In Sumba, there is always something to celebrate somewhere. Celebrating and inviting more people than necessary is part of their culture. You need not necessarily attend a big festival or ceremony. If you know a little Bahasa Indonesia, it is the little encounters that we as foreigners remember for a long time.
But you will also remember negative aspects: the origin of all traditional festivals and the way they are celebrated according to Marapu religion. At most festivals water buffalos, cattle, pigs, and chickens are ritually killed. For the animals this means a slow, painful end. Pigs are thrown often only half dead into fire. While water buffalos die quietly, the squeals of pigs are almost unbearable.
The religion of the participants is not important for a ceremony, everybody is welcome. People are very considerate with Muslims, some ritual killings are carried out according to Islamic rite or even a goat is added if only pigs are sacrificed.
I put some small movie clips concerning festivals in YouTube (see more under Links). Here is a selection of celebrations:
Each year after the last new moon in October and the last in November, some Sumbanese tribes celebrate the Wulla Poddu ceremony. The main ceremonial event is at the end of the first week. Wulla Poddu means a bitter month. Wulla Poddu is a kind of holy month comparable to Ramadan or Passion. During this month, there are certain prohibitions or taboos (no funerals, weddings, parties, topping-out ceremonies, eating dogs…). Wulla Poddu is associated with agriculture. It is the time for giving thanks to the Marapu before the next planting season begins. Land, crops, livestock, and good efforts are blessed by the Marapu. For people the Wulla Poddu is the time of family reunion, reconciliation, forgiveness, and pardon.
At the beginning of Wulla Poddu boars are brought down from the mountains, killed ritually and the meat distributed to the families. The following night, the families bring rice hulls to the central squares and the Rato bless this gift with rhythmic chants. Then the evil spirits get driven out from the village with wooden sticks or spears accompanied with vigorous cries. The following day (or nowadays usually at the first weekend) the highlight of the festival begins with performances of rhythmic chanting and ritual dances. People dance on central squares of the villages, both Marapu priest, equipped with appropriate relics, warriors with swords and spears, and women in colourful costumes. The end of Wulla Poddu is also celebrated. Different types of animals are sacrificed and not just boars like in the beginning.
All together there are about a dozen different rituals that are part of the Wulla Poddu. The Wulla Poddu is mainly celebrated in Tarung and Waitabar in Waikabubak, Tambera in Loli north of Waikabubak, Ubu Koba in Wewawa Selatan, and in several other villages around Waikabubak, in Lamboya and in Wanukaka. The beginning and course of the Wulla Poddu varies from place to place.
A list of the venues as well as further detailed information about the beginning and the expiration can be found in the dissertation of Elvira Rothe. You will find the dissertation of Elvira Rothe on the link page.Villagers with strong believes pay very close attention to the observance of taboos during Wulla Poddu month. Sometimes it might be forbidden to a foreigner to enter villages or specific areas in a village and take photos.
In the chapter history and culture / traditional way of life I have described the importance of marriage. Here is the now customary routine:
Weddings are celebrated in the bride's house. Days before the celebration the dowry of the bride is shown in front of the parents' house. This might be a marriage bed, a TV, and furniture. On the day of the celebration, the bride's family gather in front of their house and wait for the groom.
The groom starts from his family home and collects his relatives on the way to the bride. Nowadays they use mostly Bemos and trucks for the trip. They have room for the presents: horses, water buffaloes and pigs. A decorated horse symbolizes a motorcycle. And vice versa a motorcycle, covered with a sheet, and its rear view mirrors decorated with colourful ribbons, symbolizes a horse. Also Ikat cloth, traditional swords, relics and for the visitor rather not understandable ownership certificates change the owners.
Upon arrival of the groom, the 2 families consult whether the presents are adequate. Such negotiations have sometimes an almost ritualistic character and may take several hours. Optionally they talk also about the past and inherited guilt and debt. Then the heads of the family appear before the wedding congregation and announce the result. The following is an appropriate service according to religious orientation.
Animal sacrifices are common at weddings. In addition, the mostly great wedding congregation has to be fed.
According to Marapu belief there is life after death. Therefore, funeral ceremonies are actually most important of all. With some tribes in Sumba, the body is bent like a baby in the womb. This position is a symbol of rebirth in the world of spirits. The coffin of the dead person is covered with a shroud of Ikat. The funeral celebration symbolizes the transition of the deceased person into the "Marapu heaven" - Praing Marapu. Funeral ceremonies and funerals are usually a few days after death.
The funeral ceremony requires a large
financial outlay for the family. Many mourners will have to travel, be
accommodated and fed. They need a number of water buffalos, cows, ... Sometimes
such ceremonies will, therefore, take place several years after death, until
enough money is available. In the meantime, the body of the deceased is kept on
the top floor of the houses of the living or buried temporarily.
Depending on the region and the importance of the dead person, the mortuary and funeral ceremony take 3 to more than 6 days. Chemical additives such as formalin and others are quite common today in the funeral process of Sumba.
The dead person will be buried in a megalithic tomb. There are single graves and "family graves", where several people can be buried. So the following ceremony is not part of every funeral.
The megalithic culture in Sumba originated about 4,500 years ago. This tradition is still alive today, and not just for supporters of the Marapu faith. The megalithic tombs are rectangular with a cover plate over the grave itself. They look similar to altars or tables. They are closed, with a grave chamber below; or open, with 4 feet and individual cover plates at the ground. Older grave chambers of limestone are composed of individual segments, or hollowed out manually from a monolith stone. The different designs and dimensions of individual graves are in accordance with the importance of the family. The material of the cover plates is even today mostly limestone or seldom concrete. Even today many have a weight of many tons. In order to carry these cover plates to the right place, you need the Tarik Batu = stone-pulling ceremony.
Before the stone-pulling ceremony, there are a number of rituals as to grant planning permission to fetch the stone from a quarry or rock. Another ritual serves to ensure success of the stone-pulling. Such a stone is then pulled with lianas over banana trunks over long distances until it has finally reached its final position and is then raised. Stone pulling is hard work for many people and sometimes takes many days.
The pulling of stones is accompanied with rhythmical, encouraging songs. Men are responsible for pulling, women for catering. A corresponding number of water buffaloes, cows, and pigs are necessary for offering. In such ceremonies one can today use trucks for transport, if the distance to the grave site is too far, or a nylon rope, if the lianas are too weak. But the main thing is that all participants have fun.
Following this ceremony, the grave stones are decorated, with scenes and sculptures from the life of the deceased and his life after death according to Marapu faith. Depending on the material and taste kitschy bathroom tiles are also common.
The Pasola is probably the largest and best-known ceremony in Sumba. The name of the ceremony is derived from the word Hola or Sola = wooden stick or spear. Pa suggests that this is a game. Those who do not have the opportunity to see it, or don't want to see it, will recognize at least the leftovers. Wherever the Pasola is performed, there are thousands of empty plastic cups...
The Pasola takes place at different locations in West Sumba.
In February in
- Homba Kalayo, Wilaya - Kodi Bangedo
- Bondo Kawango, Pero Batang – Kodi
- Rara Winyo, Bondo Kawangu – Kodi
- Hobba Kalla, Marosi - Lamboya
In March in
- Ratenggaro - Kodi Bangedo
- Waiha – Kodi Balaghar
- Wainyapu – Kodi Balaghar
- Kamaradena, Waihura (field) - Wanukaka
- Pahiwi, Waihura (beach) - Wanukaka
- Weetana, Gaura - Lamboya Barat
According to tradition, the Pasola was first held in the village of Pahola. In 2019 a Pasola Stadium was built there. It's bigger than a football stadium with huge bleachers. Because of the pandemic or whatever the reason, it hasn't been used yet. It is unclear when the first Pasola events will take place there. The event there may confuse the times of the other venues.The timing of Pasola rituals is determined by Nyale rituals. Nyale are iridescent annelids. On 2 days each year, one in February and one in March, these critters crawl from the sea about 5 days after full moon, in order to spawn. According to Marapu belief this is a sign from heaven. The Rato priest checks the appearance of the Nyale worms and makes predictions for the coming harvest. The Pasola itself begins 8 days after the Nyale phenomenon.
The exact date of the Pasola could
actually be known only a few weeks before. However, it is defined more
pragmatic today. From the experience of recent years you can use the following
rule of thumb: 10 days after the first full moon after the 20th of January +- 4 days for the February Pasola. The March Pasola is 4 weeks later. The dates of the different venues
are published about 2 weeks before.
Before and as a supplement of the main Pasola event a number of different ritual games take place. These include, depending on the region, brutal boxing matches – Pajura. Opponents wrap their fists with sharp grasses. But also general meetings, nights with ritual speech and various sacrifices with animal offerings are held. The night before the fight, each participant rider of the Pasola has to sacrifice a chicken to the Rato. From that the Rato foretells the success in battle and it is also a plea to the Marapu to give power for the fight.
The area of the game is consecrated by the Rato and released and he is also the referee of the games. Pasola is a mock battle between 2 or more villages. The hand-carved spears are up to 5 cm thick and dull; in spite of this participants (sometimes) get injured or killed.
In this ritual war game dozens of riders compete against each other. For hours they gallop bareback on Sumba horses and hurl their spears against their opponents with full force. It is not a show, as we know it from Middle Ages markets in Europe - but is formally exactly like this.
The participants are trying to demoralize their opponents with words and push them down with their spears. Their goal is not only to win but to draw attention to themselves. Successful riders have a high status. Revenge of the defeated is not up to the participants but to the Marapu - perhaps it solves itself or they solve it in the following year.
From the symbolism the Pasola ceremony has a direct relationship to agriculture. According to Marapu faith each blood that is shed on the earth fertilizes the land and increases the yield of the crop - whether in boxing or on the Pasola. This is the true religious meaning of the Pasola ceremony - not the amusement of the crowd.
For Pasola you dress in your best clothes and
travel in a suitable vehicle. Those who can afford it and come from abroad will
book appropriate quotas with the airlines. Perhaps the Rato also makes an
appointment with the airlines … On the other side the spectators often behave
not mannerly. In recent years, stones were thrown and the police had to
intervene with tear gas... . After riots at the Pasola in Wanokaka in 2023, the event was shut down by police with around 400 police officers and water cannons.
Although the Pasola is on its way to becoming an international national tourist attraction, it remains important for Sumbanese culture.
This violent ritual may remind you that less than 100 years ago headhunting still existed in Sumba.
Some people doubt, whether the Pasola in its original form was a really bloody event. It is also possible that it was a mere show for the upper class, or was used for the pacification of different tribes.
A special ceremony or an integral part of many celebrations is ritual speech. This chanting contains rhyming pairs, so called parallel-linked verses. Put simply, these are verses that say the same content in other words or a different content with similar-sounding words (Examples are in the somecouplets file on the Wanukaka website, see link page).
Such a ritual speech or lecture can last the whole night. They are presented from memory by the Rato, the spiritual leader of the community. The village people sit around him and respond with an occasional loud feedback choir. The speaker is an intermediary between the ancestors and the living. On such evenings animals are sacrificed and there is something to eat, of course.
The life cycle of a human being is accompanied by various Marapu ceremonies. Such festivals are held in rather small circles. In each ceremony there are only small offerings. The religious affiliation is considered pragmatic. Here the individual stages:
- Gollu Uma / Haba Ngillu / Hallo Lara - Pregnancy
- Eta Tana Mewa (Upacara Kelahiran) - Birth accompanying ceremony / Marapu
- Pangara Ana (Upacara Pemberian Nama) - Naming / Marapu
- Kawutti (Upacara Cukur Rambut) - Baptism / depending on religion differently
- Burru Mareda (Upaca Ra Sunat) - Circumcision / depending on religion differently
- Katatu (Tato) - Tattooing / depending on clan and differs from area to area
Traditional music and dance were originally a part of Marapu ceremonies. Today they also take place in local festivals and events. Each region of Sumba has its own types of dance. There are dances where women and men dance together or dance separately. Most popular is Woleka and Kataga. Woleka is a dance of women to celebrate the return of the heroes from the battlefield. Kataga is a war dance. It is performed by men very expressive and full of energy.
The music to this is more accompanying it rhythmically. It does not sound harmoniously as in Bali, but rather choppy and demanding. The Musical instruments that are most commonly used are gongs called Talla and a kind of drum called Beddu. Gongs are made of brass or steel. They are different in size. There are large ones Talla Pia and small ones Talla Ana Kouka. They are beaten with wooden bats. Then there are small drums Katuba which are beaten by hand.
In addition, there are various other today more rare instruments such as the Kasabba: a kind of basin; Goga Ama: a kind of short-flute; Talahe: a kind of hollow flute which gets air through one nostril while the other nostril is closed; Ndungga: a kind of rattle made of coconut shells and horsehair or spun yarn).
Bijalungu Hiupaana - is the name of a natural cave. It is located in the village of Waihura in Wanukaka, 16 km south of Waikabubak. The ceremony takes place in late January / early February and lasts 4 days; while 7 various rituals are performed. It is to conciliate the Marapu favourably on the incipient planting season. Also there are ceremonies to predict harvests and personal happiness. In these ceremonies food and beverages are served and people sing and dance.
Purungu Taliang Marapu - it takes place east of Waikabubak in the first week in October in the village of Umbu Pabal / Katikutana and Kaba Djawa / Ratu Nggay and lasts 4 days. It is a thanksgiving ritual with dances, prayers, and offerings to the Marapu.
Repit - is held the end of March in the Tarimbang district and Lailara in the Katala Hamu Lingu district. The event involves asking the Marapu for a good harvest result. There are also ceremonies to make predictions about future events. Animals will be killed, food and drinks are provided, and people sing and dance.
Mangejing - is a kind harvest festival. It takes place end of June or in early July in the abandoned village of Hamaparengu. It is 2 hours by foot south of Prailiang (Prainatang) or west of Kuta. From both places you go on horseback to Hamaparengu. There animals will be killed, food and drinks are provided, people jointly stamp rice, sing and dance.
Topping-out ceremonies - will be celebrated after the completion of the wooden skeleton of a house. The direct neighbours of the house bring chickens for the Rato. From the cut out liver of the chickens, he reads whether the house is safe from thunderstorms and lightning as well as about the health and future well-being of its residents. If even one chicken is not ok, the procedure must be repeated or adjourned. The building site gets blessed with the blood of the chickens. Of course, additional animals are sacrificed here to please the guests.
Traditional festivals for which I have no
- Urata Patama Keto - sharpening machetes
- Pogo Urata Guacu - cut down trees
- Urata Tenu – wooden stove
- Oma Wuke Urata – open garden
- Urata Dengu Laura – ask for rain
- Urata Dengi Ina – harvest results
Elements of traditional festivals are
often involved in non-traditional events. For example: campaign events, sports
events, and inaugurations.
National Holiday – In all district capitals in Sumba, at or around August 17, there are events, where the villages of the district present themselves or compete against each other. This includes sport competitions, musical performances, theatre and of course equestrian games - so this is something like a Pasola light in different disciplines.
Taman Hiburan Rakyat - About the 17th of August to the 17th of September the festival takes place in Waingapu. It is a mixture of Oktoberfest, Karaoke-Festival and a wide representation of NGO- and (Dinas =) government projects.
Wai Humba Festival – was born out of the resistance movement against the gold mining project in the Wanggameti National Park. Since 2012 this festival is held annually in October or November. Humba is the traditional name of Sumba. Wai is the name for water and the source of life on Sumba. The 4 still untouched and within the meaning of Marapu faith holy mountain regions Wanggameti, Jawila, Tanah Daru and Poronombu serve the festival as a symbol for preservation of the identity of Sumba and its culture. It tries to maintain or revive the old traditions. Therefore the festivals take place near one of these sacred mountain regions, or in culturally important regions. For days people discuss and they dance, sing and eat in the traditional way. More information can be found in social networks under the keyword Komunitas Waihumba. After the pandemic break, the 9th festival took place in November 2022 in Kambata Wundut.
Late at night – more and more technology is used nowadays. Perhaps there is a
keyboard or a mobile-phone with which you can play karaoke music. In Sumba
there are amazing musical talents. Songs are often presented in regional
languages. Portuguese influences are audible and the rhythms sound almost like
in Latin America...