To try to understand it we must start from afar , from the ancient Marapu religion.
Sumba Island, Archipelago of East Nusa Tenggara, 650,000 inhabitants, one of the poorest Indonesian islands, is living from agriculture and livestock. More than half the population has no access to drinking water, malaria and dengue are widespread. The doctors are scarce and those that there are are expensive. The island was colonized in the sixteenth century, but neither the Portuguese nor the Dutch, made it a real colony. The island offered sandalwood and a little more, not very profitable compared to spices from nearby islands. This lack of interest has favored the maintenance of an original culture and religion.
forced religious syncretism, Marapu and Christianity
Here many have chosen the Christian religion, at least for official documents. They do not like the government, Muslim, and many schools and health services on the island are run by the Church. It is often asked to be baptized in order to continue the studies. In particular there is a growing influence of evangelical church reflected in the mass conversion ceremony, although many islanders keep their beliefs practiced in secret. The elders believe the conversions to break the relationship with the ancestors and live it in a traumatic way.
Moreover, the Church has managed to sell better their "membership", mixing it with the local traditions, for example it is not uncommon to see a traditional funeral complete with a megalithic tomb celebrated by a Catholic priest. What matters, as unfounded, it is numbers.
Introduction to Marapu religion
In many cases, families light up debts that extend to future generations to be able to build these tombstones in the traditional way. The funeral and burial can be delayed for decades, until the family doesn't get enough money, and in the meantime the bodies of the dead are kept in the houses of the living. Hundreds of people take part in the Tarik Batu ceremony, huge stone slabs, up to 70 tons, are transported by hand, to the place of burial, adjacent to the village. A large number of buffaloes, cows, pigs and occasionally horses are sacrificed. All rituals have to be made correctly, the islanders believe, in fact, that seven pairs of men and women descended from the sky on a staircase made of buffalo horns, coming in the north central part of the island, and then that they too, performing all the necessary burial rites, will able to climb that ladder and be reunited with their loved ones.
Along the funeral, the Pasola is certainly the most important ritual. It is, to simplify, a ritual battle to celebrate the season of rice planting, or rather a fertility rite.
Two different groups of men from different clans or tribes, on a horseback, throw each other barbed wooden spears. The aim is to shed blood in order to fertilize the soil. In the Wanukaka region, where we are, as part of the ritual, marapu the priests go to the beach at early morning, they sacrifice a black cock, and discusses some of the entrails to see if the times have come. Then, they enter the water, looking for colorful worms in the sand. If they find them is a good sign, especially if they are big and chubby, and the Pasola season can start. Otherwise the crop will be ruined and also the Pasola.
The Pasola season usually begins in March and extends for 2/3 weeks, during which there are many Pasola around in the island, even small villages can held more than one in the season.
We cross glances of men and women, their teeth ruined by betel nuts. The landscape is strangely dry for an Indonesian island, even though the rainy season has just ended. The vegetation is low and there are no rivers in this area. Immediately before the village there is the field of the Pasola, a land clearing where there is already some men on horseback, the Sumba horses are very small but posses a great strength. There is also the Pasola Police, men who should maintain order if things get out of hand. Awaiting the start we visit the village, two hundred meters away from the sea. We see for the first time on the island some other bule (white person), but not too many. Outside the houses people are preparing meals, a lady is slicing a dog ready to be roasted and others cook pork.
We head to the battlefield, there's more and more horsemen. The public is very numerous, all of them with the machete in his belt. At some point it starts, everyone will head to the center of the field, talking to each other, we do not know exactly what happens, then return to their places and it begins.
They pull the spears, at first seems a bit boring. The government has banned the use of sharp spears but it seems that, in many cases, they continue to use those. In short, you can not even decide how to die. The audience is cheering, but we do not understand why, it is not that easy to follow.
The horsemen circle the battlefield chasing each other but not many spears are thrown. At some point the crowd begin to throw stones, fight broke in the field, some say that a javelin has been thrown from behind, something forbidden. The lances must always be pulled when the opponent is facing.
The police entered the game and start shooting, first in air and then ground. The shots are just a few meters from us, we go to take refuge behind a pickup truck. The police continue to shoot, the crowd, the public and horses disperse. It's time to go for us. Back in town they tell us that a Pasola always ends up with the police firing, no one is dead so what we saw can be considered a peaceful Pasola. But we do not know what happened to the guy who threw the spear from behind, we believe it didn't end well.
In one way or another blood must be shed.