High Priests and Horses: The Tribal Culture of Sumba

One thousand kilometres east of the tourist resort of Bali is the large island of Sumba, part of the chain of islands in Indonesia known as the Lesser Sundas. It is nothing like Bali. There are no beach bars nor five-star resorts to speak of as few tourists venture as far as the island. Rush hour traffic is non-existent and broad smiles of village folks plentiful.

Map of the Lesser Sunda Islands showing the location of Sumba

Even without the glitz, Sumba has unique charms that appeal to those who seek the road less travelled. Remnants of an ancient megalithic culture dot the island in the form of giant stone tombstones built to honour noblemen and rajas (kings). And a horse culture is played out spectacularly every year in a festival known as the Pasola. This is a re-enactment of an ancient war ritual in whichtwo groups of selected Sumbanese men ride colourfully decorated horses and fling wooden spears at each other at full throttle, much like warriors of the past would do for real. Even though the Pasola is but a “game”, Sumbanese take it seriously,injuries are not uncommon, and death sometimes occur. True to their tribal traditions, it is believed that any bloodshed, be it of horse or men participating in the Pasola, rejuvenates the entire community.

Below are rare photographs of this enigmatic culture taken by the Bali-based photographer, Rio Helmi between 1981 and 1985.

A boy surrounded by megaliths. Note the high arching roofs of traditional Sumba houses in the background.
A woman sitting on a stone tomb in Anakalang, Central Sumba
A nobleman of Lamboya at the door of his traditional house decorated with the horns of buffalos and the jawbones of pigs slaughtered for festivals and rituals.
A priest in full regalia in Anakalang, central Sumba. Note the crescent-shaped gold head ornament which is known as Lamba.
A group of priests in the Wanakaka area performing a ritual on the ancestral tombstone.
“Warriors” trudging the rice fields to Pasola site.
A rider on horseback in west Sumba wading the beach to signal the start of the Pasola festival inland.
Women and children wait eagerly for the start of the Pasola match.
A Pasola warrior on horseback in Kodi, west Sumba.
The Pasola battle in full swing.
A Pasola warrior declares victory.
The battle is fought, blood is shed, traditions honored, and the community reinvigorated.

Further study

Find out more about the traditional art and culture of Sumba at https://www.artoftheancestors.com/sumba

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