The Sumbanese live on the island of Sumba. They are mostly a Malay people with some Melanesian blood and speak a language similar to that of the people on Flores. Although most are Christian traditional beliefs remain. The Sumbanese have unusual funeral customs and believe the first people of the world descended from heaven on a ladder and settled on the northern part of the island. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Sumbanese have a caste system which divides people into royalty, commoners and slaves. Although the government has officially freed them, slaves still exists. They are not slaves as we think of them because they are not bought and sold. “Slavery” is best thought of as a station in life. ~

Traditional Sumbanese houses have high pointed roofs. Some villages are surrounded by stone walls, a reminder of when clan warfare was common on the island. The upper portion of the high thatched roofs are used to store sacred objects and house spirits. In a traditional village the houses are built facing one another around a central square with spiritual stones and stone slab tombs in the center of the square. In the old days the heads of slain enemies were hung from the “dead tree’ in the square and houses were built on hills for defensive purposes. ~

The Sumbanese subsist on rice and locally grown fruits such as bananas, papayas and mangoes. They pamper and then eat their pet dogs. The Blair brothers said they ate dog more than anything else when they visited the island. "It tasted somewhere between rabbit and goat, but richer in protein than either, and tended to make one sweat while eating it.” they said. [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York]

Betel nut is widely chewed. It is given as a present and a welcoming gesture. In the old days betel nut was an important element of peace treaties. Chewing betel nut for the first time is regarded as a symbol of reaching adulthood. The stalk of the betel nut is said to represent the male sex organ; the nut, female ovaries. Lime is symbolic of sperm. The dead are sent off to the afterlife with a traditional betel nut bag. If someone offers you betel nut and you turn them down that is a great insult.

Sumbanese Funeral Customs

The Sumbanese describe the spiritual world with the word “maraapu” and regard death as an initiation into this world. As is true with the Toraja, the Sumbanese store deceased relatives for several years in a special death house before they are buried. The Sumbanese wrap the dead in blankets. The death houses are usually identified by a big set of water buffalo horns or the severed head of the deceased's favorite horse. In the past the an entire stable of horse might be sacrificed. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Sumba is also famous for its megalithic tombs, composed of four stone pillars, on top of which are decorated stone slabs. Many Sumbanese villages are built around huge carved granite megaliths that cover the graves where important nobles were buried with sacrificed slaves and horses. The tombs look like ornamented stone roof supporteds by columns. The granite used to make them was transported on rollers from sacred quarries miles away by hundreds of laborers drunk on palm wine. Technological shortcuts have been greeted with scorn. The best tombs are in western Sumba. [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York,♢]

Describing a visit to a death house, Lawrence Blair wrote: "A few yards from the main, high-roofed place was a low building from which issued a chorus of gut wrenching wails...Inside I discerned a triangular-shaped bundle, about four feet high draped with royal ikat. This was solemnly introduced to us as the late Raja Pau. His body was squatting upright—in Sumbanese burial pose—with his elbows on his knees and his palms on his cheeks—beneath not one, but dozens of ikats...The Raja's brother than introduced us to yet more ikated bundles...There was his mother, father, brother, wife and sister-in-law. Some had been waiting for more than 20 years." At the foot of each bundle were cups of tea and food which were ritually "fed" to the corpses everyday. ♢

When Raja Pau died a good friend of his on the other side of the island began bleeding profusely from a cut on his neck. It turned out, his relatives said, that the Raja died because doctors failed to sew him up properly after a throat operation and the his wound opened, causing him to bleed to death. ♢

Sumbanese Culture

Sumbanese men have traditionally worn scarves as turbans, hitched up their sarongs so that much of their legs are exposed and wore a piece of cloth over that along with a long-blade knife in a wooden sheath in their waist belt. Women traditionally had their legs tattooed after giving birth to their first child. In some places women still go bare-breasted. Teeth filling used to be practiced but now is rarely seen except among very old people. Statues are an important element of spiritual life in Sumba. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Sumba is famous for its traditional style of textiles known as ikats which are sometimes embroidered with cowry shells and woven with mystical figures and "power shapes" that have secretive magical meanings specific to certain clans and kingdoms. The blankets are made of fine clothe woven from with fabric naturally dyed with indigo and red marinda from “kombu” tree bark. In recent decades these have been replaced with chemical dyes. ~

In the old days ikat was only used for special purposes. Some were used in social planting ceremonies. Other could only be worn by royalty. Hinggis are large blanket-like shawls worn by men and women and used to wrap the dead at traditional burials. Common ikat motifs include snakes, crocodiles (representing birth), "skull trees" (formally used to hang the heads of defeated enemies to scare off evil spirits), horses, dogs, buffalos, monkeys, lizards and warriors. ~

Sumba is the home of the "sandalwood horse," a stocky, sure-footed animal that is so small tall Westerners drag their feet on the ground when they ride it. Originally brought to Indonesia by Arab traders, these horses were favored by the British Raj in India and South Africa because of their stamina in hot and humid climates and their resistance to tropical diseases. Westerners who ride sandalwood horses find that the horses sometimes bite their feet. The horse are ridden without saddles or stirrups. Other animals on the island include tropical birds, water buffalo, Brahmin cows and black swayback pigs. ~

Sumbanese and the Pasola

Sumba is perhaps best known for the annual Pasola festival, in which is two teams with dozens of men run after each other full speed on horseback and hurl javelins at one another. Spectators are fair game and it not unusual for there to be at least one death during the event. Some scholars consider the festival to be "a veiled form of human sacrifice." The main objective is to draw blood to sanctify the gods rather than kill people. In the 1990s the government banned javelins with sharp points. Some people have argued that since then more people have been killed by the with blunt wooden spears that are aimed at the temple and neck.

Usually held in February and March—Pasola features scores of colorfully-dressed horsemen battling each other in a very serious way. During the war ritual, riders charge and fling blunt spears at one another. Sometimes two or more festivals are held at different times of the year, depending on several factors including the involvement of the government and the tides. Typically there is an event in February in Lamboyo and one in March in Guara and Honokaka. The battle begins several days after the full moon and coincides with the arrival strange multicolored seaworms. The festivals are held in wide lush green valleys. The exact dates are determined by shaman who disembowel live chickens and examine the entrails for omens after glowing worms burst forth in the sea.

The horses used in the Pasola have bridles adorned with horse-hair ruffs, ribbons and bells. Some of the horses have their ears notched. No saddles are used. Some riders sit on pads others ride bareback. The Pasola takes place in a huge field about the size of ten football fields. Each team has about 70 riders. Each rider carries two weapons, blunt five-foot-long poles that resemble broomsticks. Warfare has traditionally been a key element of Sumbanese life. Sometimes the mock battles become real. In August 1992, two villages went to war. Several people were killed and 80 homes were burned.

Before the real Pasola there is a two-hour warm-up at the beach where the glow worms appear. The appearance of the worms is what signals the start of the event. Upon witnessing the arrival of the glow worms on the beach, Blair wrote: "'Nyale! Nyale! the crowd began shouting, as the first rosy glow of dawn began creeping across the sea. But as I looked close I realized the redness was more than the dawn—the seaworms were swarming, wriggling multitudes staining the beach with every wave. The high priest was the first to wander sedately into the surf to sample this "gift of the Sea Goddess's body,' and to announce its portents to the crowd...'If the worms are healthy and plentiful, it will be a good year,' he said. 'If they fall apart at the touch , then enough rain can be expected to rot the rice on its stem. And if they are pitted and damaged, then a plague of rats or insects is probable.'...As soon as the priest had given his verdict, the crowd rushed into the surf themselves to scoop up the seaworms in their cupped sarongs or woven baskets for a holy breakfast, which they quickly cooked over small driftwood fires and ate." ♢

Description of the Pasola

Describing the start of the Pasola, Blair wrote: " Suddenly the two high priests of the Upper and Lower Worlds broke their ranks and galloped their horses at full speed towards each other into the center of the field, waving their spears and invoking the energies they represented to come and join the battle. Then, with unexpected violence they hurled their javelins from a distance of about fifteen feet—intentionally missing each other by a hair's breadth. ♢

"This was a signal for the battle to begin, and as they withdrew from center stage they were engulfed as the first thunderous onslaught of spearmen charged each other at the gallop, their vivid orange, red and green turbans and ribbons streaming in the air...waves of warriors ebbed and flowed around the field, occasionally charging straight into the ranks of the spectators, tossing their spears with abandon. ♢

"I saw a number of riders struck heavily off their mounts by spears, rolling into balls and being cantered over by scores of other horses. They then leapt to their feet and limped hurriedly off the field. Another man was knocked unconscious and carried off almost triumphantly, only to come to again...and shout angrily for his horse, mount it and charge into the fray once more...We saw one guy killed instantly. He was knocked off his horse by a blunt spear hitting him on the temple." ♢

F. Dennis Lessard wrote in International Travel News: "The action was hot and heavy. The riders coming from the left side often would use the crowds a shield, riding very close to us and then darting toward the center. Often these riders would be spotted and spears from the other side would come our way. Several times we had to duck or jump out of the way."

Tourists often get hurt. "A young boy very near to me," Lessard wrote, "got hit in the head and was bleeding. An Australian tourist got hit in the back and almost knocked out. I saw the big bruise on his back—he was really hurt. Just then it started to get out of hand. Some of the unmounted men who were retrieving spent spears started throwing them at riders and one side started throwing rocks." The police moved in to break things up and started firing shots in the air. They came my direction...and the crowd scattered across the creek."

Sumabese and the Rajura

The Pasola is preceded by the “rajura”, a traditional all-night ceremony featuring boxing matches between men from rival districts. Describing a rajura boxing match held on beach accessible by an arduous seven mile walk, F. Dennis Lessard wrote in International Travel News: "The pradjura, like the pasola, is ritualized combat between rival districts that is required for the success of the yearly agricultural cycle, but it also serves as an outlet for pent-up aggression between groups who not too long ago were headhunters."

"Each group put forth its best men, about 10 to 12 on each side, standing about 15 feet apart. They and the crowd had been working themselves into a frenzy by yelling and jumping up and down. The fighters were allowed to wrap their hands and we saw one close up. He took a bunch of saw grass and held it on his fist with the sharp stubble sticking out. Then he twisted the grass and wrapped it 'round and 'round his hand until he could barely close his fist. The grass makes the fist a deadly weapon; it could cut flesh if a good blow were landed."

"The blood of the warriors helps to fertilize the ground for the new crops which are planted shortly after the pasola events take place. There are some preliminary prayers and talking and the ground rules were laid out (no rocks or pieces of metal)."

Description of Rajura Fighting

"The two lines of young men faced each other and when the signal was given they started feinting back and forth. Everyone was yelling. Suddenly one man would dart forward, take a swing at an opponent and try to run back without being hit. If a hit were scored or if things got out of hand they would stop and rest. There were 'refs' from a neutral village and they tried to keep tight control.

"The young men were barefoot and bare legged, most wearing shorts and a T-shirt and some wearing the wrapped loincloth and cloth head scarf. The “parangs” (fancy, long knives) that are usually carried by all the men were not allowed in this area...It was dark and there was no moon and no large fires; they discouraged flashlights as the light could blind the fighters. This went on for several hours...During the last session, one of the men from 'our side' got bloodied near the eyes and Ali thought they would really go at it. I saw a woman carrying two parangs and I saw other men putting them on and I thought, 'Oh-oh.' But that was the end, The fighting was over and they were allowed to wear their knives again.

"I think what stopped the fighting at the end was the discovery of the small sea worms in the water. Everyone rushed down to the shore to gather them. The worms are central to all of the pasola activities and their presence and appearance are supposed to tell the ratu if the pasola should be held; they also foretell the future for the coming year."


The Weyewa inhabit the western highlands of Sumba and Nusa Tenggara Timur Province, where they cultivate rice, corn, and cassava using both slash-and-burn methods and continuous irrigation of paddy fields. They supplement this income through the sale of livestock, coffee, vanilla, cloves, and their distinctive brightly colored textiles. There were few challenges to Weyewa notions of political and religious identity until the 1970s. Because Sumba is a rather dry and infertile island, located away from the ports of call of the spice trade, it was comparatively insulated from the Hindu-Buddhist, Muslim, and later Dutch influences, each of which helped shape the character of Indonesia’s cultures. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Each Weyewa belongs to a kabizu, a patrilineal clan whose founding ancestors are spirits requiring frequent ritual propitiation, gifts, and respect in exchange for continued prosperity among the descendants. Each clan is headquartered in a fortified hilltop wanno kalada (ancestral village); the most traditional villages are characterized by houses with spectacular high-pointed thatch roofs. Young people are supposed to seek spouses outside their clan, and clan members assist with the often substantial marriage payments that are required. *

The Weyewa system of ritual production and exchange began to undergo major technological development and an economic shift in the 1970s and 1980s that resulted in a gradual weakening of the authority of lineages. With greater amounts of arable land available as a result of improved irrigation techniques and more crops produced because of the use of faster-growing and higher-yielding varieties of rice, the legal and cultural rights to these new resources came to be assigned to individuals rather than to clans. Younger farmers were increasingly reluctant to invest in costly, large-scale ritual feasts honoring the spirits. Meanwhile, government officials put further pressure on traditional leaders to give up ritual feasting practices as “wasteful” and “backward.” Furthermore, as with the Kaharingan adherents of Kalimantan, failure to affiliate with an approved religion was regarded as potentially treasonous. *

Unlike the Toraja and others, however, the Weyewa were not politically organized for the preservation of their indigenous religion. Most people simply converted to Christianity as a symbolic gesture of participation in the nation-state. Indeed, whole villages in the late 1980s and early 1990s conducted feasts in which residents settled their debts with ancestral spirits and became Christians. The number of Weyewa professing affiliation with the Christian religion (either Roman Catholic or Calvinist Protestant) jumped from approximately 20 percent in 1978 to more than 90 percent in 2005.

Sumba did not escape violence during the post-Suharto reform period, but the rioting took on distinctive forms. Because the central government was generally perceived in eastern Indonesia as a bountiful—if inequitable—source of funds for education, development, and jobs, the collapse of central authority resulted in open disputes. In November 1998, conflict broke out along ethnic lines as Weyewa men sought to defend the reputation of an ethnic Weyewa government official accused of corruption. The ensuing riots left at least 20 people dead and more than 600 homes destroyed. The public performance of peace rituals in 1999 began a slow, painful process of rebuilding trust between aggrieved parties. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2019

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