The white sands on Sumba (Monica Renata)
Article Words : Henry Hemming | 03 December

Secret festival in Sumba

Jousting knights, exotic dress and bamboo spears with Indonesia as a backdrop – a brilliant sight. So why did no one know where the Pasola was?

The word ‘Pasola’ elicited almost no reaction from the various Balinese travel agents. Regardless of how I weighted the question –“Is it true that the Pasola is dangerous?” or “The Pasola is definitely happening, right?” – it was hard to get more than a shrug in response.

It didn’t matter. Reading about this event as ‘one of those rare spectacles that actually surpasses all expectations’ was enough to get me on the next flight from Bali to Sumba, several isles to the east within the Indonesian archipelago.

At tiny Waingapu Airport an efficient-looking American woman assured us there was no Pasola in Sumba at this time. More hopefully, an Englishman called Grenville said he was there to photograph the Pasola –  but had no idea if, when or where it was happening.

Only one thing for it – I’d have to travel to West Sumba where the festival was said to take place. Here, the locals follow an animist belief system called marapu. This requires blood to be given back to the earth to appease the land, which is why the Pasola takes place: sufficient bloodshed guarantees a good crop.

Unique to Sumba, the Pasola involves rival teams of warriors on horseback hurling spears at each other over the course of three or four hours. It takes place three times a year, usually between January and March, though the exact date is always hard to predict. It depends not only on the timing of the first two full moons of the year, but on the seasonal appearance of a species of sea-worm called nyale, which flocks to the shores to mate.

Breathtaking sights

After a five-hour drive from Waingapu I arrived in West Sumba, where at last everyone knew what I was talking about.

The scenery was fascinating: Sumba and Bali are on either side of the Wallace Line, named after the English botanist Alfred Russel Wallace who realised that the two sides hailed originally from two separate landmasses. As a result, Sumba’s ecology is wholly alien to Bali, and it also receives nowhere near the number of visitors, has no Western restaurants and few serviceable hotels. My sleeping quarters were in a village called Desa Wainyapu, on the bamboo floor of one of 20 huts built on stilts high above a beach. It was an extraordinary-looking village; at the centre was a cluster of megalithic tombs, in each the corpse of a man, a dog and a horse.

In between the huts pigs, chickens and dogs snuffled in the undergrowth, while water buffalo criss-crossed the village. Below, boys rode bareback on white horses along a deserted beach.

On the day of the Pasola we were taken to a nearby village on scooters. Around a field the size of two football pitches a crowd had gathered. Most were dressed up for the occasion: bright, patterned fabric wrapped around their heads and lips stained cherry-red from betel.

Three hours of bliss

Warming up in the field before them were 20 or so horsemen wearing more extravagant headdresses with iridescent orange or yellow horns. The horses wore brocade and tassels, some with fluffy pom-poms on their bridles.

By mid-morning roughly 3,000 spectators had gathered to watch men hurl spear-like bamboo canes at each other. With no formal announcement the Pasola began, and for the next three hours, riders from two teams galloped purposefully towards each other like jousting knights. Once their opponent was about 25m away, the riders turned and hurled their spears at the enemy. Thankfully the use of sharpened bamboos is now banned.

With the bamboos difficult to aim and the targets always in motion, the first half hour saw no direct hits on the pitch. If anything, the spectators were in more danger from all the misdirected spears.

Soon the riders’ accuracy improved and the spears began to find their targets. Whenever this happened the crowd cheered. On the few occasions that a rider was knocked off his steed the spectators went wild, jumping up and down, punching the air or invading the pitch. The rider who had thrown the successful spear would ride along with his arms by his side, back low, and toss his head about powerfully.

By lunchtime, with the horses exhausted and the earth hopefully appeased, the Pasola finished. Local spectators returned to their villages and we prepared for our journey home.

Was it worth it? Yes. Even if, as with so many journeys devoted to a single event – a summit to be climbed – the best things seemed to happen on the way.

Henry Hemming, writer, artist and author of In Search of the English Eccentric (John Murray, 2008)