I stood at a safe distance behind a thin rope as a lone Sumba horseman advanced with great speed onto the large grassy field. With spear poised he challenged his opponent on the other side of the field to come forward. He looked like he wanted blood. Daniel, my guide, informed me that the more blood spilt on the ground that day, the richer the rice harvest would be.
As more riders entered the field, Daniel nudged me forward towards the police who were positioned on the edge of the field in front of the spectator area. “It is safer if we stand closer to them”, he said. “If the crowd gets rowdy and overexcited there could be trouble. Also, the police have shields which they can use if a wayward spear comes flying through the air”, he added with a chuckle.
The speed and agility of the bareback horsemen as they raced forward with spears at the ready was impressive. Sometimes spears were released with the forward charge and sometimes the charge was merely a tease. As the battle gathered pace a tally was kept of hits to the opponents. I could feel the tension rising as war-like cries rose above the crowd, adding to the drama of the challenge.
Faces in Sumba, especially those of the men, often look very serious, with strikingly beautiful and somewhat regal features. The competitors on the field make very dramatic and fierce gestures as they charge at their opponent. Yet, as I saw them retreating after a charge, spear still in hand, I often saw their faces soften with bashful smiles.
In fact, despite the displays of ferocity these days, mock battles on the field have been replaced with blunt-ended wooden spears, unlike in the past when they were steel-tipped, I was told. I was relieved to hear that the blood spilled on the field is more ceremonial these days and fatalities and serious injuries among the competitors on horseback are relatively rare.
At one point I looked up from the action on the field and saw every rooftop on the nearby buildings was crowded with young people wanting to be in the best position to watch this phenomenal display of horsemanship. Every other vantage point, including trucks and trees, was also packed with locals who had come out in full force to watch the action.
The Pasola war ritual is part of the ancestral spiritual belief system of Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara. It is still performed in several places on Sumba Island. In addition to promoting a good harvest, the Pasola is also a way of giving thanks to the ancestors, and the ritual is usually held seven days after the full moon in February or March.
Before the Pasola ceremony can begin a number of village chiefs, called rato, go to the beach in the evenings to watch for the arrival of the nyale, sea worms that appear only once in a year at the end of the wet season. The presence of these sea worms is seen as a critical to the prosperity of the crops and well-being of the village for the year ahead. The arrival of the nyale indicates the arrival of the ancestral spirits, and their consent for the Pasola to begin.
The Pasola is not a tourist event. It is our tradition. That is why we must wait for the signs and cannot set the date very far in advance. That would violate the real meaning behind the ritual
– Daniel, a Sumbanese
“Sumba people embrace Marapu faith,” Daniel explained. “The Pasola is not a tourist event. It is our tradition. That is why we must wait for the signs and cannot set the date very far in advance. That would violate the real meaning behind the ritual”, he added.
The Sumbanese call their land Tana Humba, meaning homeland. The ancestors are believed to dwell within eight spheres of heaven, and it is understood the spirits have come down to bring civilisation to the homeland. Locals believe that their ancestors arrived on the northeastern coast of the island and that in ancient times a stone bridge connected Sumba to the islands of Sumbawa and Flores. A natural disaster is said to have destroyed the bridge, and so isolated Sumba from its neighbouring islands.
Each of the clans living in Sumba has built up a specific social structure with complex rituals and other traditions around birth, marriage, initiation and funerals. To this day, these rituals and traditions are still practiced much as they were in the past.
Each clan, mountain, tree, animal, forest, lake and coastal area is believed to have its own spirits. The spirits of nature and the ancestral spirits take on many forms including huge carved objects, and megalithic stones, and are reflected in the special towering and ornate Sumbanese houses used for worship. According to Daniel, these are designed to represent reaching up to heaven.
Sumba Island is only 50 minutes flight from Bali and offers the traveller a glimpse into a very old culture which has not yet been drawn into the modern world. A sense of balance and respect for all things pervades the culture. It is sustained by unique rituals such as the Pasola which seek to maintain a peaceful and productive relationship with the heavenly spirits and keeps tradition very much alive on the island.
Story by Stephanie Brookes
Photos by David Metcalf
David Metcalf runs photo workshops in Bali and cultural photography tours in Bali, Borneo, Vietnam, Odisha India and Myanmar.
This article was published in NOW!Jakarta Magazine ,June 2018 issue .