Every year, for a couple of days during the months of February and March, the island of Sumba in eastern Indonesia celebrates Pasola. A place 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 uniqueness of Pasola festival which marks the start of the rice plantation season and it’s considered to be 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, Pasola festival Sumba has turned into a much more meaningful 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 a multicoloured sea worm. It’s arrival once a year is considered a good omen and a sign that rice plantation can begin.
Pasola literally means “game of spear” in the local language and it demands blood.
What follows is an age-old custom that is eclectic, eccentric, and engaging. 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’s a great opportunity for spectators to admire the subtle nuances of the festival before the mighty main action.
Pasola literally means “game of spear” in the local language and it demands blood. In ancient times, human and horse blood would cover the land as opposite clans fought each other using spears with metal tips. These days, 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.
There are various rituals taking place prior to and after the main event. One such practice consists of cutting open a chicken and reading its heart.
Fatal accidents 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 talents 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 during the game, a player can get knocked off his horse, but within seconds he’s 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.
Blood, it seems, is what the land wants and a lot of it also comes from animal sacrifices. There are various rituals taking 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 fascinating, intricate glimpse into local lifestyle and beliefs.
Whether it’s 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 Sumba’s 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 it’s a chance that people are willing to take.
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 in Sumba.
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.