© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Tribal tournament: Pasola Festival in Sumba

3 minutes to read

Low, sturdy horses gallop across the grassy field, snarling as madly as their riders. Flying spear shafts crisscross the air, seldom hitting anything but the grass, but spilling blood when they do. The immense crowd of spectators, more or less the entire population of the neighboring villages, friends, and families of the warriors, does not remain impassive either. Brawls flare here and there, sometimes stopped in time by armored riot control policemen, sometimes not. Such is the Pasola Festival in Sumba, very much like a medieval jousting tournament brought to a savage tribal level. Like all similar war games, it is an imitation of intertribal warfare and a replacement for it, but there is more: in a way, it may be considered a human sacrifice in disguise. Forget about the proverbial peace and kindness of Indonesia: this ritual is pure brutality.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Sea worms, the harbingers

For a traveler, the difficulty of attending a Pasola Festival is in its unpredictable dates. Traditionally, West Sumba celebrates it in February, while South Sumba comes late by a month, announcing Pasola in March. This is about as precise as one can plan – the actual dates are declared by the rato, priests of the local animist Marapu faith, according to the appearance of nyale, a certain type of sea worms. These invertebrates beach themselves en masse once per year, providing a free worm banquet for the islanders. After a good feast, it is just the time to get killed by a spear, don’t you think? Another problem is that Pasola falls in the middle of the rainy season, when torrential downpours may halt flights and storms are likely to impede passenger ferries. It pays to aim for earliest possible presumed date, then wait on the spot.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Spilling blood

Pasola is commonly mistaken for a primitive sport. It is not. It is an animist ritual aiming to impregnate Earth. First of all, while a particularly destructive hit is always cheered loudly by the crowd, nobody actually keeps the score, and no winners are declared. Second, it is preceded by a prayer and a chicken or pig sacrifice, and conducted by a group of rato. And finally, the riders do not even hide the real purpose of the event: to spill as much human blood as possible in a fair fight. The blood of true warriors, absorbed by the soil, shall fertilize Mother Earth, so that it could give birth to the next harvest. Moreover, as recently as a couple of decades ago complete hunting spears were often used, resulting in frequent casualties; it is only thanks to the intervention of Indonesian government that the spearheads now have to be removed. Still, a heavy wooden shaft, with the inertia of a running horse and the force of a trained man propelling it, can do serious damage. Blood must flow.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Surviving Pasola

Getting there is half the fun. There are normally three tournaments per year in West Sumba and two in the south, in February and March respectively. A traveler would need a fair bit of luck to make it to Waingapu, the capital of Sumba, despite the seasonal storms. Once there, the nearest large village can be reached by bus, and from there on it is motorbikes or walking. Arguably the most authentic Pasola Festival takes place in Kodi village (February). The other half, however, is staying out of trouble – this is a pure tribal territory, and the people are rather wild. Heated to the boiling point by the sight of mock war and fresh blood, spectators do not merely support their champions by yells and screams – whenever a rider is downed, fistfights break out in the crowd, and some of the flying spears trigger an avalanche of hurled stones in response. In a way, everyone participates in the big battle, whether they want to or not. At some Pasola Festivals, ostensibly, there is now a separate area for visitors, but not in Kodi (thankfully, it is not mutating into another tourist show yet). Stay alert, and if you are not a photographer and do not have to be in the middle of the action, keep close to either the riot police (always present) or the rato - shamans command huge respect and can stop a brawl with a word.

Kodi village, West Sumba
Kodi village, West Sumba

The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

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