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Blood Sacrifice in Sumba

Where Shamans and warriors worship holy sea worms.




By Milene Larsson, Photos by James Morgan

A Pasola warrior about to throw his spear at a fighter from a rival clan. The spears may be blunt these days, but they do occasionally kill fighters and spectators.

Sumba is an island the size of Jamaica in the Indonesian archipelago that has been cut off from the rest of the world for so long that its ancient animistic traditions survive to this day. It is the setting for ritual battles called Pasola which take place every year in February and March. The Pasola is a fight between rival clans who hurl spears at each other on horseback in order to “fertilize” the soil with spilled human blood. To get to Sumba from Bali, we hopped on a small propeller plane for a one-hour flight. Most of the passengers were Sumbanese commuters, but there were also brawny leathery surfers on the hunt for uncrowded waves, and Western and Indonesian businessmen, probably land speculators. Land on Sumba is in demand because the island, rich in culture and blessed with perfect beaches, is primed to become a hot tourist destination. As we descended over rice paddies lined with palm trees and rolling hills dotted with wild horses, we passed clusters of thatched bamboo huts with muddy courtyards where pigs, chickens, and dogs roamed. In contrast, the modern, half-built Tambolaka airport feels out of place. For now, Sumba is still far too wild to attract casual tourists. The clans on the island still practice head-hunting, sorcery, and ritual blood sacrifice according to their arcane Marapu religion, and the official Indonesian law often gives way to adat—local clan law and traditions. We had come to film the lead-up to the Pasola battle in Wanukaka, a village in West Sumba where members of the Praibakul clan, from teenage boys to elderly men, had been prepping their spears and horses for this year’s fight against the neighboring Waihura clan. The battle was set to take place a couple of days later, although that could change depending on how the ratus—the local shamans—would read the moon.


Pajura ratu Bapak Kameme Bili having a cigarette before this year’s boxing match, which takes place before the Pasola. Before driving into Wanukaka, we stopped by some ramshackle roadside stalls to stock up on gifts of psychoactive betel nuts called pitang and Gudang Garam clove cigarettes for the ratus and Pasola warriors. We had arranged to stay with Rudy, a descendant of Wanukaka’s royal Mamodo family. His house on the outskirts of the village was surrounded by palm forest hills and rice fields where farmers pushed heavy wooden plows behind their buffalo; it looked like a prettier version of the opening scene of Apocalypse Now. Rudy hadn’t arrived yet, so his sister, Monica, served us sugary tea on their front porch which was lined with pig jaws. “Animal jaws and skulls are signs of richness. It shows the family have many animals and can afford to eat meat,” she explained. On the side porch, Rudy’s cousin Dedi, a fierce young Pasola warrior, was polishing his spears, a cigarette dangling from his lips. We asked him about his preparations. “We don’t prepare. We just go there and fight because we have to, for the harvest,” he said. “If you get hit by a spear and you start bleeding, it means the harvest will be good.” Dedi has fought in the Pasola since he was 14, and showed us the scars all over his body. “The pain when the spear hits you is incredible, especially if you get hit in the head.” He offered to take us to a bare-knuckle boxing match that night called the Pajura which traditionally takes place before the Pasola. We gladly accepted, before he warned us that spectators often get punched, and that some boxers wrap rocks, horns or broken glass around their fists. A senior family member added that until recently the Pasola had been much bloodier. “It was only 40 years ago that the government forbade the use of metal-tipped spears and parangs [long-bladed machete-style knives, carried by every Sumbanese man] during the Pasola. Now fighters use blunt spears,” he said. After a dinner of fried Pot Noodles and dog meat, Dedi and his friends, cheery after drinking the crate of beer we’d given them, decided it was time to go to the Pajura in Tetena. Riding on the back of a drunk Pasola warrior’s motorbike, through jungle roads and without a helmet, to go to a bare-knuckle moonlight boxing match might sound alarming, but the ride under the stars was pretty awesome. We must have driven for 45 minutes, past endless palm trees and surrounded by bats, when the road came to an abrupt end by a field of shoulder-height vegetation. Dedi and his friends kept driving at full speed through the high grass until we reached a small path that led to what must have been hundreds of steps leading down to a beach. We were early. A few people were sitting on the sand, profusely smoking Gudang Garams to repel the swarming mosquitoes. Dedi led us to a tent where some men had gathered around a ratu who was sitting cross-legged and wrapped in impressive ikat, preparing his betel nuts in a wooden mortar. He was the Pajura ratu—for one night only, the world’s coolest-looking box-ing referee. He explained the rules of the fight via a long-winded legend in a local dialect. The tale involved a man who was lost at sea whose wife had married another man, which resulted in clan battles and ended with the exchange of holy nyale, a sea worm that appears once a year, determining the day of the Pasola. Even so, we were none the wiser about any technicalities. By now, hundreds, if not thousands, of people had gathered on the beach, and more were descending the crowded steps.


A ratu trying to catch holy nyale sea worms that only come to shore once a year, heralding the day of the Pasola. The nyale’s colour is believed to predict the quality of the forthcoming harvest.

Suddenly, the entire crowd formed an impromptu circle around a fight that had kicked off. Then random fights broke out all over the place. The only graspable rule was that if a guy from the Praibakul clan spotted someone from the Waihura clan, they would fight. Dedi reassured us that the ratu had “tree bark” to treat injuries. When our cameraman was punched in the stomach, and shit-faced local politicians started picking fights with people, hands on their parangs, we felt it was time to move, and spent a good two hours getting in line to climb the narrow steps. Rudy works as a law adviser for the Sumba Foundation, a nonprofit charity that has established malaria clinics and schools on the island and supplies clean water to villages. The morning after the fight, one of his colleagues, a Danish doctor named Claus Bogh, who has spent the best part of a decade on the island, had tea with us on the porch. “In Sumba, blood represents everything from food to war and life,” he said. “At the Pasola, if there’s not blood on the ground, the ratus will not stop the game. They have to make sure that next year’s rice harvest will be good. For that, there has to be blood.” He told us to be careful. “A spectator was killed a few years ago. A spear hit him right in the eye and he died within ten minutes.” He warned us that every Pasola ends in mayhem, usually with a lot of stone throwing. He also confirmed the rumors we’d heard about headhunting clans.


Sumba’s most famous ratu, Dangu Duka, chewing betel nuts before the Pasola. “A couple of years ago, a clan kidnapped a girl because she refused to marry one of their men. When her clan found out, they came for her and chopped off the heads of her kidnappers and sent them to the kidnappers’ clan. In 1982, I think, there was a major falling out between two clans and 200 people were killed, all of them had their heads chopped off.” We later found out that the day before we left the island seven people had been decapitated in a land brawl not too far from where we had stayed. After we’d spoken to Claus, Rudy took us to meet Sumba’s most famous ratu, Dangu Duka, half of whose face had mysteriously turned black. “The gods from the heavens and the gods from the underworld tell us when the Pasola needs to take place by sending the nyale. We pray at sunrise and sunset to the gods, and measure the moon cycles to predict when the nyale will come,” the ratu explained. As well as setting the date of the Pasola, the nyale predict the quality of the harvest, depending on their color and shape. “The soil needs blood,” he said. “If someone is killed in the Pasola, it’s treated as a local issue, it has nothing to do with Indonesian law.” All the while, he was crushing his pitangs and chewing them with chalk powder and a green plant that he kept in a small straw bag. We tried some. The pitangs tasted like coffee beans soaked in chlorine. Following his example, we spat out the copious amounts of red saliva that the nut produced, and enjoyed a feeling of relaxed euphoria. In the evening, we made our way to the holy village of Ububewi, where three ratus were about to begin the Pasola ritual. Dedi and his friends gave us a ride but stopped in the middle of a jungle dust road, saying we had to walk the rest because noisy motorbikes would disturb the sacred ceremony. When we reached the top of the hill, the ratus were chilling out on a porch chewing pitangs. We had just missed the first ritual, a sacrifice of chickens to read the future of the Pasola in their entrails. As the moonlight grew stronger, and once the ratus were done wrapping themselves in intricately patterned ikat, amulets, and feathers, they picked up baskets of pitangs and flasks of coconut oil, and installed themselves on the ancient stone megalith platform overlooking the jungle and moonlit valley. They sang shamanic hymns, calling the nyale by humming at the moon. Without ceasing their incantations, they walked down the hill to the beach where the sea worms would hopefully make an appearance.

A spear split this Pasola fighter’s nose. The guy who threw it rode a victory lap, cheered on by the crowd. The Sumbanese depend on the rice harvest and believe blood must be spilt on the soil to fertilize it. We followed them, trying hard to avoid the deep cracks that were hardly visible in the dark. As we proceeded, more villagers joined us. We finally reached the beach in the early hours of the morning, watching the sunrise while the ratus walked into the sea to catch the nyale they’d been calling for since midnight. After 20 minutes, they strolled back to the beach with their catch. Hundreds of people swarmed to hear the predictions for the coming harvest. This year’s sea worms were green and brown. Green meant that the rice field will be infested with moss, and brown warned of problems with insects. Not great news. At about 7 AM, Pasola fighters came riding in on their decorated horses. When the blazing sun was up, the first Pasola began. More and more people arrived, eagerly pressing themselves into the crowds to get closer to the flying spears. After about an hour and a half, the Pasola warriors, now warmed up, rode off to the main Pasola field on the other side of the village. Thousands of people had gathered, all trying to get to the front. Some climbed trees for a better view. The fighters, tirelessly hurling spears at each other, seemed to take little notice of the heat and appeared completely fearless. They believe that dying in the Pasola is honorable, and that you return to your ancestors. Whenever someone was hit, the warrior who’d thrown the spear threw his hands up in the air victoriously, while his clan peers cheered. Several hours later, our tans were approaching the stage of second-degree burns. By 3 PM, feeling like the battle would never end, our cameraman, desperate for shade, stole a family’s flowery umbrella to take a nap under it. Just as he’d settled into a comfy position, members of one clan, frustrated with the lack of blood spilled in the Pasola, started throwing stones at the fighters and the crowd. At that, the armed Indonesian police, who until then had kept a low profile, started firing their ma- chine guns in the air, inducing panic and scattering the crowd, including the warriors on horseback. As Claus had promised, the Pasola ended in chaos. Dedi, who had fought impressively for a long time, rode a final victory lap, his eyes gleaming with pride. He then rode up the hill to his house, where we joined him and his family for the Pasola feast. As we snoozed on Dedi’s porch, between being served rice, dog stew, nyale goreng, and pitangs, it dawned on me that rather than the bloodthirst I had initially expected, the Pasola has more to do with restoring peace, venting aggression, and resolving disputes between the clans. Once you overcome the fear of being trampled or speared, the chaos is really liberating.

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