Until 100 years ago, headhunting was commonplace in Sumba. You can’t help but shiver remembering this fact as you stand with the crowd watching the extravagant Pasola ceremony of the Sumbanese. Among many things, the harvest ritual is also a reminder of West Sumba’s violent past, the closest thing you’ll ever get to the real headhunting session.
In Pasola, two large groups on horseback facing each other, armed with blunt spears aimed to hurt as many opponents they can. Make no mistake. Although the bamboo throwing spears are blunt, the ritual is still dangerous one. Bloods are spilled in Pasola, and life sometimes lost. Adrenaline runs high even among the spectators. It’s an activity that is closely monitored by the authority to prevent unwanted outcome.
Pasola is a ritual unique to West Sumba. You won’t find it in the eastern part. It’s a ceremony that signifies planting season, as well as a rite of passage for the first timer. The more blood, the better the harvest will be. It also happens to be the most-famous ceremony in Sumba.
Pasola doesn’t have a fixed date. The time for Pasola is determined by nature. Pasola begins only after the Nyale, a species of colorful sea worm swarm the beach, several days after the first new moon in February and March. Only the Rato, the Marapu high priest, has authority to declare the exact date.
Pasola rider charges and takes aim at the opponent
Marapu is an indigenous belief of the Sumbanese; a way of life. It’s passed down from one generation to the next, spanning back to 4500 BC. It refers to both the name of the belief, as well as how the Sumbanese referring their ancestors, the guardian and the creator spirit altogether. It’s a form of animism that still runs thick in every Sumbanese’s veins, despite their religions. It’s hard to find religious practice without a hint of animism unique to Marapu in this place.
For first timers, Pasola is a way to show off their horse-riding and spear-throwing skills, re-enacting the tribal wars their great, great, great grandfather did decades ago. Both the man and the animal fall victim when those spears hit the target. But they are necessary casualties. The Marapu will only bless the harvest with abundance when bloods are spilled.
Flip-flop knight and his blunt spears
At dusk, when the dusts settled and the warriors finished licking their wounds, the Rato, after series of complementary sacrificing ceremonies, announced whether the ceremony is a success and abundant harvest awaits or the contrary.
Pasola is a sight to see. Make sure you check with the place you intend to stay about the date of the ceremonies. If there is something you don’t want to miss when visiting Sumba, this is it.
The galloping horses and the battle cries of the Pasola warriors act as time machine that takes you to a primordial land. Pure but violent. Beautiful and harsh. Land of the Marapu. And you can’t help but to look back at your life. At your own battles. The ones you won, the ones you lost. You have your own shares of battle wounds too. It’s all reflected in your mind as spears flying by between the warriors. Another lesson learned. One that takes you miles from home to this beautiful, rugged island to learn.