Knights on horseback and sea worms feature in Sumba Pasola festival

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One of the southern most islands of the Indonesian archipelago is Sumba, or Sandalwood island.

A member of the Lesser Sunda group of islands South of Flores and Sumbawa in the past its prime exports were slaves, horses, sandalwood and Ikat, hand dyed weavings, which it exported to the main Indonesian island of Java.

These days with little sandalwood remaining and the abolishment of slavery it is one of Indonesia’s lessor explored and unspoilt tourist destinations.

However for hardy travellers the first full moon of the Lunar Calendar (usually in February or March) is when the waters of Sumba come alive and Sumba hosts the largest cultural event of the Lesser Sunda islands.


Between six and eight days after the full moon the waters off Western Sumba become the spawning ground for billions of tiny Nyale worms which heralds the start of the local Pasola Festival.

The ceremony has changed little over the years and on the morning of the festival the village chiefs (called Ratu’s) will don ceremonial woven sarongs and black and red woven hats adorned with colourful chicken feathers and gather on the beach at 4.00 am.

While waiting for the sun to slowly rise over the horizon the Ratu’s, and other villagers hold what appear to be deep discussions while chewing betel nut and smoking clove cigarettes until it is decided the appropriate time has been reached.

Two of the Ratu then enter the ocean up to their waste and after gathering with great dignity sweep up handfuls of the small, squirming worms.

These are then brought back to the waiting group of Ratu where more discussions, betel nut chewing and cigarettes are consumed as the fortunes for the coming year are deciphered depending on the actions, geometric patterns, colours and movements of the captured Nyale.

According to local custom the patterns formed and the movement of the Nyale will show whether the coming years rice harvest will be bountiful or not, whether the villagers will endure a good year free from natural calamity or not, and a myriad of other matters all concluding with whether the year ahead will be a good or bad one.

Once the Ratu have concluded that the year ahead is going to be a good one permission is given for ordinary village folk to see the worms for themselves.


What transpires next is a wild stampede as as everyone who is capable of holding a bucket, bottle or any other form of container charge into the water to collect as many of the silvery-green squirming Nyale as they can.

The captured Nyale are later fried and eaten but not until after an hour long perambulation accompanied by rhythmic chantings of “layla” on the beach around ceremonial stones.

Back in the villages gifts of betel nut and rice wrapped in bamboo packets are exchanged between villagers before chickens are ritually slaughtered and then thrown onto large wooden fires.

The Nyale ceremony lasts around four hours and afterwards the young men of the village practice the ancient art of Pasola on the beach in preparation for the annual tournament.

Pasola can best be described as the local equivalent of medieval jousting, without the protective body armour worn by medieval knights and with hundreds of people at once taking part.

And unlike medieval jousting where combatants charged at each other from two different directions armed with only a single lance, these modern day Knights are free to throw their sticks at other competitors and carry up to a dozen sticks each .


While Pasola these days is a social sport, in past times it was a form of medieval combat between waring villages with sharpened spears or lancers. While the lancers these days do not have sharpened edges, fatalities do occur and the sport is definitely not for the feint hearted.

After several hours of practice amongst themselves the Ratu’s give their blessing and the all of the villagers head off to Wanokaka where they meet the opposing team on the equivalent of a local football ground.

The two teams then line up at opposite ends of the field and when the signal is given, charge towards each other throwing their sticks as hard as they can in an attempt to knock their opponents off their horses.

After the initial charge the game then develops into somewhat of a melee as horses and riders circle around each other with sticks flying through the air. Additional charges then take place, with the game lasting up to five hours, or until it is decided that enough hits have been scored to atone for the previous years “misdemeanors”.

The crazy, colourful and traditional Pasola Festival is unique to Sumba and only happens in March of each year. While independent travel to Sumba is possible, Sunda Trails, specialises in trips throughout the Lesser Sunda islands and can tailor tours for individuals or groups. They can be contacted by internet on:

© John Le Fevre, 2006


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Indonesia; Sumba; Tourism/travel; Indonesia tourism; Indonesian travel; Lesser Sunda islands; slavery; sandalwood; Sumba festival; Nyale worm; Pasola festival; Sandalwood island; Western Sumba; Sea worms
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John Le Fevre is an Australian national with more than 40 years experience as a journalist, photographer, videographer and copy editor.

He is the former Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today

Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me

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