From February to March every year, the residents of Sumba, a remote island in the east of Indonesia, celebrates a centuries-old harvest festival known as Pasola. It is an ancient war festival between two groups of selected Sumbanese men.
The festival takes place in Lamboya and Kodi (February) and, Wanokaka and Gaura (March). The main activity begins several days after the full moon, which also coincides with the yearly arrival of the multihued sea worms – also known as nyale. Pasola – The War Festival, is derived from the word “Sola” or “Hola”, which means a long wooden stick. The opponents on each horse are skilled riders and ride on their colourfully decorated horses flinging wooden spears at each other, dressed in traditional costumes.
The people of Sumba believe that the ritual has a very close link to the behaviour of the people, which are influenced heavily by Asian culture. They believe that a balance between the physical (material needs) and mental (spiritual needs) can easily be created. This ritual is also believed to shape and nurture the habits and opinions of the people so they can live happily both on earth and later in heaven.
The Pasola festival begins the night before the battle. The Sumbanese people will gather at dusk in the village to present offerings to their ancestors. The next morning, before dawn, the villagers head down to the shores with their buckets and nets to collect multi-coloured sea worms (which appear only once every year). The local shamans (ratus) predict the quality of the harvest for the next year by reading the colour and shape of the nyale.
While preparing for battle, the people feast on pigs, dogs, and chickens. In Sumba, blood represents everything from food to war to life. The festival is believed to have a close relation to the activity in agriculture, therefore any bloodshed (of sacrificial cattle or men participating in the battle) is considered the symbol of prosperity that must exist. Hence, without blood Pasola means nothing. The risk taken by men involved in the battle is therefore acceptable by the local folk in a hospitable and sportive way. The ratus do not stop the game until there is bloodshed, which, according to tradition, promises a good harvest for the next year.
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