Indonesia

Jousting warriors

Every year, men on the remote island of Sumba participate in a deadly gladiatorial joust. We journeyed to the isolated isle for a glimpse of this sacred harvest ritual, where blood must flow to fertilise the earth

November 22, 2016
Jousting warriors
Warrior roots: participants charge forward at the start of a joust. Blood is often shed during Pasola, but villagers do not hold grudges

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.

a man ties a piece of cloth around his head before the start of Pasola. Different local clans line up to take each other on during the joust
Nonchalant: a man ties a piece of cloth around his head before the start of Pasola. Different local clans line up to take each other on during the joust
Sumbanese people perform a prayer rite at the graves of ancestors a day before Pasola begins. The festival is an integral part of Sumba culture
Giving thanks: Sumbanese people perform a prayer rite at the graves of ancestors a day before Pasola begins. The festival is an integral part of Sumba culture

in the lead-up to Pasola, villagers search the water for sea worms that will be examined to determine the fruitfulness of the coming harvest
Seeking sustenance: in the lead-up to Pasola, villagers search the water for sea worms that will be examined to determine the fruitfulness of the coming harvest
Petrus Tanggugolo bathes his horse in readiness for Pasola. Horses are not only used in Sumba for the festival, but as a means of transportation and in dowries
Treasured: Petrus Tanggugolo bathes his horse in readiness for Pasola. Horses are not only used in Sumba for the festival, but as a means of transportation and in dowries
a man on horseback throws a wooden spear while taking part in the annual harvest festival of Pasola in Sumba, Indonesia
Ancient ritual: a man on horseback throws a wooden spear while taking part in the annual harvest festival of Pasola in Sumba, Indonesia
a Sumba man, dressed in traditional ikat clothing, prepares his horse for Pasola. The jousts that will follow celebrate the beginning of a new harvest season
Searching for justice: a Sumba man, dressed in traditional ikat clothing, prepares his horse for Pasola. The jousts that will follow celebrate the beginning of a new harvest season
a man reacts after successfully throwing a spear during a joust. A game can last up to two hours
Show of strength: a man reacts after successfully throwing a spear during a joust. A game can last up to two hours
the spectacle draws dozens of onlookers from surrounding villages. Women in the crowd can often be heard ululating as the joust is played out
Crowd-pleaser: the spectacle draws dozens of onlookers from surrounding villages. Women in the crowd can often be heard ululating as the joust is played out


Be a Part of the Story


Southeast Asia Globe is powered by members.


Membership programs will be available soon. Until then, sign up for our weekly summary of stories from the region.

Donate and support independent journalism.


Donations help us keep our journalism free and independent. Support stories from Southeast Asia that matter.


Comments
Please support us to comment!

Read more articles