The Ancient Village Of Ke’te Kesu in The Heart Of The Toraja Highlands
Kete Kesu is a quaint, traditional village concealed in the mountainous region of Tana Toraja,South Sulawesi. It sits amidst a vast expanse of rice fields, and is the oldest village in the Sanggalangi district. The village is over 400 years old, and is said to have not changed at all in the last 400 years. Kete Kusu functions as a sort of living museum, where one can experience first-hand the culture and traditions of the ancient Torajan people. Kete Kesu is probably most recognized for its fascination with death, as shown through their extravagant funeral ceremonies, hanging graves and decorative burial sites. The Kete Kesu are said to have the most well-preserved megalithic culture and death-celebrating traditions in all of Toraja.
This timeless town is home to about 20 families. It is comprised of eight “Tongkonan”, set in rows facing each other, complete with connected rice barns. The walls of the Tongkonan are adorned with beautiful carvings and buffalo horns, which serve as a mark of the homeowner’s status. A Tongkonan is the traditional house of the Torajan people, distinguished by its oversized boat-shaped roof. The construction of Tongkonan is a laborious task, and usually requires the help of all family members. In the original Toraja Society, only those of noble blood were given the right to build Tongkonan, while the common people lived in smaller, less elaborate houses.
Not far behind the Tongkonan, menhirs rise from the rice fields, marking the way to the eerie hill of Bukit Buntu Ke’su. Bukit Buntu Ke’su is an ancient burial site, estimated at over 700 years old. The rocky hillside is scattered with human skulls and bones, some piled high into large canoe-shaped vessels. The face of the cliff is hollowed with caves, which are ancient crypts. The caves were carved by masters of their skill, and take many months to make.
According to tradition, those of noble status were buried in higher holes, while commoners rested at the foot of the hill. Torajans believe that the higher one is buried, the easier the pathway to Paradise. Haunting, life size tau-tau, which are effigies of the dead, perch high across face of the cliff. Built to resemble the deceased, they stand watch outside each tomb, as symbols of each cave’s “inhabitants”. Some of the tombs are secured with iron bars to prevent the theft of these. Coffins also hang from the walls of the hill, shaped in various forms of dragons, pigs, and buffalo. The wooden crates were engraved with great accuracy and beauty, but are now crumbling with age.
The people of Ke’te Kesu’ are renowned as highly skilled craftsmen. Unique ornaments of bamboo and stone are carved in abstract and geometric patterns, seemingly without the use of mathematical calculations. Many souvenirs can be bought in and around the Ke’te Kesu’ village including coasters, jewellery, wall hangings, tau-tau, and even traditional weapons. Coasters, bracelets and necklaces are sold for a few thousand rupiah, while intricate wall hangings and engraved paintings can be priced at a few million rupiah.
One of the Tongkonan has been converted into a museum, displaying strange, historic objects of ancient customs. Chinese ceramics, sculptures, daggers and machetes, and even a flag, said to be the first flag flown in Toraja. The Museum also conducts bamboo craft workshops for those who would like to try their hand at this skill.
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700 meters above sea level, the Toraja Heritage Hotel is modelled in the style of traditional Tongkonan houses. The 160 rooms and suites come with standard amenities, and have balconies facing the rice fields. Facilities include an outdoor pool, overlooking the mountains, mountain bikes available for rent, two restaurants, spa, fitness center, and Jacuzzi. Address: Jl. Kete Kesu.
Hotel Marante Toraja provides spacious guest rooms with private terraces overlooking the Torajan landscape. Traditional Tongkonan Cottages offer a choice of two levels, and are tastefully furnished and equipped according to international standards. Room rates range from USD 100 – 300, and are valid for single or double occupancy. Address: Jurusan Palopo, Rantepao.
Toraja Misiliana Hotel has been owned and run by a local Torajan family since 1980, providing a warm family atmosphere, and a “home away from home.” The hotel is just 12 kilometers from Pongtiku airport, and is easily accessible by public transport. 101 Spacious rooms combine traditional Torajan culture with Western design, and are all complete with private shower, mini-bar, in house movies and satellite TV. Facilities include room service, laundry service, tennis court, swimming pool, conference and meeting rooms, ballroom with 750 person occupancy, and shopping arcade. Room rates from IDR 700,000 – 2,500,000. Address: Jl. Pontiku No. 27, Rantepao.
The best time to visit, and experience the “full cultural tour” of Ke’te Kesu’ is from June to December. “Rambo Solok” is usually held during these months, and can last up to a week. Rambo Solok is an elaborate, traditional funeral, and is the most important ceremony in Toraja.
Tens to hundreds of buffalo are slaughtered during the ceremony, as Torajans believe that animal spirits are a vehicle for the soul to reach Nirvana. Buffalo are also a symbol of wealth and power; the number of animals sacrificed signifying the status of the individual. For the middle class, 8 buffalo and 50 pigs are required for the ceremony, while nobility may require up to 100 buffalo. The buffalo horns and jaws are accumulated over generations, and are used to decorate the Tongkonan, boasting the number of animals sacrificed at the funerals.
Rambo Solok is an extremely expensive ceremony and can be postponed for many months or even years, in order to meet with the detailed rules and extensive preparation. During this time, the bodies are stowed in a chamber in the home, and should not be buried on the hill.
According to tradition, those buried in secret without ceremony and sacrifice, will bring shame to their ancestors in paradise as well as their descendants on earth. Tadibaa Bongi is a term for those whose death is not celebrated, and is used to express cowardice and dishonour to the family.
After the slaughtering of the beasts, the last rites are held in the community church – the majority Torajans being Christians. Then the coffin is carried in procession to the burial site. Crowds trail behind, clapping, laughing and cheering, as is custom to scare the evil spirits. Painstakingly, the men carry the coffin up a long, bamboo ladder, and into its allotted grave. At last, the coffin is positioned in its final resting place, and the people say their last goodbyes.
Sultan Hasanuddin International Airport is located 17 km northeast of Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi and the largest city on Sulawesi island. International flights are available from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur on Garuda and Air Asia respectively, and domestically from Jakarta, Surabaya, Bali, Yogyakarta, Balikpapan and several other major cities in Indonesia.
The only way to Toraja from Makassar airport is overland. There are no flights between Makassar and Toraja.
• There are buses to Rantepao that leave Makassar daily. The journey takes around 8 hours and includes a meal stop. Tickets must be bought in town but coaches actually leave from DAYA bus terminal, 20 minutes out of town by bemo. Coaches typically leave in the morning (7 am), around noon (1 pm) and in the evening (at 7 pm).
• Several companies in Rantepao run buses back to Makassar. The number of buses each day depends on the number of passengers.
• It is best and easiest to contact an experienced travel agent to arrange and take care of your full itinerary to the Toraja highlands.
Once in Toraja, Ke’te Kesu’ is about a half hour drive from Rantepao, Toraja’s tourism center. Many hotels organize package tours or car rentals, but the city can also be explored via taxi, or the local public transportation like Bemo, (mini-van) or ojek, (motorbike-taxi.)