The ritual war game of Pasola
The sun was scorching hot when I landed on the southwest tip of Sumba island in mid-February. Sumba island is a small dot that makes up one of the islands of Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province.
To get there I caught a small plane from Bali, and arrived at Tambulaka airport, which is small and surrounded by green hills. From there, I rented a car and drove on small paved roads that cut through villages and little wooden houses. During the journey, I discovered a strong presence of animism, in the form of respects to ancestors. At every corner of the towns and villages, the houses have a traditional worship place and the graveyards of their ancestors, and at this time of year, when it is high time to prepare for blessings from the Gods, the graveyards are adorned with offerings of beetle fruits.
After a two hour drive, I arrived at the remote Kodi Pangedo village, a place where the Pasola festivity is held each year in February and stayed for four days there without electricity and very little water for the shower. In fact, I only showered once for three days in the village.
Pasola is a ritual of the West Sumba people, a part of the local Sumba belief called Marapu, to ask the blessings of the gods for a good harvest for the year, from the rural people whose livelihoods depend on corn and rice. The Pasola ritual is a war game between two groups of 100 men from the Hill village and the lowland village, forcing the horses which they ride on bareback with no saddle to run faster, and how they strategize to win the war, with the rest of the villages as the judges.
On the day the Pasola festival started, two horse troops of Sumba knights armed with blunted wooden spears, wearing head gears shaped like electric green and red fences around their heads and traditional woven cloth around their waists, faced against each other on a vast green field.
The atmosphere is very lively and aggressive, full of the noise of shouting men, the thumps of running horses, and spears splitting the air. The crowd cheers whenever somebody is hurt from the spears.
Usually there are minor injuries to the arms and legs of the fighting men. Each drop of blood spilled on the earth is considered a salvation of sins or violation of rituals in the past year, and hence a seal of guarantee that the harvest in the months to come will be abundant.
There have been some deaths in the past, which is seen by the elders as a major violation committed by the village in the year that has passed.
But in the end, Pasola is only a ritual and no one loses. Everyone gathers and has a great feast together to end the day. This culture of horses and war tactics teaches me another lesson of Indonesia, the world’s biggest archipelago nation, so rich in culture and beliefs that even as an Indonesian who lives several islands away is completely new and different to my own culture.