31 March, 2014

Still clinging tightly to its animist traditions, Sumba Island is a destination seductive to the soul.  Here are a just a few reasons why we find Sumba such a sensational destination.


Hanging precariously off of the Nusa Tenggara Archipelago like a delicate pendent on a chain,  Sumba is a gem of an island whose remote obscurity seems to have allowed it to escape the very passage of time. With its rugged rolling savannah and low limestone hills knitted together with more maize and cassava than rice,  it looks nothing like its volcanic topped neighbors to the north. Dotted along the countryside are hilltop villages with distinctively towering thatched roof houses clustered around megalithic tombs, where residents still pay homage to their ancestral spirits with bloody sacrificial rites and bizarre funeral rituals. Sumba is equally famous for its outstanding hand-spun Sumba ikat, now prized by collectors worldwide, and its violent annual Pasola horse festival where spilt blood is required to fertilize the land to produce a healthy crop.  Sumba’s traditions are spellbinding, a sublime mixture of the savage and the sacred that draws the visitor in like an irresistible rythm.  The tribal beats of Sumba are bound to move you.


Although Sumba islanders have long traded horses, textiles and slaves with the Islamic sultanates to the west, they resisted conversion to either Christianity or Islam until the very last years if the 20th century, remaining loyal to their ancestral religion, the worship of Marapu. Marapu teachings concern the balance of universal life through which happiness can be gained. This balance is symbolized by the Great Mother and Great Father who live in the universe and take the forms of the moon and the sun. In mythology, they are husband and wife who gave birth to the ancestors of the Sumbanese. The Sumbanese believe in temporary life in the world and eternal life in the Doomsday, the world of spirits in Marapu heaven.

While the influence of evangelical churches  is growing in Sumba and reflected in mass conversion ceremonies, many islanders retain their beliefs, which are practiced in secret. These days an estimated 35 percent of the population still adheres to the traditional animist Marapu religion. The other 65 percent claim to be converts to Christianity, but have interestingly woven in many of the traditional religious practices into this conversion. Marapu traditions may not be able to continue as a nationally recognized ‘religion’ but they still live on in many aspects of Sumbanese life.


Sumba is famous worldwide for its textiles, particularly very detailed and highly sought after ikat weavings. The process of hand dying and weaving ikat is labor-intensive and one piece can take several months to prepare. The ikat textiles are exchanged between families and groups in the community and are important in life-cycle rites such as marriages and funerals. The ikat patterns can be geometric or of human and animal figures. Sumba ikat cloths are characterized by striking figures of horses, deer, lions, birds, fish, lobsters, and many other local fauna. A more unique motif that can appear in East Sumba ikat is that of the “Skull Tree.” The Sumbanese were once feared headhunters, and those villages that fielded war expeditions kept a “skull tree” in the village center on which were hung the human heads of the enemy victims, a practice only formally abandoned less than a few decades ago.


Sumba is a vestige of one of the last surviving megalithic cultures on the planet. Despite contact with western cultures, Sumba is one of the few places in the world in which megalithic burials are used as a ‘living tradition’ to inter prominent individuals when they die. Huge blocks of stone weighing up to 20 tons  are cut and dragged great distances to the mortuary ground to construct mausoleums for the rich and the nobility. Some tombs are marked with penji, stone memorials with carved crocodiles, turtles and other sea creatures depicted on them to symbolize a noble birth or  sources of wealth of the deceased.

Funeral ceremonies and burials can be delayed for decades during which the bodies of the deceased are kept in the homes of the living. Failure to perform the necessary rites, including the butchering of large numbers of buffalo, cows, pigs and occasionally horses, and nightly protection rituals at the quarries where the stones are cut, risks a violent reaction from malevolent ancestral forces whose approval is sought through the divining of animal innards. In many cases individuals will put their families into debt extending into future generations in order to build these tomb stones in the traditional manner and carry out the necessary funeral rituals.


Sumba’s extensive grasslands make it one of Indonesia’s leading horse-breeding islands. Horses still serve as a mode of transport in more rugged regions; they remain a symbol of wealth and status, and can still win a bride. But perhaps the most important role horses play in Sumbanese life is in the pre-harvest fertility ritual, the Pasola, a traditional fight with spears featuring hundreds of horsemen. It is a wild and martial event, taking place in designated open fields on the rolling hills of the island. Divided into 2 teams representing opposing clans, mounted riders attempt to dismount each other using their spears. Serious injuries along with occasional deaths are common in the Pasola. In fact it is believed that humans must make a blood sacrifice to the earth to ensure a good harvest.  They say it’s not a Pasola until the fields run red with blood!


Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of this land is the people who make their home here.  The Sumbanese are a warm and welcoming people.  Although the main towns on the island are complete with motorbikes, satellite dishes, and houses with tin roofs, it is still not uncommon to visit villages where the women still only cover themselves from the waist down, and teeth blackened with betel nut are the height of village fashion.  Although rich in culture, Sumba is one of the poorest areas of Indonesia, but that wouldn’t keep anyone from offering the visitor a cup of tea or a bite to eat.  You would most certainly be the recipient of what the Sumbanese possess in spades, a warm and welcoming smile.


Getting to Sumba can be a challenge for even the seasoned traveller.  But when you are travelling with the Sea Trek fleet, all the tough stuff is done for you.  All that’s left is for you to explore and soak it in for yourself.

See you in Sumba!