Blood, Sweat and Cheers

When the worm turns, the spears fly and blood flows in the wildest islands of Indonesia, where headhunting is commonplace and sacrifice appeases the gods who send the sea worms for the magical frenzy of sex in the surf that keeps Sumba safe for another year

By Ron Gluckman / Sumba, Indonesia

AFTER MAKING HIS LONG INCISION, THE PRIEST pushes aside the bloody organs and indicates that I should take a closer look. Feathers fill the air, which smells of death. Voodoo curses come to mind as I gag my refusals and peer into the gaping wound.

Still gripping his bloody knife, the priest screams, and I leap away. My guide chuckles, then translates the priest's incantation. "He says the signs are good. Now the festival begins."

It was only much later, after marching in the moonlight to the sea and splashing in the waves looking for worms, after watching warriors on horseback fight and fall in a rain of bamboo spears, and after the sacrifice of still more chickens and water buffalo, that I gained any insight into what the priest saw in the entrails.

By then, the battles were over and the warriors were licking their wounds. Pasola was proclaimed a big success. Sufficient blood had been spilled to certify another bumper rice harvest. Sumba had been saved.

Such is the cycle of life upon Sumba, where the Pasola fighting festival rages across wild lands that have never been tamed. Sandalwood Island is what the Dutch called Sumba, a small Indonesian isle on the Australian side of Flores and Sumbawa. Sumba supplied slaves - trophies of tribal warfare - as well as wood, but rebuked all attempts at colonization. The Dutch did not manage a presence on the island until the 20th Century.

War is the heart and soul of Sumba. Pasola is a huge jousting free-for-all that takes its name from sola, the word for spear. Pasola is preceded by pajura, boxing contests, while some vilages host competitions in which contestants exchange verbal abuse for hours.

Nobody really knows when Pasola started, or exactly when it will take place each year. Tourism officials in Jakarta and Bali boast of the brilliance of Pasola, then admit they have never seen it. "It's sometime in March. Don't worry. Just get to Bali. They'll know."

Then, he whispered a warning in my ear. "Something about watching the spirits," I told my photographer later. "He also mentioned that we should wait for the worms in the moonlight."

So, we left Bali long before the full moon, and headed east along the necklace of islands that lured the first Chinese migrants down the Indonesian chain thousands of years ago. A crowd of barkers waited outside the airport in Waingapu, when we landed in East Sumba. They offered expensive rides and lodging. And information, all contradictory.

Not that we expected to find much help in East Sumba, which considers itself a separate entity from the other side of the island. Sumba is split down the middle. West Sumba is tropical, Asiatic. The east is tough and dry, the terrain akin to Australia. Each side has its own diverse fauna, wildlife and language, but differences run much deeper. East Sumba has churches, an airport, and Ikat, a woven cloth famed around the world.

Cross Sumba, and you're in the Wild West. Looms never caught on here, but head hunting did. Skull trees sit in the center of Stone Age villages. West Sumbanese hold sacred many things from the past, including animism, animal sacrifice, blood-red betel nut, and Pasola.

Huge gravestones on scenic plateaus mark the final resting place of Pasola's past heroes. "To die in Pasola is the best honour," confides a nearly toothless man who steps out from a bamboo hut on the beach near Wanokaka. For weeks, he says, he has been forced to refrain from fishing. "Taboo," explains my young guide, Philipus Renggi.

In fact, the entire beach is traditionally taboo in the frenzied days before Pasola. There are stories of families being slain by monsters, entire villages wiped out after violating the sanctity of Pasola.

However, the beach bares other prints. Even the priests have been to the shore, sneaking peaks at the elusive nyale. These tiny seaworms are the focus of the festival. Normally, nyale reproduce by budding, but on one day just after the winter full moon, they wash ashore in a frenzy of fornication. The worms are seen as a sign from the gods. Fat nyale mean a rich rice crop. Thin or Brittle nyale can indicate flooding or famine.

Whatever the message, the arrivale of the nyale signals the start of Pasola, Sumba's unique form of jousting. Blood is spilled to appease or placate the gods, whichever way the worm turns. In olden times, fields turned red from the slaughter. Nowadays, bamboo spears are blunted to avoid excessive bloodshed. And there are also referees and Pasola police.

"Pasola has changed. There's been an emphasis on tourism for the past four years," says Patti Seery, an Asian arts enthusiast who spent nine years in Indonesia. "It's a shame, but inevitable. Sumba is so unique. A lot is changing, but not the culture itself."

Indeed, there is a certain precision to present-day Pasola that belies Sumba's dusty roads, thatched huts and bloody rituals. A huge performance is held one pre-Pasola night in Waikabubak, the main town in West Sumba. Scores of animals are sacrificed in the villages.

Long before dawn on the next day, we leave Waikabubak and begin the long journey to the ocean. New pilgrims add to the throngs at every turn. There is chanting, "wu, wu," the call of the worm.

The stars still blink in a black sky when we reach the water. The crowd pauses on the shore, while the priests scratch with sticks in the dirt, seeking signs of the spirits. They chant and sprinkle incense. More chickens are sacrificed.

While the rato (priests) huddle around the remaining chickens, elders light kreteks, pungent clove cigarettes. Old women blissfully chomp narcotic betel nut. We wait. And wait.

After a few hours, a rato pulls up his sarong and scurries into the sea. The crowd stirs. Another rato splashes into the surf and they peer into the waves, then return to shore.

There are three more false alarms before the priests find what they seek in the sea. By now, the sky is streaked with orange light. One rato reaches into the water and pulls up a fistful of what looks like muck. "Worms," Renggi says excitedly. The rato reaches his hand high into the air and the crowd explodes with cheers. At last, Pasola has begun.

We move to a nearby field and watch as riders and mounts slowly arrive. They come in groups of two or three, for an entire hour, until over one hundred ribbon-festooned riders are divided on opposite ends of the field.

Back and forth they pace. Some stop to sharpen bamboo spears on the sly among the rocks. Others adjust ornaments endlessly. Their impatience is palatable. But Pasola moves to an ancient rhythm. First, there are more sacrifices, and incantations. Again, the gods are consulted and, finally, when the signs are right, the spears fly.

A long game of bait and feint begins. Each team tries to lure opponents into vulnerable positions. The action is fierce and tiring. Eventually, courageous or reckless warriors attempt perilous moves. Spears find the mark, and riders fall. One takes a painful puncture in the shoulder. A horse is hit in the thigh.

The crowd screams with blood-thirsty fury. Police use sticks to hold them in line, but the surges are threatening. "Sometimes it ends like a riot," Seery had warned earlier. "The crowds go crazy and start throwing rocks."

The first year the police came to control Sumba's Pasola passion, the worms failed to come in the waves. Priests felt the presence of tourists had ominous overtones. To appease the gods, they decided to sacrifice some tourists. When the police intervened, a full-scale riot ensued and a many people were killed.

"That was a wonderful Pasola," recalls Rato, my driver, with a wide smile. I never find out whether he is serious, because a few moments later, whistles blow, and Pasola is suddenly over. The score is hard to ascertain. "There are no winners or losers," Seery says. "It's not like that. They fight together in a ritual to keep peace."

Nobody has died, but blood has spilled. Placidly, the crowd filters back to the villages.

Two days later, still perplexed by violent Pasola dreams, I wander into an antique shop in Waikabubak and find a book in English, "Sumba, a Unique Culture." Among the maps and spiritual mythology, is a complete guide to reading the signs in sacrificial animals.

Throughout the return flight to Bali, I study the strange diagrams. Once again, an odd congruity slowly takes shape, like out on the field when the spears flew and the sound of hoofs and war yelps filled the air. As I doze off, my dreams are not of sacrifice or blood frenzy, but of a strange peace destined to prevail until the next Pasola.


Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, roaming around the wild parts of Asia for a number of publications, including Discovery, which ran this piece in February 1994. Other stories by the same writer about Pasola appeared in the Eastern Express, the Sydney Morning Herald's Good Weekend Magazine and Mubihah.

The photos on this page, and most of the scanning for this web site, is by David Paul Morris, an American photographer who often travels with Ron Gluckman and should soon have his own web site. Until then, you can see other examples of Mr Morris' by looking at Postcards from The Beach, Urge to Merge, Melbourne Comedy, Hung Le, the Man Who Beat Beijing, Coober Pedy and China Beach.

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