Brief History of Sumba

Sumba had always been an isolated island. It was inhabited by several small ethno linguistic groups. Sumba had its own civilization. There were small clans or kingdoms with their own customs, own social structures, and ceremonies during the cycle of life such as birth (habola), marriage (Mangoma lalei), and death (pa taningu).

In the fourteenth century, Sumba was part of the Javanese Majapahit dynasty. After this dynasty had collapsed, Sumba came under the rule of Bima in Sumbawa and later Gowa in Sulawesi. These political changes had little impact on daily life in Sumba. Life was more influenced by internal wars between the clans and small kingdoms because of land and trading rights.

In 1522 the first ships of the Portuguese people came here. The Netherlands, later the colonialists of Indonesia, initially gave little attention to Sumba because they saw no significant commercial interests in Sumba. Also the large number of small kingdoms made it hard to install a significant impact. The Netherlands did not discover the value of sandalwood until the 18th century and then started interfering in Sumba. In 1756 a treaty was made between the Dutch United East India Company (VOC) and some of the Sumbanese nobles.

During the Second World War Sumba was occupied by the Japanese from 1942 to 1945. The Japanese intended to use Sumba as a starting point for an invasion of Australia. The Sumbanese say that the rule of the Japanese was more brutal than the Dutch.The Japanese left Sumba when the Australians landed in the south of the island.

The news of Sukarno having declared independence in 1945 took 6 months to reach Sumba. Exactly 5 years later on 17 August 1950 Indonesia took over Sumba as well as other island in east Indonesia. Sumba got part of the province of Nusa Tenggara Timur.

Preserved Traditional Culture

Traditional Livestyle

Due to the isolated location of the island and the limited economic resources in Sumba, the language, religion, and traditional culture have been preserved – at least in the countryside. The daily life of the population is basically a mirror image of their traditional religious life. Thus traditional religion is more likely to be found in traditional villages. Someone who turns to another religion is also rather someone who turns his back to the village.

How strong the tradition is, can be seen especially on the still relatively large proportion of people in traditional dress in everyday life. The proportion in West Sumba is greater than in the east. At festivals or in church, people like to be traditional dressed, even if they normally wear jeans.

The men wear a short sarong (Hinggi) around their hips, and a belt with a sword (and mobile phone). Around the head they have a band or turban of woven Ikat with figurative motifs. In East Sumba, the headband is black with colourful motives and in West Sumba it is usually blue.

The women wear long sarongs and also a headband, but with different motives. Women let their hair grow long and wrap it around the head. After the birth of her first child, a woman may tattoo her arms or legs as a status symbol. In the past it was customary to sharpen their teeth.

In Sumba a family has to be understood like a clan (Kabisu). This includes people who we would name distant relatives. These in turn are subdivided into blood relatives and relatives in law. The one automatically have rights within the family, the other must first be legalized emotional. The responsibility for all within the family is a great social good. Thus, for example, the money earned by a job in Bali, is seen as the property of the clan.

Every wedding means a change of the constellation within the family or establishing new relations to another clan. There are a variety of family policy issues. More information on this topic can be found on the link site via West Sumba / Sosial Budaya / Perkawinan.

Most Sumbanese live in the village or area where they were born. Women often live in the village of their husbands.

Kampung Adat, traditional village

Sumbanese traditionally build their houses and villages on hills or mountains. They build so as to be protected from enemies and to be closer to the spirits and ancestors. They surround their villages with a stone wall with 2 gates: the entrance and exit. In the middle of a village is a yard with tombs and sacrificial altars (Kateda). The houses with their (mostly) high, pointed Marapu roofs form a circle around it or are arranged in 2 parallel rows.

The people of a village usually belong to several clans. For every clan (Kabisu) there is a clan house = Rumah Adat. These are houses where the ancestral spirits dwell and cult objects of the clan are kept. These houses are usually in the middle of the village. They are built differently from the houses of the living people. They are a symbol of God’s presence in the village and may only be entered with the permission of the clan.

Social Sctructure

In the past, Sumba had a social system consisting of nobles, peasants, and slaves (Maramba, Kabthu, and Ata). This system continues to exist by name only but has no function any longer within the Indonesian society. However, families who came from the nobility still tend to be rich. One who has done well in the new society can keep his title. Due to the fact that there was no land reform in Sumba, the nobility still owns a large part of the country. The nobility can determine who may buy land and who may not. In recent times, the planned establishment of a resort in Mambang by foreign investors were thus prevented. However most of the people sell. That makes this segment of the population richer and enlarges the social divergence.

The bride price is expensive but important. It is part of Sumbanese culture, but not of the immigrants as Bugis and Savunese. It depends on who feels mapped to which culture. However, it is independent of the exerted religion.

Means of payment are horses, water buffalos, and pigs. Recently, cattle thefts have increased dramatically in the context of the bride price. Poverty, particularly in West Sumba, forces people to steal the needed livestock in Central and East Sumba. Today a good horse may well be substituted by a motorcycle. Many men, who do not have sufficient resources, nowadays look for women from other islands, where their families do not expect a bride price. Vice versa, many women remain unmarried in Sumba. The bride price is not demanded by official law. An unpaid or partly paid bride price gets inherited as debt.

The Marapu Belief

There are many different explanations about the origin of the name Marapu or Merapu. The most likely is the composition of the words Mar and Apu, which means grandfather as the creator and source of life. Marapu is a collective term for all spiritual forces, like gods, spirits and ancestors. The most important lesson of Marapu is the belief in the limited life in our world and eternal life after death. Death means that someone goes into the world of spirits and into the heaven of Marapu – Prai Marapu. The spirits of the ancestors are still alive and watch over the living. Rituals and ceremonies are to keep and maintain a peaceful connection to the Marapu. As far as the ceremony complies with the rules, the Marapu bring blessings such as good relations with neighbours and family, good health, good harvest etc.


Ikat weaving is done mostly in Flores, Timor, and Sumba. In Sumba, it has achieved the highest development. For the people of Sumba Ikat is firstly a traditional garment for everyday life, but it has also ritual value as exchange object for weddings, Marapu ceremonies and as a shroud: A dead person of high status can be wrapped in many Ikat cloths.

Ikat from Sumba is shown in museums of the world as an example of the highest quality of textile design. The patterns of Ikat are traditional, and represent the village where the cloth was manufactured. In West Sumba there are more geometric patterns; in East Sumba they have figural ornamentation like village scenes, animals, and mythical creatures. The figures have historical or religious significance.

Customs and Traditions

  • Welcoming: Within the family and if you have not met for a long time, you welcome each other in the traditional way by “rubbing noses”, touching the nose. Doing this you have to compress visible your lips. With sorrow or deep sympathy you can touch the forehead in addition. For formal occasions you also welcome or thank each other with this ritual. This ritual dates originally from immigrants from Savu and has become custom in Sumba throughout the centuries. Tourists should do it in the same way as Sumba people, but the locals should take the initiative.
  • Participation in festivities: If you have not been invited in advance, you will be asked if the people want you to take part. To refuse an invitation is impolite. People like you to get fully involved in the event. As a leading figure or a foreigner you will often be given preference.
  • Smile: The Sumba languages do not know the word thank you. Everything belongs to the family or community. Take with reasonable extent, what you want. It is shown by smile if it was ok what you took.
  • Body characteristics: Statements to the appearance of someone might possibly be interpreted differently to us. Here are some examples: Thick = you’re alright, you take care of yourself; Thin = you feel bad, you have to work a lot; White = you do not need to work outside in the sun; …
  • Aggressive gestures are:
    – folding one’s arms in front of one’s chest
    – arms akimbo
  • General rules in Indonesia is:
    – Keep smiling
    – The left hand is considered unclean
    – Never show the underside of your foot to another human being
    – When you walk past somebody bend down a little and hold your right hand down


In Sumba, there is always something to celebrate somewhere. Celebrating and inviting more people than necessary is part of their culture. You need not necessarily attend a big festival or ceremony. If you know a little Bahasa Indonesia, it is the little encounters that we as foreigners remember for a long time.

But you will also remember the negative aspects: the origin of the festivals and the way they are celebrated according to the Marapu religion. At most festivals water buffalos, cattle, pigs, and chickens are ritually killed. For the animals this means a slow, painful end. Pigs are thrown half dead into the fire. While water buffalos die quietly, the squeals of the pigs are almost unbearable.

The religion of the participants is not important for a ceremony, everybody is welcome. People are very considerate with Muslims, some ritual killings are carried out according to Islamic rite or even a goat is added if only pigs are sacrificed.

Here is a selection of celebrations:

Wulla Poddu = bitter Month

Each year, between the last full moon in October and the last full moon in November, some Sumbanese tribes celebrate the Wulla Poddu ceremony. The main ceremonial event is at the end of the first week. Wulla Poddu means a bitter month. Wulla Poddu is a kind of holy month comparable to Ramadan or Passion. During this month, there are certain prohibitions or taboos (no funerals, weddings, parties, topping-out ceremonies, eating dogs…). Wulla Poddu is associated with agriculture. It is the time for giving thanks to the Marapu before the next planting season begins. Land, crops, livestock, and good efforts are blessed by the Marapu. There are about a dozen different rituals that are part of the Wulla Poddu. More detailed information can be found via the link site in the dissertation of Elvira Rothe.

For people the Wulla Poddu is the time of family reunion, reconciliation, forgiveness, and pardon. At the beginning of Wulla Poddu there are performances of rhythmic chanting and ritual dances. They dance on the central squares of the villages, both Marapu priest, equipped with appropriate relics, warriors with swords and spears, and women in colourful costumes. The end of the Wulla Poddu is also celebrated. In contrast to the beginning, many animal sacrifices are then made.

The Wulla Poddu is celebrated in Tarung / Waikabubak, Bondo Maroto / north of Waikabubak, Gollu & Gella Koko / Loli, Ubu Koba / Wewawa, Kadoku / Wanokaka, Sodan / Lamboya.

Villagers with strong believes pay very close attention to the observance of taboos during Wulla Poddu month. Sometimes it might be forbidden to a stranger to enter villages or specific areas in the villages and take photos.

Perkawinan = Weddings

In the chapter history and culture / traditional way of life I have described the importance of marriage. Here is the now customary routine:

Weddings are celebrated in the bride’s house. Days before the celebration the dowry of the bride is shown in front of the parents’ house. This might be a marriage bed, TV and furniture. On the day of the celebration, the bride’s family gather in front of their house and wait for the groom.

The groom starts from his family home and collects his relatives on the way to the bride. Nowadays they use mostly Bemos and trucks for the trip. They have room for the presents: horses, water buffaloes, and pigs. A decorated horse symbolizes a motorcycle. And vice versa a motorcycle, covered with a sheet, and its rear view mirrors decorated with colorful ribbons, symbolizes a horse.

Upon arrival of the groom, the 2 families consult whether the presents are adequate. Such negotiations have sometimes an almost ritualistic character and may take several hours. Optionally they talk also about the past and inherited guilt and debt. Then the heads of the family appear before the wedding congregation and announce the result. The following is an appropriate service according to religious orientation.

Animal sacrifices are common at weddings. In addition, the mostly great wedding congregation has to be fed.

Penguburan, Pemakaman = Funeral

According to the Marapu belief there is life after death. Therefore, the funeral ceremony is actually the most important of all. With some tribes in Sumba, the body is bent like a baby in the womb. This position is a symbol of rebirth in the world of spirits. The coffin of the dead person is covered with a shroud of Ikat. The funeral celebration symbolizes the transition of the deceased person into the Marapu heaven. (Praing Marapu). The funeral ceremonies and funerals are usually a few days after death.

The funeral ceremony requires a large financial outlay for the family. Many mourners will have to travel, be accommodated, and fed. They need a number of water buffalos, cows … Sometimes such ceremonies will, therefore, take place several years after death, until enough money is available. In the meantime, the body of the deceased is kept on the top floor of the houses of the living or buried temporarily.

Depending on the region and the importance of the dead person, the mortuary and the funeral ceremony take 3 to more than 6 days. Chemical additives such as formalin and others are taken for granted today in the funeral process of Sumba.

The dead person will be buried in a megalithic tomb. There are single graves and “family graves”, where several people can be buried. So the following ceremony is not part of every funeral.

Tarik Batu, Tingi Watu = pulling Stone

The megalithic culture in Sumba originated about 4,500 years ago. This tradition is still alive today, and not just for supporters of the Marapu faith. The megalithic tombs are rectangular and similar to altars or tables, closed or open, with 4 feet. The different designs and dimensions of individual graves are in accordance with the importance of the family. The material is limestone or concrete. Even today many have a weight of many tons. In order to carry these stones to the right place, you need the Tarik Batu = stone-pulling ceremony.

Before the stone-pulling ceremony, there are a number of rituals as to grant planning permission to fetch the stone from a quarry or rock. Another ritual serves to ensure success of the stone-pulling. Such a stone is then pulled with lianas over banana trunks over long distances until it has finally reached its final position and is then raised. Stone pulling is hard work for many people and sometimes takes many days.

The pulling of stones is accompanied with rhythmical, encouraging songs. The men are responsible for pulling, women for catering. A corresponding number of water buffaloes, cows, and pigs is necessary for offering. In such ceremonies one can today use trucks for transport, if the distance to the grave site is too far, or a nylon rope, if the lianas are too weak. But the main thing is that all the participants have fun.

Following this ceremony, the grave stones are decorated, with scenes and sculptures from the life of the deceased and his life after death according to the Marapu faith. Depending on the material and taste kitschy bathroom tiles are also common.

Pasola = Spear Games

The Pasola is probably the largest and best-known ceremony in Sumba. The name of the ceremony is derived from the word Hola or Sola = wooden stick or spear. Pa suggests that this is a game. Those who do not have the opportunity to see it, or don’t want to see it, will recognize at least the leftovers. Wherever the Pasola is performed, there are thousands of empty plastic cups…

The Pasola takes place at 7 locations in West Sumba.

In February in
– Hoba Kalla – Lamboya
– Homba Klayo, Lete Loko und Tosi – Kodi
– Bondo Kawango, Pero Batang – Kodi
– Rara Winyo, Ate Dalo – Kodi
In March in
– Pahiwi (beach / pantai) & Kamaradena (field / medan) – Wanokaka
– Weetana, Gaura – Lamboya- Wainyapu, Waiha – Kodi Bangedo

The timing of Pasola rituals is determined by the Nyale rituals. Nyale are iridescent annelids. On 2 days each year, one in February and one in March, these critters crawl from the sea about 5 days after full moon, in order to spawn. According to Marapu belief this is a sign from heaven. The Rato priest checks the appearance of the Nyale worms and makes predictions for the coming harvest. The Pasola itself begins 8 days after the Nyale phenomenon.

The exact date of the Pasola could actually be known only a few weeks before. However, it is defined more pragmatic today. From the experience of recent years you can use the following rule of thumb: 10 days after the first full moon of February or March + – 4 days.  The dates of the different venues are published about 2-3 weeks before. In 2015 the March Pasola is between 11 to 14 of the month.

Before and as a supplement of the main Pasola event a number of different ritual games take place. These include, depending on the region, brutal boxing matches – Pajura. The opponents wrap their fists with sharp grasses. But also general meetings, nights with ritual speech and various sacrifices with animal offerings are held. The night before the fight, each participant rider of the Pasola has to sacrifice a chicken to the Rato. From that the Rato foretells the success in battle and it is also a plea to the Marapu to give power for the fight.

The area of the game is consecrated by the Rato and released and he is also the referee of the games. The Pasola is a mock battle between 2 or more villages. The hand-carved spears are up to 5 cm thick and dull; in spite of this people (sometimes) get injured or killed.

In this war game ritual dozens of riders compete against each other. For hours they gallop bareback on Sumba horses and hurl their spears against their opponents with full force. It is not a show, as we know it from the Middle Ages markets in Europe – but is formally exactly like this. The participants are trying to demoralize their opponents with words and push them down with their spears.

Revenge of the defeated is not up to the participants but to the Marapu – perhaps it solves itself or he solves it in the following year. The symbolism of the games is that the more blood is spilled on the ground on the Pasola or in a boxing match, the more fertile the soil will be and increase the yield of the harvest. The Pasola ceremony has, therefore, a direct relation to agriculture. This is the true religious meaning of the Pasola ceremony – not the amusement of the crowd. Successful riders have a high status. Their goal is not only to win but to draw attention to themselves.

For Pasola you dress in your best clothes and travel in a suitable vehicle. Those who can afford it and come from abroad will book appropriate quotas with the airlines. Perhaps the Rato also makes an appointment with the airlines …

Although the Pasola is on its way to becoming an international national tourist attraction, it remains important for Sumbanese culture.

This violent ritual may remind you that less than 100 years ago headhunting still existed in Sumba.

Some people doubt, whether the Pasola in its original form was a really bloody event. It is also possible that it was a mere show for the upper class.

Ritual Speech

A special ceremony or an integral part of many of the celebrations is ritual speech. This chanting contains rhyming pairs, so called parallel-linked verses. This means that different words express the same content.

Such a ritual speech or lecture can last the whole night. They are presented from memory by the Rato, the spiritual leader of the community. The village people sit around him and respond with an occasional loud feedback choir. The speaker is an intermediary between the ancestors and the living. On such evenings animals are sacrificed and there is something to eat, of course.

Life Cycle Ceremonies

The life cycle of a human being is accompanied by various ceremonies. Such festivals are held in rather small circles. In each ceremony there are only small offerings. The religious affiliation is considered pragmatic. Here the individual stages:
– Gollu Uma / Haba Ngillu / Hallo Lara – Pregnancy / Marapu
– Eta Tana Mewa (Upacara Kelahiran) – Birth accompanying ceremony / Marapu
– Pangara Ana (Upacara Pemberian Nama) – Naming / Marapu
– Kawutti (Upacara Cukur Rambut) – Baptism / depending on religion differently
– Burru Mareda (Upaca Ra Sunat) – Circumcision / depending on religion differently
– Katatu (Tato) – Tattooing / depending on clan and differs from area to area

Music and Dance Festivals

Traditional music and dance were originally a part of Marapu ceremonies. Today they also take place in local festivals and events. Each region of Sumba has its own types of dance. There are dances where women and men dance together or dance separately. The most popular is Woleka and Kataga. Woleka is a dance of women to celebrate the return of the heroes from the battlefield. Kataga is a war dance. It is performed by men very expressive and full of energy.

The music is more rhythmic concomitantly. The musical instruments that are most commonly used are gongs called Talla and a kind of drum called Beddu. Gongs are made of brass or steel. They are different in size. There are the large ones Talla Pia and small ones Talla Ana Kouka. They are addressed with wooden bats. Then there is the small drum Katuba who is beaten by hand.

In addition, there are various other today more rare instruments such as the Kasabba: a kind of basin; Goga Ama: a kind of short-flute; Talahe: a kind of hollow flute which gets air through one nostril while the other nostril is closed; Ndungga: a kind of rattle made of coconut shells and horsehair or spun yarn).

Other Festivals

Bijalungu Hiupaana – is the name of a natural cave. It is located in the village of Waigalli in Wanokaka, 16 km south of Waikabubak. The ceremony takes place in late January / early February and lasts 4 days; while 7 various rituals are performed. It is to vote the Marapu favourably on the incipient planting season. Also there are ceremonies to predict harvests and personal happiness. In these ceremonies food and beverages are served and people sing and dance. A detailed description of what’s happening is on the link site via: West Sumba, Ritual, Bijalungu Hiupaana.

Purungu Taliang Marapu – it takes place east of Waikabubak in the first week in October in the village of Umbu Pabal / Katikutana and Kaba Djawa / Ratu Nggay and lasts 4 days. It is a thanksgiving ritual with dances, prayers, and offerings to the Marapu.

Topping-out ceremonies – will be celebrated after the completion of the wooden skeleton of a house. Again, there are animal sacrifices. From the excised liver of the sacrificed animal(s) the Rato predicts if the house will be safe from storms and lightning as well as about the health, and well-being of the future residents.

Celebrations for which I have no information
– Urata Patama Keto – sharpening machetes
– Pogo Urata Guacu – cut down trees
– Urata Tenu – wooden stove
– Oma Wuke Urata – open garden
– Urata Dengu Laura – ask for rain
– Urata Dengi Ina – harvest results

Elements of the traditional festivals are often involved in non-traditional events. For example: campaign events, sports events, and inaugurations.

In all bigger villages in Sumba, there are equestrian games around the National Holiday on August 17 – something like a Pasola light.

From the 17th of August to the 16th of September the Taman Hiburan Rakyat festival takes place in Waingapu. It is a mixture of Oktoberfest und representation of NGO and government projects.