Indonesia Pasola Sumba animism
A villager, dressed in traditional attire, rides during the Pasola in Wanokaka. Celebrated every year in conjunction with the swarming of a particular sea worm (Nyale) on the shores of West Sumba, this ritual war brings together the local communities in a time of abundence.
Local Rato (shamans) take part at the opening ceremony of the Pasola in Wanokaka. The date of the Pasola – concomitant with the arrival of the Nyale – is set by the shamans who observe the moon and the tides around Februay and March. Seven days after the new moon in February and 6 days after the new moon in March, the Nyale will swarm.
The Sumbanese live a life in close connection with the nature, in the permanent presence of their ancestral spirits. The tall roofs of their houses are the places where the spirits dwell, in the middle part of the house live the people and under the floor, set on high poles, live the animals. Between the houses and around the village stand megalithic graves of their former leaders, some hundreds of years old.
Seven nights before the arrival of the Nyale, the villagers gather in the shaman's house, where they eat betel nuts and sing the legend of the Nyale. There are also other songs associated with this fertile time of the year, which speak about the man-woman duality both in a profound and often hilarious way. They convey the knowledge accumulated by the community over centuries and transmitted entirely orally through these songs.
The night before the Pasola, the extended families gather at the graves of their ancestors, scattered between Wainyapu village's houses. Some of the megalithic graves are more than 500 years old. To honor the ancestral spirits, people traditionally put betel nuts, leaves and rice on the grave stones as offerings.
The majority of the population observing these animist rituals is Christian though, so elements of Christian worship like lighting candles at the graves and praying are also present.
At midnight, groups of rato (shamans) from the inland villages of the Wanokaka region, start gathering and walking in a ritual procession 7 km to the beach at Wanokaka. All in all shamans from 7 villages in the Wanokaka area will walk together to the beach. They are followed by thousands of people prepared to gather Nyale.
At sunrise, the shamans “read” the Nyale, to see what the outcome of the future rice crop will be like. If there's plenty of Nyale and their bodies are green and flexible, it means that the following crop will be successful.
Almost immediately after the ritual is done, thousands of people head to the sea armed with nets, bowls or buckets, ready to get a share of the Nyale.
In the past, when only people from the villages in walking distance from the beach participated in the Nyale gathering, the worms were enough to instill a sentiment of abundance. Nowadays, generally people get enough Nyale to use as a spice in the food they prepare for the celebrations.
The shamans continue their ritual on the beach by invoking the spirits of the ancestors near a particular boulder, by placing betel nuts as offerings on the boulder. In the presence of the ancestral spirits, each shaman is asked by the others if he has performed the rituals in his responsibility in preparation for the Nyale arrival. The Marapu religion is one which requires participation from shamans in the entire area in order for the rituals to be conducted properly. Only after each shaman has completed his rituals, can the Pasola happen.
The shamans do not only predict the future of their communities, but also the present and future state of individuals or small families. They do so by “reading” the intestines of chicken, brought for sacrifice by the person or family who requires the “reading”.
If the intestines contain black or red spots, it is a sign of upcoming disease or death in the family. If they are twisted or crossed by membranes, this may signal stealing or adultery. But if they are straight and firm, this suggests the continuous blessings of the ancestors towards their descendants and the people cand proceed with the celebrations of Nyale and Pasola.
During the renewal festival the men wage war while the women spread peace and make new friends. The girls in the village clean rice in preparation for the Pasola. The night before the Pasola, they cook glutinous rice cakes wrapped in leaves (locally known as “ketupat”) and on the day of the Pasola they give away the ketupat to other women attending, bringing the community together and tightening friendships.
Early in the morning of the Pasola, men hack pigs and dogs and prepare them to be cooked for the feast.
The Rato Nyale (the shaman in charge of the Nyale rituals) of the Wainyapu village performes a ritual horse riding in the middle of the village while the villagers sing once last time the legend of Nyale. This ritual marks the beginning of the Pasola.
After the ritual is complete, the Rato Nyale rides towards the Pasola field, situated near the village, followed by the local riders dressed in traditional attire, riding on decorated horses.
In the old times, before the Dutch colonialism, Pasola was a truely free ritual war, in which nobody was held responsible for the eventual wounds or killings that happen during the fight. Nowadays, because of the increasing numbers of participants and viewers from farther areas, the local authorities send in special troops ready to break the crowd in case of mass fightings which may occur. Even in this case, the shamans still hold the highest authority in beginning and ending the Pasola.
Locals ride during the Pasola in Wainyapu village. Split in two sides, usually villages competing against each other, mounted on horses and armed with wooden spears, the riders launch attacks against each other or in groups, throwing the spears as they approach the enemy.
In the past the spears tended to be more sharp and blood spilling was not a rare sight. During the last decades, the Indonesian government imposed regulations on the event, so that the spears must have blunt ends to prevent injury.
Men try to avoid or catch incoming spears while throwing their spears in order to knock the opponent off his horse, all in the speed of horses running in circles. Volunteers involved in the organization of the event gather the fallen spears and return them to the fighters.
Women cheer for their favorite fighters. Pasola was regarded as an auspicious moment to form new couples, large gatherings like this rarely happening.
Even if the event originates in a much more violent time of Sumba in which horse riding and spear throwing skills represented real assets, these days Pasola is more about demonstrating one's skills in order to gain recognition from the family, community or potential lovers, all in a cheerful atmosphere.
People of all ages and social backgrounds, from farmers to Christian priests, participate and cheer for their favorites in the Pasola.
Copyright © 2019 Alexandra Radu. All rights reserved.
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