Every year, for a couple of days during the months of February and March, the island of Sumba in eastern Indonesia celebrates Pasola. A land where megalithic burials are still performed, breathtaking sunsets are a common feature, iconic thatched houses stand among green pastures with beautiful landscapes, Sumba has recently gained popularity as a travel destination. This is primarily due to the exclusivity of Pasola festival which marks the start of rice plantation season and is considered as one of the bloodiest harvest festivals of the world.
The origin of the festival is as fascinating as it is mysterious. Legend has it that the event was started to cheer-up a local leader whose wife left him for another man. Over centuries it’s developed into a much more meaningful and communal occasion where locals not only thank their ancestors for a bountiful harvest, but also pray for a good year ahead. At the very heart of the revelry that surrounds Pasola is the nyale. When the time comes, shamans from the village visit the seaside at sunrise in search of this multicoloured sea worm. It’s arrival, once a year, is considered a good omen and a sign that rice plantation can begin.
What follows is an age-old custom that is eclectic, eccentric, and engaging, seizing various emotional characteristics of human nature. The popularity of the festival, both locally and internationally, is evident from the large crowds that encircle the many locations where the events take place. Often held at the same time, maximum attendance is usually found around the main field.The pre-game ceremony includes players marching in a parade and it is a great opportunity for spectators to admire the subtle nuances of the festival before the primary action commences.
Pasola literally means “game of spear” in the local language and demands blood. In ancient times, human and horse blood would cover the land as opposite clans fought each other using spears with metal tips. Now, blunt wooden spears are used, but blood still flows as clan members ride bareback on horses, without any protection, hurling these weapons at each other.
Fatal accidents do seldom occur but broken ribs, bloody noses and scratched faces are a common sight. It’s a chance for the brave to show off their talent and for many young men, Pasola is a rite of passage. Honour plays an important role and no one wants to feel or look defeated. At any point of the game a player can get knocked off his horse, but within seconds he is back up again, flinging spears at his opponents as if nothing ever happened.
The locals are immensely passionate about Pasola, taking every facet of it seriously. It can get intensely consuming and deadly fights have broken out between the clans. As a result, police officers now stand among the crowds in full gear on duty to prevent any such mishaps. Even amidst all the security and order, it isn’t uncommon to see age-old rivalries and personal vendettas being played out in the background of the game.
Blood it seems is what the land wants and a lot of it also comes from animal sacrifices made as part of the various rituals that take place prior to and after the main event. One such practice consists of cutting open a chicken and reading its heart. For an outsider, this is a fascinatingly intricate glimpse into local lifestyle and beliefs.
Due to the candour with which the festival is organized and its almost theatrical disposition, Pasola has transformed into a dramatic showcase which attracts visitors from across the world. What makes Pasola so engrossing is the environment it creates which engulfs everyone present at the scene.
The intense looks on the faces of the locals, their elegant and colourful attire, the preparation that goes into making the spear and the art of using it skillfully, the stride with which horses are ridden, and the constant cheering; there’s a surge of energy, which spreads out in every direction that’s both infectious and exhilarating. In the end, it brings the people together as a community and as the sun sets everyone gathers to eat, dance, and be merry.
Whether it is the bloody nature of Pasola or the fact that it remains one of the lesser known yet enthralling festivals, there has been a sudden rise in tourism because of it.
The region is among the poorest in the country and heavily dependent on visitors. To promote it among the travel community, rather than waiting for the arrival of the worm, dates of the festival are often declared in advance. There are those who fear that with mass tourism the authenticity of the festival might soon be lost. But the fact remains that it is a chance that everyone is willing to take.
Pasola is an adventure that is immersive and not only for those taking part in it. It’s the excitement and enthusiasm mixed with cultural and historical significance that makes the atmosphere of this unique experience come alive. It then sets the stage for an affair that affects the very soul of everyone present.
Hi, I am Jay Ngai, and I am a travel photographer. Follow me on Instagram @jay.ngai and at jayngai.com as I travel, photograph and eat my way around this amazing world.