A Contest to the Death in Indonesia


The warriers launch their horses at full gallop. (Photo: Jacques Maudy & Julie Andre / The Irrawaddy)

SUMBA, Indonesia — The Pasola festival on the Indonesian island of Sumba is a ritual confrontation of spear-wielding warriors on horseback that occurs annually. Two clans line up some 20 horsemen, who each attempt to prove their bravery by attacking members of the opposing clan on a sacred field.

Sumba is located south of Komodo and Flores islands in the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago. Dubbed the “forgotten island,” it has kept alive its original traditions and customs.

The houses here are particular. With pitched, thatched roofs, they are made of bamboo and have three levels. The lower level is allocated to farm animals, while the middle level is where people live. At the base of the tower and above the living quarter is the domain of the ancestors. The higher the roof, the better and more powerful the owner. The chief of Ratteggaro village, for example, is very proud of his 16-meter-high house.

The people of Sumba are Christians, but they also have Marapu animist beliefs.

A Festival for Revenge

The Pasola tradition is truly alive in the western part of Sumba, where Arab traders brought beautiful Arabian horses in the 11th century. The horses are not only essential for these warriors, but also the preferred mode of transportation in the countryside, a sign of wealth, and a trading tool for marriages, funerals or when compensation must be offered.

The Pasola festival is held in February or March, but the exact date is only known two weeks in advance. The day before, in Wanukaka and in Lamboya regions, clans from the hills and the shore line up face to face and shout abuses at each other. Once the adrenaline rises to an acceptable level, they organize a boxing match. Each contender brings a chicken to the priest, who kills the animal, opens it and reads the omen in its guts. He will tell each man if he can participate or not

On the day of the festival, the two teams gather on the sacred Pasola field.  The fight can lead to wounds and death. The Sumbanese believe their blood will fertilize the soil. The contest is designed to allow people to take revenge for wrongs done during the past year. No one is supposed to interfere if a contender is wounded. It is assumed that they are the victims of the anger of the Marapu for wrongs they committed. No revenge can be taken by any clan after the Pasola is finished. They must wait for the next year’s Pasola to do so.

I saw a very skilled Wanukaka rider throw his spear and catch a spear aimed at him nearly simultaneously. But spectators are not immune from accidents. During the two Pasolas I witnessed this year, a lady got a spear in the head in Wanukaka and a warrior was speared in the chest in Kodi. On several occasions, spectators had to duck down to avoid the flying spears and the horses ended up running into the crowd.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available. Comments with external links in the body text will be deleted by moderators.