Photo: Kalala Beach, East Sumba.

Traditional culture in Sumba is very much alive and centres on the Marapu belief. Marapu is focused on creating harmonious relationships between humans and ancestral spirits, the Ina Ama (female/male). Life on Earth is temporary, but the Ina Ama live eternally in Prai Marapu (Marapu Heaven).

To keep the world in balance, sprits are appeased by ceremonies and sacrifices. These can be elaborate and expensive: One king had to wait 17 years after his death for the villagers to afford his funeral ceremony. This male/female balance can be seen in symbols and statues in the villages, such as the turtle (female) and crocodile (male). Magic and ghosts influence beliefs. The Ratu is a traditional priest who can pass messages between ordinary folk and the Ina Ama. One way he receives messages is by reading chicken intestines and pig or buffalo livers. Many things are considered “pamali” or taboo, such as certain paths in villages or particular rocks.

Tomb at Uma Barra village near Melolo.

Tomb at Uma Barra village near Melolo.

Wooden and thatch houses are built based on Marapu cosmology and have three levels. Underneath is the place of the animals, the main central part is for humans, and the tall roof is for the gods and ancestral sprits — often ancestral artefacts are stored here. The higher the roof, the closer one is to God. The roof itself is a representation of the female/male duality, the peak being male, and the outer shape, a “skirt”, female.

Essentially square shaped, internally there are four main pillars, each topped with a ringed platform, a place for offerings, and together a representation of the female and male. Pillars are usually symbolically carved and each pillar represents its own ancestral spirit, as well as the cardinal directions. In the centre of the pillars is the cooking fire.

With a house, Wunga village

With a house, Wunga village

Sleeping areas are divided according to one’s relationship to the pillars. The house is divided into a female and male section, with separate external platforms at either side. Houses are decorated with buffalo horns to display wealth and status. Building a new house, or simply replacing a roof, requires ceremonies and sacrifice. Due to the highly flammable nature of the building materials, and the internal fire, this happens more often than is probably necessary.

Villages are formed either by rows or a circle of houses surrounding large megalithic tombs. One’s relatives may leave this world, but they never leave the village. People of one village are all related in some way. Within the centre are areas for performing ritual dances and sacrifices. Some villages have small wooden fenced areas, a kind of altar or temple. Others have small house-like structures for storing cultural artefacts. Small stepping stones may be slaves’ graves. In West Sumba, several villages we visited had a small dead tree, replaced each year as part of the Wulla Poddu festival. This is a holy month with prohibitions comparable to Ramadan or Lent, held in November before the planting of crops.

Traditional house, Prailiu village

Traditional house, Prailiu village

Other important ceremonies are based around life rituals such as births, weddings and funerals. Death ceremonies seem more important than life, and the Sumbanese spend a lot of time and money appeasing their dead ancestors. The Tingi Watu ceremony centres on removing huge slabs of rock from quarries to make tombs, and can take days. The Pasola, a horseback-riding, spear-throwing harvest festival, has become a tourist attraction.

Sumbanese folk usually wear a mix of traditional and Western clothing. Men wear a short sarong tied around their hips, with a separate sarong belt, into which is stuffed a long machete (the longer, the more enemies you have) and a mobile phone. This is often worn with a batik shirt or T-shirt. Sometimes a diagonal ikat sash and a headband are added. Women wear ikat sarongs usually mixed with a T-shirt. Both can be seen to wear “mutisalah”, orange heirloom beads (these days made of plastic). And women sometimes wear the Mamuli fertility symbol in gold or silver, given as part of their bride price. People tend to dress up to attend ceremonies, and church, but everyday dress is more Western style.

Staying sharp in Pasunga village

Staying sharp in Pasunga village

Betelnut is very important in ceremonial life. We’ve seem more chewers in Sumba of this addictive mild narcotic than anywhere else in Indonesia. The sirih pinang, as it is called here, consists of the sirih fruit (betel fruit here rather than leaves), a vine related to pepper, and the pinang (areca nut) and slaked lime. You will be encouraged to partake at every village you visit. The symbolism, and partly why it’s so widespread, is yet another representation of balance. The long sirih fruit represents male, the round pinang female, the white lime represents sperm and the red spit that is produced by chewing, blood. It’s a ritualistic fertility offering to the earth and ancestors.

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Where to next?

Where are you planning on heading to after Sumba? Here are some spots commonly visited from here, or click here to see a full destination list for Indonesia.


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