The most noticeable thing about Toraja are the many traditional houses, called tongkonan. Toraja is one of the few places in Indonesia where traditional structures continue to be built, other than for the benefit of tourists. The most distinctive feature of the houses is their saddle shaped roofs, with each end shooting high into the sky.
Legend ties the shape of the roofs to the origins of the Torajans. Their tradition is that they originated in the mountains of present-day Vietnam. Thousands of years ago, they began a voyage southward. After a couple of years island hopping south, they came to Sulwesi. They made their way by boat up the Sungai Sa'dan River as far as present day city of Enrekang, then continued to follow the river on foot to their present valley home. They bought their boats with them, and hung them between trees for shelter. From the shape of the boat supposedly comes the shape of the elaborate Torajan roofs, to remind them of their roots.
The roofs are made of pieces of arm-length sticks of bamboo split in half and stacked in an interlocking style very similar to terra cotta tile roofs the world over. Modern houses may have sheet-metal roofs, but they maintain the same shape, and even use carved wood panels on the under-side to mimic the shape of the traditional bamboo.
The detailed designs painted on a rice barn.
Tongkonan houses always face north. The interior typically has just three rooms. In the center is the largest room, used as the living area. To the south is the room where the family sleeps, and keeps any dead they haven't buried yet. A small room at the north end is usually reserved for guests. The floors of the north and south rooms is usually slightly higher than the floor of the main room.
The exterior walls are made of wood panels. These are always etched and painted. Most of the patterns are geometric designs, although representations of people, animals and other objects can also be seen. You'll note throughout Tana Toraja that only four colors are used to decorate houses: Black, white, red and yellow. The colors represent, in essence, death or darkness, holy purity, blood and wisdom. The north end of the house will usually have a carved buffalo head on it as well. The pole supporting the north end of the roof may also have a row of buffalo horns affixed to it. This is taken as a sign of wealth.
Facing each tongkonan house will be one or more rice barns, built in the same basic shape but much smaller. Like the houses, the rice barn is raised well off the ground to keep the rice free from damp. The poles supporting the rice barn are kept very smooth to keep away rats and other climbing vermin. As with the houses, the outside walls of the rice barns are engraved and painted. The rice barns can be pre-fabricated off-site and bought to the site by pick-up. There are workshops near the woodworkers village of Ke'te Kesu where you can see rice barns being built. You can even order one to go!