Blood, Sport, and Ritual on the Indonesian Island of Sumba

Indonesia Festivals Ambassadors
by Nathan Myers Mar 27, 2014

DATO DOESN’T BULLSHIT. He was our guide and our friend. A village chief and a former champion at the Pasola fist-fighting matches. I loved and feared him equally. And when I asked him why all Marapu men wear swords in their belts, his answer made my throat go dry.

“It is useful for opening coconuts or for cutting off another man’s head,” he said without a hint of bravado.

Modern Sumba exists in a virtually prehistoric state. They carry swords. They ride on horses. They use buffalo as currency. And if you kill another man during the annual Pasola Festival, you will not be charged with murder.

Pasola rider

Amongst the tribal clans that occupy this Indonesian island, feuds run generations deep, tempers run hot, and fighting is part of everyday life. Villages are set up like fortresses, located on tops of mountains with high stone walls (which makes access to water very difficult — a constant problem on the island). That’s not to say they aren’t warm, gracious, and kind people as well. But they wear their hearts on their sleeves, and their swords on their belts.

When I first heard about the Pasola Festival a few years ago, I promised myself I would someday attend. As a filmmaker, I knew I had to attempt to capture the experience. But this shoot would prove the most difficult and dangerous of my career. The mud and the rain. The hostile and riotous crowds. And the very nature of the festival — a human bloodletting ending in a all-out riot — by the end of the day we considered ourselves lucky simply to leave uninjured and with all our equipment intact.

Two short incidents that couldn’t find their way into this short video:

  • FIRST… At dawn on the beach, the ratus (chiefs) were sitting on the cobblestone bluff chewing betelnut, discussing the quality of the nyala worms (the emergence of these sacred worms determines the timing for the year’s Pasola Festival), and preparing to sacrifice a black cock. Down at the water’s edge, we noticed all the locals around us were discreetly filling their pockets with fist-sized stones. An ominous sign. These were being squirreled away for the end of the festival, when the entire crowd erupts into a violent bloodletting riot, complete with police gunfire, wild horses, and many shattered windows.
  • LATER… my filming partner Andy and I were pressing our luck out on the battlefield and both watched one of the riders take a spear and jab the spear-gatherer. It only took a second to realize the spear-gatherers — who were as close to referees as a pitched battle might have — were very much off limits. The spear-gatherer freaked out, started chasing the offending rider and hurling spears at him. Other men joined the chase, drawing their swords as they pursued him up the beach. Andy started to run behind them to film the scene and was stopped suddenly by Dato. “Don’t go anywhere near that scene,” Dato said. “Why not?” asked Andy. “What’s going to happen to him?” Dato made a chopping motion with his arm. His other hand had fallen to the hilt of his sword. We looked down the beach and saw the crowd that had assembled around the prankster. Swords were rising and falling in the air. That’s the kind of place Sumba is.

Now watch the video (or watch it again). See those spears flying right over our heads? Last year a spectator caught one of those through the eye and out the back of his skull. He died instantly. It was a good harvest.

Special thanks to Dato, Chris Bromwich, and Nihiwatu Resort for making this video short possible. We didn’t create this for any commercial purposes…it was just something we felt compelled to document. Thanks for watching.

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