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

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.

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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.

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"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.

Video by Mihai Stanescu

“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.

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