23 November, 2015

Author: Sue Richardson

Guests on our Textile Tour get to meet many Indonesian people wearing fabulous local costumes and ask us if this is what they wear every day. The answer is no – just like us they keep their best costume for special occasions for ceremonies. Fortunately for our guests, our visits during the Textile Tour count as a special occasion. The importance of textiles for ceremonial occasions was drummed into us on our latest visit to the island of Sumba.

The empty interior of east Sumba looks like a moonscape

During our previous visit there in May 2015, we were honoured to be invited to the funeral of Bapak Umbu Hunga Meha, the King of Karera, an important domain in the far southeast. The King had been the head of the wealthiest and most influential noble family on the island so this would be an exceptional event, the likes of which would not be seen again for long while.

There was only one problem. The funeral was to be held in October but nobody knew exactly when. As the months went by, the date remained uncertain – the different factions of the King’s family could not agree on the timing. At long last at the end of September a date was finally agreed – the funeral would take place in just two weeks time! We rapidly worked out our travel plans and booked our flights.

The funeral ceremony would be in the remote village of Nggongi, a demanding five-hour drive across the island interior in a 4WD pickup truck – so demanding in fact that not all of the vehicles made it! We were welcome to stay in one of the temporary shelters set up to accommodate the many guests but knew that we would get little sleep, so decided to camp under canvas instead.

The first day of the funeral was dedicated to welcoming the many parties of guests as they arrived at the Uma Bakul, the Great House, from across the island. This included all the other important royal families from the different Sumba domains and their entourages, as well as important politicians such as the Governor of the Province of Nusa Tenggara Timur from Kupang and the Regents of East and Central Sumba. Of course everyone used this as an opportunity to show off his or her finest outfits.

Guests arriving at the clan’s Uma Bakul or Great House
the funeral of a king

Within the Great House the King’s coffin was raised on a dais, next to the coffins of two of his late wives. The walls, ceiling and coffins themselves were all draped with local textiles. As each invited group entered, dressed in their finery, they spent time mourning besides the late King’s coffin and payingtheir respects to his family. They then proffered the gifts they had brought – livestock, textiles and jewellery. We were honoured to spend some time with the new King, Bapak Umbu Yadar, as well as his sons, daughters and advisors.

On the second day the ratu priests called on the spirits of the King’s ancestors for assistance and chickens were sacrificed so that their livers could be read to tell the future. More and more people were arriving. Many of them spent most of the day outside, seated under a huge awning while waiting their turn to be called into the Great House. Meanwhile the pile of textiles and other gifts continued to grow.

Finally the coffins were brought outside while the politicians gave their eulogies. As the sun fell low in the sky the King’s coffin was loaded onto an open truck which, just like his horses, was decorated with ikat textiles and driven in procession to the burial site. The King had already overseen the construction of his grave on the top of a nearby hill, chosen for its tranquillity. As the King’s coffin arrived it was carried to the top of the hill and paraded around the grave six times, with attendants leading decorated horses and holding ceremonial red umbrellas. The King’s favourite servant carried a Samurai sword, which was a relic from the Japanese occupation. The coffin was finally lowered into the textile-lined sarcophagus, topped by a massive stone slab and carved columns, the surrounding crowd jostling to get a view of the King’s entombment.

Two of the male papanggan, ritual attendants who accompany the coffin
Sue chatting with the current King’s youngest son

The final day was the climax of the funeral celebrations and would end with a huge sacrifice. The most important nobles had gifted the finest and most expensive livestock they could find on the island -fourteen majestic water buffalos, several horses and a gigantic pig. At midday the slaughter began. It was not a pleasant sight to see these magnificent creatures being cut down one by one, the surrounding crowd cheering as the parang-wielding executioners severed throat after throat. After an hour it looked like the scene from a war movie, with corpses laying everywhere and the ground covered with pools of blood.To the Western mind the slaughter seemed pointless. But this is Sumba, where status is gained not by accumulating wealth, but by destroying it.

Plaque on the side of the late King’s sarcophagus, with his nominal date of birth and the actual date of his death
A magnificent water buffalo about to be sacrificed by aparang-wielding executioner

Why not join us on our tour each May to meet several of these Royal families and gain an insight into this amazing culture, and the vital role that textiles play within it?