A villager, dressed in traditional attire, rides during the Pasola in the Wanokaka village on the island of Sumba, Indonesia, on March 10, 2018. 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 abundance. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
Animist war game ritual lives on on Indonesian Christian island
A villager, dressed in traditional attire, rides during the Pasola in the Wanokaka village on the island of Sumba, Indonesia, on March 10, 2018. 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 abundance. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
Local rato (shamans) take part at the opening ceremony of the Pasola in Sumba, Indonesia. The date of the Pasola – concomitant with the arrival of the nyale worms – 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 six days after the new moon in March, the nyale will swarm. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
The Sumbanese people live a life in close connection with nature and in the permanent presence of their ancestral spirits. The tall roofs of their houses are 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. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
The night before the Pasola, extended families gather at ancestral graves, which are scattered between houses in Wainyapu village on Sumba, on March 9, 2018. 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 gravestones as offerings. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
The majority of the Sumbanese population observing the Pasola animist rituals are Christian, so elements of Christian worship such as lighting candles at the graves and praying are also present. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
At midnight, groups of rato (shamans) from the inland villages of the Wanokaka region gather and walk in a ritual procession 7 kilometers to the beach at Wanokaka. Shamans from seven villages in the Wanokaka area walked together to the beach on March 7, 2018. They are followed by thousands of people prepared to gather nyale sea worms. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
At sunrise, the shamans interpret the nyale sea worms, to see what the outcome of the future rice crop will be. If nyale are plentiful, and their bodies are green and flexible, it means that the following crop will be successful. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
After the nyale sea worm interpretation ritual is completed, thousands of people head to the sea armed with nets, bowls or buckets, ready to get a share of the nyale. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
In the past, when only people from the villages in walking distance of the beach participated in the nyale gathering, the worms gathered were enough to instill a sentiment of abundance. Nowadays, people only retrieve enough nyale to use as a spice in the food they prepare for the celebrations. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
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 that 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. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
The shamans not only predict the future of their communities, but also the present and future state of individuals or small families. Shamans do so by “reading” the intestines of a chicken, brought for sacrifice by the person or family that requires the “reading.” RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
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 toward their descendants and the people can proceed with the celebrations of nyale and Pasola. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
During the Pasola 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. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
The rato nyale, the shaman in charge of the nyale rituals of the Wainyapu village, performs a ritual horse ride in the middle of the village while the villagers sing the legend of nyale one last time. This ritual marks the beginning of the Pasola. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
After the ritual is complete, the rato nyale rides toward the Pasola field, situated near the village, followed by the local riders dressed in traditional attire on decorated horses. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
Before Dutch colonialism, Pasola was a truly free ritual war, in which no one was held responsible for the eventual wounds or killings that occurred during the fight. Today, because of the increasing numbers of participants and viewers, the local authorities send in special troops ready to break the crowd in case of mass fights. However, the shamans still hold the highest authority in beginning and ending the Pasola. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
A participant throws a spear during Pasola, a ritual war and spear-fighting festival, on the island of Sumba, in central Indonesia, on March 10, 2018. Men throw spears to knock the opponent off his horse. Volunteers retrieve fallen spears and return them to the fighters. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
Originally meant to highlight assets such as horse riding and spear throwing skills, today 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. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
Locals compete during the Pasola war game in Wainyapu village on Sambu island on March 10, 2018. Two opposing sides, usually villages, compete against each other. Participants ride horses and throw wooden spears, attempting to knock opposing riders off their horses. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
In the past, spears were sharp and blood was spilled. In recent decades, the Indonesian government imposed regulations on the event so the spears must have blunt ends to prevent injury. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
People of all ages and social backgrounds, from farmers to Christian priests, participate and cheer for their favorites in the Pasola festival on Sambu, Indonesia, on March 10, 2018. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
Even though the Pasola ritual fight goes on for hours in a frenetic atmosphere, at the end there are no winners or losers and no one is responsible for the eventual wounds or altercations. What is important is participating, representing families and communities and honoring the ancestors at a time of abundance. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu
PULAU SUMBA, Indonesia (RNS) — On the island of Sumba, in central Indonesia, a ritual war game known as Pasola is celebrated annually between villages, and it draws large crowds of all ages.
The Sumbanese people used to live scattered in fortified hilltop villages and got together for celebrations, where brawls broke out often among young men, said cultural anthropologist Istutiah Gunawan.
Pasola was born, Gunawan said, when “the religious leaders regulated the fights into a ritual war in which the eager-to-fight young men would be able to participate.”
The festival has animist origins in the ancestral Marapu religion, and the ritual continues even though the island is predominantly Christian.
The Rev. Robert Ramone, a Sumbanese Catholic priest and founder of the Sumba Cultural House, an association for the preservation of cultural identity, said churches have become more accepting of indigenous traditions, with young clergy now taking part in Marapu ceremonies.
"In the past, the church has been waging a war towards the traditional religion," he said. "This is not the case anymore. Our job as Sumbanese Catholic priests is also to preserve the cultural identity."
The timing of the festival depends on the arrival of the nyale sea worms after their mass spawning and signs such as sea tides and the new moon that groups of shaman known as "rato" watch for.
“The way to know when the Pasola will happen is by observing the moon,” said Oktavianus, cultural representative of the Wainyapu village that hosts one of the biggest Pasola events. “A week after the new moon usually the nyale swarm.”
There are around 10 Pasola events all in all in West Sumba, during February and March, in different villages. In an effort to increase tourism, the dates are now set more than a month in advance with the help of modern forecasting methods.