Marapu Customs Sumba Indonesia

Marapu, Customs of Sumba Indonesia

Sumba island lays south of Komodo and Flores on the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago. It is a paradise for surfers and beach lovers.
Dubbed the “forgotten Island” it has kept alive it original traditions and customs. The daily life of the people of Sumba is ruled by secret myths and beliefs.

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I arrived in Sumba from Flores, after a $35/30mn flight. I soon discovered that private transport by taxi is expensive in Sumba compared to Bali. Car rentals are only available with a driver at a daily cost of IRP750.000 (US$75). The reason that was given to me is that burials are very expensive in Sumba and an accident could cost the foreign driver dozen of buffalos and horses. To fully understand this we need to describe the traditions and customs of the Sumbanese people.

The Marapu is at the heart of the Sumbanese behaviour. It is based on customary procedures “What served earlier serves now”. Each must action must be repeated the way it happened the first time. Failing to do so will result in sickness, misfortune and chaos. The belief in the Marapu coexists with the widespread practise of Catholic and Protestant religions

Only in Sumba you can see the high-pitched roof houses – the highest roof of the village is the house of the clan chief or Kapaladesa. The villages are organised in a circle around megalithic tombs.

About the 11th century, the Arab traders brought with them the Arabian horses that are now the usual mode of transport and a sign of wealth and power. To wed a woman the groom must offer to the bride’s family at least 5 buffalos and 5 horses and as many pigs. Some dowries can reach up to 300 buffalos and as many horses. Some men can marry up to 10 women like Mr Ama Galla from the village of Rua in South West Sumba. Mr Ama has seven children, four of them born from Kerry his 5th wife. His last wife is 17 years old. He has organised a roster and visit 3 of his wives each week. It is usual to all each other Mister followed by the first name whatever the status of the person is. Nicknames are also common. Matteus, Domingus, Yoahnna are common first names inspired by Dutch names who occupied the island from 1886 until the indepence in 1949.

A horse, a sharp machete, an Ikat around he waist – hand woven cloth -, bethel nut and a permanent cigarette at the lip at are the attributes of a man. Women also chew bethel nut but it is unusual for them to smoke. They more often chew and suck a ball of tobacco.

God created everything. As in the Jewish religion God cannot be named or seen. The Marapu are the Clan Ancestors and the intermediary between the humans and God.

Each of the forty-nine clans of Sumba has it’s own Marapu. The village priest – the Rato – knows the ways to communicate with the Marapu. The omens are read in the intestines of a chicken or the liver of a pig is the problem is more serious. Ritual sacrifices of buffalos, pigs and chicken are part of every ceremony. As sickness or a bad crop often originates from behaviour contrary to the tradition, people will call to the Rato to cure their illnesses and reconcile them with their ancestors.

Stone gravestones are also a particularity of Sumba. The tombs are at the centre of the clan’s circle of houses. The gravestone can weight up to 300 tons and cost dozen of horses and pigs. They are sometimes carved with buffalo horns and horses designs. A carved stone is sometimes raised at the head and back of the stone symbolising the horns and the tail of a buffalo. Death is a serious matter in Sumba. The ritual is precise as it is the transition of the deceased from the world to the Ancestor’s after world. The tomb must be built before the man dies. The size of the stones shows his wealth and social status. His wives will often be buried around hm in his tomb when they pass away.

The Sumba people are organised in family clans and tribes. Each clan has a king, Ratos – priests – and slaves or “children of the house”. Slavery has now disappeared. There are 9 languages in Sumba and many more dialects. The people’s character is very different from one region to the other. Some say that the people from western Sumba think with their muscles and those from the eastern part of the island with their brains. It is of course easy to guess who makes this claim but there is some truth in it. The Pasola tradition is well alive in the west but is not practised any more in the east.

The Pasola is an annual confrontation on horses and with spears between neighbouring clans. Usually the clan from the hills confront the clans from the seashore. It is meant to allow people to take revenge for wrongs committed during the year in a relative safe way. Serious wounds and death can happen during the Pasola. Contenders will check with their Rato the night before if they can participate or not. They bring a chicken that the Rato will sacrifice. He will open it and read the omen in the guts of the animal. For more about the Pasola, see the article, pictures and click on the Pasola page here.

Some practices like head-hunting and tooth filing have now disappeared. Long white sharp teeth were not in fashion so people used to have them filed and shorten up to 5 millimetres. We can easily figure how painful the operation was!

The women used to get their legs and thighs tattooed. Although this pratice is also vanishing we met Waisaulla and er husband Ngailu Sobu in the Waitabar village located at the edge of the town of Waikabubak. She couldn’t remember her age but said she was born “when the Japanese were here”, approximately in 1942. Her two legs are tattooed in dark ink front and back. We also met in the same village lady Piggerade, the queen of the clan who was also born during the Japanese occupation. Her arms are tattoed with her names and designs that reflects those on her Ikat- her woven cloth. The reasons for the tattooing are unknown. Some say that it is a sign of belonging so the Ancestors can recognise their own in the after world.

Bethel nut has a special place in Sumba.  Visiting someone without bringing and offering bethel nut is at best impolite. Refusing it is a sign of enmity and would have been understood in the past as a declaration of war. I will recommend that you always carry local sweet cigarettes and a pouch of bethel nuts and offer them around to the men when you visit a village. It will greatly ease your initial contact. Chewing bethel nut is assign of adulthood.  Be aware to wait for a sign to enter the compound before stepping in. The doorstep is not in front of the house but at the entrance of the village.

Text copyright The Tribe Press Agency / Photos and text Jacques Maudy and Julie Andre
All the pictures are captioned and available for licensing.  Please fill the form below to order high resolution images.

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