On the western side of Indonesia’s remote island of Sumba, the local people practice the annual ritual of Pasola. Men, usually from opposing clan groups mount their horses armed with wooden spears to do combat with each other. Once a year this ritual takes place, with the blood spilt symbolising the fertilising of the soil prior to the planting season beginning in earnest. Pasola is often described as a game, but it is much more than a game. When the ritual is performed for real, blood will still be drawn. However these days Pasola will be “performed” for visiting travellers on certain occasions. During these events banana leaf stems will be used as substitute spears. Even in the “real” Pasola today the wooden spears do not have the sharpened tip of old to limit the damage.
A young boy practices for Pasola
A Pasola Demonstration near Bondokodi
A village man “spears” a younger boy from the opposing clan with the banana leaf spear. Had this been the “real” Pasola there would have been blood……
A young boy lets his imitation banana leaf spear fly during a Pasola re-enactment
A Sumbanese woman has tattoos of Pasola on her hands
Before the ritual Pasola begins, the local priests will sacrifice animals, usually chickens, but sometimes cattle. In fact most major events in Sumba “require” the sacrifice of animals. The traditional animistic religious beliefs of Sumba are still incredibly strong, possible the strongest area of modern Indonesia when it comes to traditional beliefs. The animistic traditions are referred to as Marapu. Like many animistic religions Marapu revolves around ancestor worship and ancestor placation, usually through sacrifice. The word Marapu, within the Marapu faith, has several different related meanings
- The occupants of the eternal heaven, who lead a similar existence to earthbound mankind. They live in couples and one of these couples is the ancestor of all the Sumbanese.
- The spirits of the Sumbanese ancestors in Prai Marupu (Heaven).
- The spirits of their relatives.
- All spirits dwelling the universe.
My own personal Marapu effigies I have been given on different visits to Sumba. The one on the right is a Marapu face carved in stone, the one on the left is a natural rock formation believed to show a face. Both have their own pandanus woven carry case.
The majority of Sumbanese still follow the Marapu beliefs, however under the “official” Indonesian system, Marapu is not recognised as a religion. Only Islam,
Christianity, Hindu and Buddhism are recognised as official religions in Indonesia. For this reason many Sumbanese now “officially” identify themselves as Christian whilst still embracing many of the aspects of Marapu. For example one belief in Marapu is the burial of deceased family members in stone tombs (although today they may be made of concrete). Today many Sumbanese identifying as Christian will still follow Marapu burial traditions even if the ceremony is presided over by Christian priests. The megalithic tombs of Sumba date back centuries and together with some other parts of Indonesia (Nias and Toraja for example) make up the only living megalithic cultures of modern time.
Scattered rubble from old megalithic tombs surrounds new concrete style tombs in the village of Ratenggaro
Megalith Tombs are common across all of Sumba, here these stone tombs sit in the middle of Prai Natang Village, East Sumba
The houses of Sumba are probably what stand out the most. The design is common across the island however in the west the houses are much higher. Uma Mbatangu, literally “big house” have a dramatic, abruptly rising thatched tower. Like many Austronesian cultures the village is officially regarded as a ship. The general village lay out is considered to be a ship with two rows of houses and the megalithic tombs in the middle. The four points of the houses are considered to be the four points of the compass. The houses themselves have a set layout with a lower area for livestock, a veranda type area for meeting visitors, a central living area and a raised area in the “tower” to house the Marapu items of the family and keep them close to “heaven”.
General layout style of a Sumba Village
the roof tops of Wainyapu Village tower above the tree line in West Sumba
Sumba, like much of this region was once a part of the Hindu Majapahit Kingdom. And whilst the people of Sumba kept their animistic Marapu religious beliefs in preference to adopting Hindu beliefs, as they did with later influences of Islam and Christianity, many other aspects of Sumbanese life including genetics, dance, music and dress, were influenced by the early Hindu Kingdom.
Traditional Sumba Music in Bondokodi, West Sumba
Traditional Sumba Dancing in Bondokodi, West Sumba
Sumba men generally still wear traditional clothing with woven Ikat and nearly always carry a Kris or Knife
A village man from Ratenggaro Village shows his Kris with Pasola themed carved handle
West Sumba has huge potential for travellers and tourism as long as they hold on to this amazing culture. The wide range of accommodation available and regular flights together with government support will encourage to grow tourism. If you can get there during Pasola or a Pasola re-enactment, it’s certainly worth the effort.
West Sumba Slideshow
So you want to go to West Sumba?
- With the development of tourism throughout Sumba, supported by various levels of government, Sumba is relatively easy to get to
- The main air entry point to West Sumba is via the town of Tambulaka also spelt Tambolaka. Trans Nusa Air currently flies to Tambolaka.
- There are numerous accommodation places. Tambolaka has the standard style of Indonesian Hotel found in just about any Indonesian town. There are also several “resorts” of varying styles. The Newa Sumba Resort is a simple Indonesian style resort with good service but still relatively simple. The Nihawatu Resort is a much higher international standard and very elegant. Mona Lisa Cottages in Waikabubak is another good option but a long way from the usual locations for Pasola.
- You can also enter from East Sumba (Waingapu) and drive across the island
- As well as flights there are several ferry services, ferries from Flores and Sumbawa berth at Waikelo, near Tambolaka.
- There are many tour agents and tour operators in a position to offer Sumba arrangements and packages. Sumba Adventure Tours stands out as one of the best. Ph. +62 81 337 107 845 Mr Philip.
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