Tradition, nature, and a touch of magic. These are the words that come to mind when I think back to my recent trip to the island of Sumba.
Lying at the eastern end of Indonesia’s chain of islands, Sumba stands out for its rugged beauty and unique indigenous customs. Despite its proximity to Bali and Lombok, the two most popular tourist destinations in Indonesia, Sumba remains largely untouched by the outside world.
The traditional culture in Sumba is still very much alive
Most villages are nestled in the forest, high up in the hills. In the days when wars between clans were frequent, being positioned on top of a hill provided protection from the enemies. But there is also a spiritual meaning behind this choice of location. The original Marapu religion centers around creating harmonious relationships between humans and ancestral spirits. By building their villages up in the hills people hoped to get closer to the spirits.
Inside the village, the houses surround a central yard with large megalithic tombs, sacrificial altars, and a space for performing ritual dances.
The traditional houses are not just for housing; there is a spiritual meaning associated with every element of the construction
In Sumba, the traditional houses have three levels, each of them symbolising a specific realm of Marapu cosmology. The area below the house, where the family’s animals are kept, represents the underworld. The central level, or living quarters, symbolises the human world. The peaked roof represents the spiritual realm. This is where the ancestral spirits live and where the family keeps artefacts and cult objects.
The houses are structured around four wooden columns. Each pillar symbolises one of the cardinal directions. The central fireplace represents the sun, and it is also where the family gathers at the end of the day.
It can take many months to build a new house in Sumba. This is because the construction process involves a set of rituals. For example, once the house has been built, the village’s spiritual leader inspects the liver of sacrificed chickens to predict whether the construction will be safe from lightning and thunderstorms.
Ancestral spirits are appeased by sacrifices and ceremonies
The Pasola, which takes place annually towards the end of February, is one of the largest ceremonies in Sumba. The festival involves mock horseback fights between riders from different villages. For several hours, the horsemen gallop onto the central field and throw spears at each other. There are no winners and seemingly few rules, but the game is fast and aggressive.
Nowadays the participants use blunt wooden poles for the mock battles. But back in the days, they were throwing sharp spears at each other. The riders’ goal was to injure their opponents because the purpose of the Pasola was to spill blood on the land in order to fertilise it, appease the Marapu gods and ensure a good harvest.
The timing of the Pasola is unpredictable and the date varies from village to village. The event takes place one to two weeks after the February or March full moons. The exact timing is determined by the Nyale sea worms. Once a year, at the beginning of their reproductive cycle, the worms appear at the surface of the sea in order to spawn. According to the Marapu belief, this is a sign from heaven. Only when the Nyale worms appear, can the Pasola can officially begin.
An unspoilt natural environment
The beaches in Sumba are among the most beautiful in Indonesia. Wera beach in the North East of the island was one of my favourite. This interminable stretch of white sand is still untouched by tourism. If you need a break from your busy life, it is the perfect place to visit.