At dawn, about nine days after a full moon in February or March, tribal spiritual leaders wade into waters off remote Sumba, an island in western Indonesia. Known as Rato, these priests are searching for the nyale worm as part of an ancient harvest ritual – once caught, the nyale will be examined. Fat and healthy nyale signify an abundant harvest. But if the wriggling sea creatures are found to be thin and fragile, it is believed that meagre times lay ahead.
This annual ceremony is followed soon after by Pasola, perhaps Southeast Asia’s bloodiest tradition. Far more than a game, Pasola is a sacred ritual where blood must flow, symbolically fertilising the earth to bring about a season without famine. It also acts as a community celebration when the nyale are found to be plump.
The annual joust serves as a reminder that Sumba remains closely connected to the region’s combative past, when tribal warriors fought on horseback
Two groups of men from different local clans charge at each other while on horseback, throwing bamboo or wooden spears at their opponents.
A single game can last for up to two hours, accompanied by the ululations of Sumbanese female spectators and the jangling of chimes that adorn the horses. These days, the weapons are blunted to prevent serious injury or death, but fatalities are not uncommon.
The annual joust serves as a reminder that Sumba remains closely connected to the region’s combative past, when tribal warriors fought on horseback. As the Sumbanese believe blood must be shed in order to nourish the soil for the good of all, participants and victims’ families do not seek revenge once Pasola ends.
Along with funerals, Pasola is the most important rite in Sumba culture, and is part of the traditional Marapu religion. Though many on the isolated island are registered with the authorities as Christians – the government decrees that Indonesians must be part of one of the country’s sanctioned religions – much of the community still embraces Marapu. Ancestor worship is a key tenet of the religion, and there is a ritual for each phase of life.