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 lesser 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.
Nyale worms signal beginning of Pasola Festival
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. On each morning of the festival the village chiefs (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 with great solemnity sweep up handfuls of the small, squirming worms.
These are then brought back to the waiting group of Ratu’s 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 year’s rice harvest will be bountiful or not, whether the villagers will endure a good year free from natural calamity, and a myriad of other matters indicating whether the year ahead will be good or bad.
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 everyone who is capable of holding a bucket, bottle or any other 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 (Indonesian: Spear) on the beach in preparation for the annual tournament.
Medieval jousting, but no armour
Pasola can best be described as the local equivalent of medieval jousting, without the protective body armour worn by knights, but with hundreds of people taking part at once.
And unlike medieval jousting where combatants charge at each other from two different directions armed with only a single lance, these modern day knights are free to throw their spears at other competitors, and can carry up to a dozen spears 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 pasola these days do not have sharpened tips, fatalities still occur and the sport is definitely not for the faint hearted.
After several hours of practice amongst themselves the Ratu give their blessing and 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 pasola as hard as they can in an attempt to knock their opponents off their horses.
Battle becomes a melee
After the initial charge the game then develops into somewhat of a melee as horses and riders circle around each other, spears flying through the air.
Additional charges then take place, with the “battle” lasting up to five hours, or until it is decided that enough hits have been scored on each other to atone for the previous year’s “misdemeanors”.
The crazy, colourful and traditional Pasola Festival is unique to Sumba and only happens on the first full moon of the Lunar Calendar.
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.
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Feature photo Fakhri Anindita
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He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.
He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.
In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.
Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.
In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.
Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me
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