Horsemen roam the battlefield, spears are flying and hopefully there will be blood soaking the ground, a necessary toll to guarantee a bountiful harvest: this is Pasola, an astonishing joust that marks the end of a ceremonial ritual taking place after the February and March full moon, when sea worms called Bau Nyale flood the coast of South-West Sumba.
Sumba is a hilly island off the tourists’ radar that lies on the southern end of Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. Due to its geographical isolation, Sumba is one of the poorest and most untouched Indonesian destinations, still too wild and underdeveloped to attract the casual tourist. If you can’t live without electricity, wi-fi or running water, you’d better stop in neighbouring islands; but if you’ll manage to break the shield of diffidence, you’ll discover a world of genuine smiles, postcard-like natural wonders and witness century old animistic rituals that set Sumbanese apart from the rest of the archipelago.This sounds plain obvious, but spending some time to “get known” in the village will make the whole difference between being asked for money by a greedy villager for taking a shot and getting invited for lunch in his hut.
Getting to Sumba is now a relatively easy task, but much harder was to time our international flight to witness Pasola and the week-long ceremony preceding the battle. We tentatively arranged our schedule to be on the island during the March full moon, as Bau Nyale are supposed to arrive from the sea 5-7 days later, with Pasola taking place immediately afterwards. Our plan was to assist at the Wanokaka Pasola, which according to the sparse information we were able to gather beforehand, was supposed to happen at the end of March. After the 1h30′ flight from Bali to Tambolaka came the first surprise. Our hosts, Lucas and Siska, regrettably told us that we were about a month late for the Wanokaka Pasola; that was apparently a big mistake by the local priest, but there wasn’t much we could do at that point. Then two things happened. First, Siska told us that three other Pasola were scheduled in South West Sumba; that was disappointing as I had already a well organized photographic plan for the Wanokaka area, but nevertheless I felt amused by the new challenge of exploring a relatively unspoiled area. Second, Siska introduced us to Ansel, an English teacher in the Kodi area that would have been our tireless guide and translator for the coming days.
Enough chat for now, let’s the picture tell the rest of the story.
Before heading to the village, our new friend suggested to stop at some ramshackle market stalls to stock up on betel nuts and cigarettes for our host family and the Ratus. Betel nuts are some sort of mild stimulant customarily offered before any talking is done; chewed together with limestone powder they give saliva a deep red colour that stains most of villagers’ teeth.
After about three hours drive we reached the traditional village of Wainyapu where we where welcomed on a front porch lined with pig jaws by Thomas, the Kepala Kampung. Thomas, his wife and the six kids turned out to be incredibly genuine and hospitable folks and we felt as part of their family for the whole length of our stay.
Living in Wainyapu is like stepping back 100 years. There’s no electricity, no running water, cooking is done outside or in a big fire lit in the middle of the “rumah”. The traditional house is a wooden structure built around four pillars that support a high roof covered in Alang grass, while a bamboo floor separate the living part from the underground stable. Houses are often aligned around a yard dotted with tombstones and sacrificial altars where ceremonies are carried out.
In a house we found this elderly man holding his parang, the traditional Sumbanese knife made by a buffalo horn hilt and encased in a wooden scabbard. As the room was dimly lit, I got some extra light from a softbox holding an off-camera flash, gelled with a pale gold filter, fired through a TTL trigger.
At night we heard some voices coming from the house of the Rato, the spiritual leader of the village. Ansel offered to take us there and explained that every night during the week preceding Pasola, the Rato is performing a ritual speech about Nyale and, ultimately, Pasola itself. Not long ago, this Nyale ritual was meant to bring together far away communities and find a partner from a different village; young men and women, dressed to their best, formed separate groups and flirted by the mean of poetic songs and subtle word games. Nowadays, mostly kids sit around the Rato and respond to his speech in a sort of loud choir; nevertheless, the whole ritual is still touching and extremely meaningful to the people in the village, that learn about their ancestors through the memories of the Rato.
After photographing in and around the village for a few days, I paid a visit to the beach close by. The news of a foreigner wandering around summoned hordes of kids longing to show their riding skills, so finding a subject for my camera was far from difficult. The horses fighting in Pasola are surprisingly small for European standards, yet well suited for the battle due to their strength and resistance.
The night before Pasola every person in the village takes part in a ceremonial ritual aimed at maintaining a peaceful relationship with the Marapu, a term that indicates the whole of the ancestral spirits.
Women bring small offerings to the Marapu in the form of betel leaves, betel nuts and lime, while men perform ritual dances in a crescendo of sounds and participation. The procession rapidly moves to the outskirts of the village and terminates at the megalithic tombstones surrounding the Pasola field.
As the sun sets and the moonlight grows stronger, candles are lit on the graves and the whole village turns into a scene that seems to come straight from a tale. As following the procession with a flash and a softbox was extremely inconvenient, I took this shot with the little artificial light coming from the candles: the high ISO capability and extended dynamic range of most recent cameras made possible this kind of shot, which I couldn’t have taken a couple of years ago with my old camera.
By the time the night approached, the village was buzzing with the sound of hundred peoples from the neighbourhood and “our” house was now sheltering 50+ member of the extended family in a joyful atmosphere. If it is unquestionable that celebrations hold a strong symbolic meaning, they are also an occasion for distant member of the family to come together, have some chat over a clove cigarette and ultimately strengthen their bonds.
With the last light from the candles slowly fading away, the women had already gathered around the collective firewood to start the preparations for the coming feast. There wasn’t much sleep that night; I felt excited for the soon to come Pasola and honored I could partake in the celebrations.
The day has finally come. With the sun rising above the grass roofs, dozens of fires arise in the yards and the village start bustling in a frisky atmosphere.
I’m suddenly drawn by the screams of a pig about to meet his end by the hand of the Rato. It’s supposed to be killed by a single, sharp blow through the heart. It misses. Once. Twice. Again. Among shivering screams, the pig is now spilling blood from the lungs. Patches of blood start soaking the soil, mixing up with the red dye from the betel nuts. A few meters away dogs have their head chopped and chicken their throat cut. It’s a crude scene, but today is all about blood. In the ancient Marapu tradition blood is a symbol of life and rebirth and animal sacrifices play a meaningful role in the daily life of Sumbanese people.
Before Pasola can begin, each family hands out a chicken to the Rato to read the omens in its entrails. Gods are consulted and, if the signs are right, spears can fly.
With the crowd now getting louder, horsemen gather in the centre of the village at a yard surrounded by ancient tombstones. Dressed in their best ikat fabric, they perform a last propitiating war dance, collect their spears and head to the battlefield. (Some of the following pictures were taken both in Wainyapu and Ratenggaro, a few days earlier).
Pasola dates back several centuries. Wrapped in legend, its origins are uncertain and talking to people in Kodi, Waigalli and Wainyapu we got slightly different versions that would deserve a whole section by themselves. In an island where tribal skirmishes and headhunting were (and still are..) commonplace, Pasola was probably meant as an all-in-one-day fight, for communities to leave peacefully through the rest of the year.
In the old days, metal tipped spears were thrown at the opponents and fields rapidly turned red by the slaughter. Nowadays, on the order of authorities bamboo spears are blunted at the ends in an attempt to make the quest less dangerous. While this can actually avoid excessive bloodshed, spears still regularly fly among the crowd and, as we were warned twice, a couple of years ago a spectator had his skull passed side to side and died within seconds.
We move to a nearby field as riders slowly arrive, their horses also decorated with fanciful garbs in preparation for the battle. They ride bareback and barefoot, moving at a faster pace as the crowd self assemble in a circle surrounding the battleground. Suddenly the Rato responsible for the ritual makes an announcement and the game can start.
The clans from Kodi and Bukomani on one end, Wainyapu and Ratenggaro on the other end, divide on the two side of the field and charge forth in circles hurling their spears at the opponents.
As the longest lens in my bag was a 85mm, I had reluctantly to stand my feet at the front line to take some decent shots, getting closer and closer to the flying spears as more people were eagerly pressing and shrinking the circle for a better view. Luckily I was in a good spot to witness this warrior screaming victoriously and shaking his spear up in the air after hitting and throwing down the horse his opponent.
At some point I had to take a break in the shade. Around midday the heat is unbearable, but the warriors seem to take little notice and keep hurling their spears completely fearless. The battle unfolds for several hours. Each clan try a game of baits and faints and sometimes eventually manage to lure an opponent into a vulnerable position.
We were warned that Pasola often ends in a riot, with people getting crazy and throwing stones at each other. I didn’t give much credit to those words until I realized the surrounding crowd was holding stones in their hands and swords on their belts. There were only minor wounds that day and the people were growing blood thirsty; it didn’t take long before the crowd erupted in an all-out chaos. Not that I felt like joining this mess, but Andreas, a young villager I had met a few days before, eventually recognized and escorted me in the middle of the mayhem, as to make a favour. The shot above is from the first clash between the two clans.
To stop things from getting worse, police charged into the chaos, firing machine guns in the air and scattering the crowd. I felt it was time to go. It didn’t take long for the Rato to give his final speech and Pasola was over. There were no winners and losers in the end. But blood has been shed and the harvest will be bountiful.
After the game horsemen and clan members return to their villages. Peacefully, as nothing had happened; overall, Pasola has more to do with restoring peace than foster aggression.
The day ends with a thanksgiving ceremony. We were invited for lunch at the house of the village head. Grateful, we accepted. While being served chopped pork, dog and chicken among the laughter of genuine people, I dwelt upon the day; once overcame the fear of being hit by a flying spear, Pasola is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a memento of an ancient culture that doesn’t want to die to the modern world.