High on a mountain, three shamans sit cross-legged on a great burial stone, gazing out across a moonlit valley. They are singing, a slow ululation that fades into the predawn silence. This is the annual summons for the nyale, ancient spirits that manifest as sea worms, briefly swarming the shores of Sumba, a tiny island in eastern Indonesia. For the shamans, the nyale are augurs, telling them what the year ahead will hold. This is the central moment in a ritual cycle that will culminate in a few hours when hundreds of warriors do battle, hurling spears in a bloody war known as the Pasola.
The people of Sumba are as adept at divination as they are at the age-old ritual of sacrifice. They read signs in the eviscerated entrails of chickens; they butcher pigs, water buffalo and horses so that the dead are provided for in the afterlife. And they shed each other’s blood in clan wars and ritual battles with just as much gusto. Theirs is one of the last megalithic cultures on earth; the dead reside among the living in giant tombs etched with esoteric symbols. The animistic Marapo belief system continues to thrive, which is why the Sumbanese do not fear death, they see it as a gateway to an eternal realm where the ancestors reside.
The Pasola ceremonies take place each year in February and March. It’s a heady mix of portents, sacrifice and ritualized violence, where serious injuries and even deaths occur. Thousands flock to a deserted beach for the Pajura boxing matches. Under a waning moon, men beat each other with fists wrapped in tough plant fibre. Noses are broken, skulls fractured, but as dawn breaks, everyone sits down and sings songs passed down from the ancestors.
Once the shamans have retrieved the nyale worms from the ocean at dawn, the Pasola begins. Rival clans charge at each other head on, letting their wooden spears fly before wheeling away. The agility of the riders is astonishing – they ride bareback and full tilt, clutching rope halters in one hand, their spears in the other. The best among them duck the enemy projectiles, even catching them with practised nonchalance. Still, many suffer full-blooded strikes & some fall from their horses to jeers from their enemies.
But then that is the whole point. Blood sings a sweet song to the Sumbanese. Without a blood sacrifice, the rice cannot grow, just as it cannot grow without water or sunlight. Simmering clan conflicts are allowed to emerge on the battlefield – the visceral urge to violence is controlled through ritual. To die in Pasola is a great honour, a gift to the whole community.
Even as the Sumbanese enact their millennia old rituals, the world is changing around them. Sumba is being touted as the next big thing in island tourism and a real estate gold rush has begun. Many are predicting that this tiny island no one has heard of will soon emerge as the next Bali. Perhaps the shamans have already seen the omens… it remains to be seen whether they will be for good or for ill.