Tau-Tau: funerary sculptures of the Toraja people

On the southern part of the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, the Toraja people carve life-sized wooden effigies of dead elites. The tau-tau (“little person”, or “person-like”) are meant to commemorate the person and serve as a portrait as well as vessel for the spirit of the deceased. Some of the Toraja are part of a Christian minority in Indonesia, whose population is largely Muslim. Whilst Christianity bars the worship of other gods, spirits and idols, the Christian Torajas themselves are respectful of these sculptures. Some tau-tau come with a golden cross around their necks, or with a wooden bible.

During the process of carving the tau-tau, each stage comes with ritual offerings. Stages include the felling of a live jackfruit tree, treating the wood with coconut oil until it turned from yellow to brown, and carving the tau-tau’s head from the top of the trunk (and the feet from the lower end). At the beginning, a dog and chicken would be sacrificed; at the end of the carving process, so would a pig. The tau-tau would then be clothed and consecrated with prayers to become a “bombo dikita”: a “soul that is seen”.

A tau-tau ensures that the person’s name and deeds remain in descendants’ memories for a long time to come. It also links the communities of the living and the dead and guides the ongoing relationship between them. Traditionally, the vertical, inward-facing left hand is “pa’rinding”, “a wall” of shelter for the community, in exchange for offerings from the living (represented in the upward-facing right hand). People would have personal relationships with these effigies, even giving them new clothes as old garments frayed over time. Family would recount of their identities and life histories even if they had not necessarily met in real life.

Sadly, some have begun to keep their tau-tau at home because of the preying hands of people who steal them to sell off to tourists. Some have entered the art market as well. The image above is of a tau-tau from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, gifted by Fred and Rita Richman. It is heartbreakingly shown naked, alone and away from its family. No more offerings can be made to it, it cannot be there to protect its family, and in the process of its collection, its life story and identity has been lost. This is just one example of many ancestors who have been stolen away from their family, for whom this loss is a painful blow.

In the picture below, the tau-tau was decapitated and sold for 3.968 € by the Lempertz auction house in Brussels. It probably resides in its buyer’s store or house as an ornamental ‘ethnic’ display.

As the influence of tourism and commodification grows, the Toraja themselves reinterpret and renegotiate their identities. Tau-tau carry economic significance as tourism magnets and art objects. Carvers make money by carving fake tau-tau to sell to tourists and, on occasion,  American museums – one then wonders if the one from the Met Museum is one of the fakes. In ‘producing’ their culture, non-elites are able to reinterpret and create their own representations of it. (The image below itself is taken from a Toraja tour guide website.) Through forces of globalisation and tourism, the tau-tau has become a cultural emblem of the Toraja, beyond its significance for elites. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s