All The King`s Horses

Pasola in Sumba

Situated between Bali and Timor, Sumba is one of the smallest and most southern of the Indonesian islands. It takes a special place in the chain of the Nusa Tenggara Timur, the Sunda Islands, stretching some 80km from west to east. The capital and principal port of the island, Waingapu, located on the north coast, was founded in 1834 by an Arab merchant. Just like in other places in southeast Indonesia, mosques and churches line both sides of the street. But don’t think, Sumba is foremost Christian or Muslim. This might be so in the eye of the superficial or first time visitor, but those who have been around in the pivotal months of February and March, will have a second opinion about the Sumbanese, a once fierce full people of warriors and headhunters...

When I returned last year after an absence of some five years, I found the island little changed. Sure, the second airport of the island in Waikabubak, was operational and all and the air felt pleasantly cool after the clammy island heat of Bali, but the obligatory policeman just outside the airport, walking hand in hand with his just returned friend, and the slow pace of the little motorized traffic, reminded me again that the outer islands in Indonesia evolve at different speed. Soon the familiar shaped rooftops, like oversized cones, appeared here and there in the country side. Soon we were in town – based upon a strange feeling for administrative hierarchy, Waingkabubak deserves this qualification – and settled in our small but cozy hotel for a very short night. After all, we were there to accomplish a mission, witness the grand pasola, an event of which we heard so many stories, that we finally decided to go and have a look on the spot...

So very early next morning, we took off to a half secret place where the pasola this year would take place, as many locals had assured us. Indeed, after a nightly drive, at sunset we reached a remote location right on the beach. People from all over the island where streaming in and dozens of roadside stalls were already doing brisk business. On the beach we found a gathering of old king-warriors, graceful and wise old men, in full ornate and still looking as if they could personally ward off any impending peril that might threaten their communities.

The pasola takes place in the early part of each year, at the time of the new moon, in certain south western regions of Sumba. It must coincide with an astonishing sortie of sea worms on the beaches, which the inhabitants celebrate as the Nyale ceremony. The color and size of these sea worms, are determining factors for the well-being of the communities, ruled by kings, who once a year during the pasola and all that is connected with it, revel in their former power.

After this remarkable beach meeting – maybe some 20 other foreigners where attending – everybody started moving into the direction of a nearby village. Officials, warrior-like dressed men, women selling cold soft drinks and children, all were present and about to line a large grass-plot, prepared for what would appear to be a unique, yearly tradition... So we watched in awe the pasola, a series of skilfull movements of horsemen, steering their animals in what appeared to be a unique combination of dexterous game and a fierce war.

In bygone days, hundreds of horsemen would confront one another with lances, enacting the battles of ancient Sumbanese warriors. These jousts, formerly deadly (sometimes still so today !), are the occasion to display the combatants' bravery, but also to shed blood necessary for the earth's fertilization, some kind of cosmic sacrifice to bring about the protection of the gods and ancestors. Successive waves of colonization have not seemed to have affected profoundly the Sumbanese. Catholics, Protestants and a small Muslim minority are present at Sumba, but the pervasive religion is Marapu, of which pasola is an imminent and splendid example...






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