Pasola in Sumba Indonesia

The Pasola in Sumba Indonesia is a ritual confrontation with spears and on horses celebrated annually in the west of the Island. Two clans line up some 20 horsemen who will prove their bravery by attacking the adverse clan on a sacred field.

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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 its original traditions and customs.
The houses here are particular. They have high pitched thatched roofs, are made of bamboo and have three levels. The lower level is allocated to farm animals,  the middle level is where humans live with the kitchen at the centre, The right side is male and the left side female. Each side has it’s own entrance. The kitchen is exclusively female. At the base of the tower and above the living quarter is where the Ancestors live. The seed rice and the Marapu (Ancestors) objects are kept there.  The four massive posts that support the house have each a little circular altar. The higher the roof the better and the more powerful the owner. The  Ratteggaro village Kapaladesa (chief) Damianus Ambukaka in Kodi is 42 years old and has 2 wives and two houses in the village. His second wife Albina has given him a son Lebby. Damianus and Albina’s spectacular house is 16 m high.
The clan compound is built around the graves of the ancestors. The houses are led in a circle.

Traditionally the Sumba people were warriors and head hunters. They chew bethel nut and smoke without interruption. I suggest that you always carry with you local sweet cigarettes and a pouch of bethel nuts. Offer them around to the men in the villages.  Coming without bethel nut is impolite. Refusing it is a sign of enmity and a declaration of war. (Video clip below).

The Pasola

The Pasola tradition is well and truly alive in the west of the island. The Arab traders brought with them the beautiful Arabian horses in the 11th century. The horses are not only essential to these warriors but also the preferred mode of transport in the countryside, a sign of wealth and a trading tool for marriages, funerals or when compensation must be offered. See the Sumba tradition page for more information. 

The dates of the Pasolas are only know 2 weeks in advance. Several villages in West Sumba organise Pasolas – Wanukaka, Kodi, Lemboyan and Gaura. On the day of the Pasola, the priests – the Ratos – gather at sunrise on the beach to look for sea worms (nyale). February and March in the South West are the Nyale months. At this time of the year they can be found in shallow waters and the Ratos collect them. This time marks the end of the wet season and the time for rice planting.  From the size and the shape of the nyale, the Ratos can predict the rice crops. Once they find them, they sacrifice chickens – each family brings a chicken – and predict the future by “reading” the chook intestines. The children usually hand out the family chicken to the Rato. The are grilled cut open and the Rato explains to the children the omens they read. The children bring back the chicken guts to their family.

Then the teams gather on the sacred Pasola field and the priests of each clan face each other. They define the rules. The Ratos of each tribe will defy the opposite team.  Then, and only then, the Pasola is declared open. The fight can lead to wounds and death. The Sumbanese are fatalist. If they are wounded or killed on the Pasola field, it is because it was meant to be. Their blood is supposed to fertilize the soil. The Wanukaka Pasola calls for the end of the rain and the beginning of the dry season. Spectators are not immune from accidents either. On the two Pasolas I witnessed this year, a lady got a spear in the head and a warrior a spear in the chest. In several occasions the spectators had to duck down to avoid the flying spears and horses ended running into the crowd.

Text copyright The Tribe Press Agency / Photos and text Jacques Maudy and Julie André
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