why their own area deserved attention. The planning consultants stated that their goal was to establish zoning regulations for existing objects, not to develop new ones. The Toraja representatives were clearly distressed.

The consultants went on to announce that they did hope to propose zoning for one new area, one that they called a "tradition-free area." The planners proposed that in this yet-to-be-determined site, Torajas would perform dances from the two spheres of Toraja rituals (smoke rising and smoke descending, or life and death) for tourists on a regular basis. Such a performance center would permit tourists whose vacations did not coincide with the ritual season a glimpse of the repertoire of Toraja dance and pageantry.

Toraja tradition forbids mixing rituals and dances of life with rituals and dances of death. Developers recognized this, but proclaimed that in zoning an area "tradition-free" they could circumvent the problem of tradition and pursue the national goals of development. The planners further declared that residents could charge admission to this "tradition-free" performance area and that dancers from all areas of Tana Toraja could come and perform here, earning a little extra money. Rather than serving to appease the local Torajas at the meeting, this announcement evoked even greater frustration. As one murmured, "They think they understand our traditions, but they don't - they invite us here for our input, but then they don't listen. What's the point?"

Economics Versus Local Identity

When I spoke with the consultants afterward, I learned that they interpreted the Toraja representatives' anxiousness to have their villages recognized as "tourist objects" strictly in terms of the potential economic benefits. True, many Torajas spoke of the perks tourism development could bring to their localities (paved roads, outhouses, the largesse of rich foreign visitors); but the planners had overlooked another, more profound issue: that of the symbols of local authority.

Traditionally, each group of Toraja nobles bases its claims to high rank on descent from various heavenly ancestors who landed on local mountaintops centuries ago. These ancestors built the first elaborately carved tongkonan, which remain today as symbols of one's elite status. In short, kindred houses are closely tied to one's identity and status in society. Thus the nobles at the meeting found it essential that their own particular mythical landmarks (ancestral houses and peaks) be recognized as important to Toraja history and worthy of inclusion on the touristic map; such recognition promised to substantiate their claims to high rank.

Outside planners had not fully appreciated the importance of the close connection between ancestral houses and identity, nor had they completely elites. They were taken aback by the resentment that was sparked when one village was deemed an official tourist object and another was not. In recognizing one village over another, they had not realized that they were enhancing the prestige of some nobles while undermining others'.

A few days later an articulate Toraja friend shared his analysis of the conflict with me. He began by pointing out that the Toraja view of the nature of authority was fundamentally different from that of the Javanese consultant:

In Java the King [Raja] is the earthly descendant [tetesan darah] of the gods - he is at the pinnacle of authority. So for Javanese, the government is number one - it represents the will of the gods. The rules come next in the Javanese order of power - they are the tools of the government, and finally the community is at the bottom of the heap. So, when a Javanese wants to do something, he asks himself, "What about the government?"

This, he argued, contrasts with the traditional Toraja conception of the order of authority:

For the Toraja it's the regulations themselves [aluk] that are directly linked to the gods. When the first celestial ancestors came to earth centuries ago, the gods gave them 7,777 traditional rules of conduct to take to earth. Thus, for us, the rules come first, then the government, and finally the community is at the bottom. In our view, the government is simply the instrument of the rules. When Toraja folks want to do something, we always ask ourselves, "Does it fit with the aluk - the rules?" Those Javanese planners don't see any problem with changing the rules to suit the purposes of the government - like zoning to make a tradition-free area. But for us Toraja, the rules always come first - you don't change them, as they come from the gods.

Significantly, his analysis is couched in ethnic contrasts: he emphasizes the basic differences in world view between the Javanese and the Toraja. In essence, for him, the problems in development stem from conflicting orientations. As he and other Toraja concluded, the Toraja should control their own tourism planning, since Javanese (and Buginese) consultants do not understand them.

The Second Meeting

This underlying conflict between insiders and outsiders resurfaced at a second tourism zoning meeting held three months later. In this session, consultants formally presented local Toraja leaders with copies of zoning plans they had compiled for the 18 official Toraja tourist objects. From the start the tone of the meeting was stiff. The Toraja leaders shifted uncomfortably in their seats as the Buginese, Mandarese, and Javanese consultants unveiled their master plan for tourism development. When the team of outside experts announced their plans to prohibit any changes in the tongkonans and graves (to keep them "authentic" for tourists), the Torajas began to voice their annoyance. One man stood up and pointed out that zoning kindred houses and graves was not as simple as it appeared. His voice trembled with emotion as he spoke: "The things you want to zone don't belong to any one person, they belong to groups associated with each tongkonan. A tongkonan may have hundreds, even thousands of members - simply getting the tongkonan leaders to approve your zoning plans is not enough. Every last tongkonan member must agree to the plans." To this, one of the consultants responded, "Yes, because of this problem of ownership, we aren't setting specific meter boundaries - we are just asking you to agree that the areas in question not be built on or changed in any way. No chopping down the bamboo, no new structures, no souvenir stands."

Another charismatic Toraja leader, a devotee of anthropological literature, stood up and began his appeal by citing his favorite social scientist:

The anthropologist Ruth Benedict showed how cultures are integrated - things intermix and intermingle. Zoning is the first step in changing things. In 1969 the anthropologist Eric Crystal wrote, "Probably no other area mirrors the fundamentals of Southeast Asia as well as Tana Toraja." So we must embrace our values. If you change things and impose zoning on us, you'll destroy Toraja culture... You consultants are outside organization - you don't understand things the way we insiders [Toraja] do.

The chief consultant addressed this thinly veiled criticism by declaring that he understood Toraja culture because he was from the same island. As he spoke, Torajas in the room shook their heads unhappily; to them he was clearly an outsider. His zoning proposals fueled Toraja fears that their land and the tongkonans to which their identity was tied would be wrestled out of their control. The meeting adjourned on a tense note shortly thereafter. As we walked out, several commented, "We'll show them. If those outsiders try to impose their plans on us again, we'll just close our villages to tourists."

Living Villages, Not "Tourist Objects"

These cases illustrate the need to take both ethnic and local relations into consideration when analyzing conflicts in development endeavors. Van den Berghe (1980) has observed that tourism always occurs in the context of a preexisting system of native ethnic relations. As the Toraja case shows, the rivalries that flavor the tone of the planning meetings are twofold: they are between neighboring ethnic groups (Buginese, Javanese, etc.) and between different segments of the Toraja elite. Clearly, both of these factors - interethnic and interelite competition - must be considered in attempting to understand conflicts in development planning.

Finally, the very vocabulary of Indonesian tourism development poses additional problems. The officially designated term for tourist attraction, obyek turis, reinforces the tendency of outside planners to approach living villages as dead objects or tourist commodities. The zoning proposals are built upon the assumption that a material site is divorced from its social life. In forbidding people to alter their traditional houses (in some cases questioning whether tongkonans should be inhabited in the first place, because human occupancy can damage these "tourist objects"), outside consultants ignore the connection of living people to these structures. For now, the Toraja are still arguing that the two cannot be separated. But as we begin to hear of tongkonans being sold to Western museums, we cannot help but wonder about the metaphoric import of calling a living village an "object."


In the summer of 1987 the Toraja village of Kété Kesú, Londa, and several other designated "tourist objects" closed their doors to tourists. Friends from these villages report that they did this because they were fed up with the government's attempts to run their own tongkonans. The threats mumbled at the tourism planning meetings finally had been carried out. Tourists alighting from buses and vans at Kété Kesú were informed that the village was "closed," and a handwritten sign hung at the gateway arch to the Londa graves asked visitors to keep away (Girsang 1987). These tourist sites did not stay closed for long, however. As provincial government officials predicted, within several days villagers recognized the difficulties of surviving without the income made from selling souvenirs and reopened their villages to tourists.

It is ironic that tourism, the very force that helps bring visibility to Toraja symbols, does not necessarily bring the Toraja power over their own lives.


1 Statistics on domestic tourists were not available until 1974.

2 For a discussion of the role of tourist imagery in generating ethnic stereotypes, see Adams 1984.

3 According to tradition, only the aristocracy may have fully carved ancestral house. Commoners were restricted to carving only specified section of their tongkonans, and slaves were strictly forbidden to carve their ancestral houses.

4 There were originally more, but a number of them were lost by the slave who carried them on the journey to earth.

5 For further discussion of how the Toraja have used the anthropological (and touristic) interest in their culture as evidence of their cultural merit (vis-à-vis their Buginese neighbors). See Adams 1988.


Adams, K.M.

1984 Come to Tana Toraja, "Land of the Heavenly Kings": Travel Agents as Brokers in Ethnicity. In C.F. Keyes and P. van den Berghe, eds. Tourism and ethnicity. Special issues of Annals of Tourism Research 11(3):469-485.

1988 Carving a New Identity: Ethnic and Artistic Change in Tana Toraja, Indonesia. Ph.D. diss., University of Washington.

Bigalke, T.

1981 A Social History of "Tana Toraja" 1870-1965. Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Cohen, E.

1979 Impact of Tourism on the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand. Internationales Asienforum 10(1/2):5-38.

Crystal E.

1977 Tourism in Toraja (Sulawesi, Indonesia). In V. Smith, ed. Hosts and Guests. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Girsang, J.S.

1987 Visiting the Land of Kings in the Heart of South Sulawesi. Jakarta Post. 1 August. p. 9.

Holdiman, T.

1985 Indonesian Adventure... Rituals and Culture in Tanah Toraja. Sunset (May):80-81.

van den Berghe, P.

1980 Tourism as Ethnic Relations: A Case Study of Cuzco, Peru. Ethnic and Racial Studies 3(4):375-392.

Volkman, T.

1982 Tana Toraja: A Decade of Tourism. Cultural Survival Quarterly 6(3):30-31.

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