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The People and their Culture

Sumba is the only island of Indonesia where a majority of the population still follows the ways of their ancestors. To witness the culture and know its people is like looking through a window long into the past.

On Sumba, faith in the old traditions is very strong. National Geographic, The Discovery Channel, among many other media sources, have featured programs and articles on the huge megalithic gravesites, unusual peaked bamboo and thatch houses, and the beautiful ikat cloths—all which distinguish the traditional and rich cultural of Sumba.

The people have many rituals that are still carried out in the same way their ancestors did thousands of years ago.

The most spectacular is the pre-harvest fertility ritual, the Pasola, a traditional fight with spears featuring hundreds of horsemen. It is a wild and martial event, taking place in designated open areas on the rolling hills of the island. Serious injuries are common in the Pasola, along with occasional deaths. In fact blood on the ground is necessary for a successful Pasola.

The funerary rituals of Sumba continue to this day. Huge blocks of stone are cut and dragged great distances to the mortuary ground to construct mausoleums for the rich and the nobility. An average sized stone can weigh in the range of six tons and larger stones weigh more than twenty. Until recently, particularly at the funerals of noblemen, literally hundreds of water buffalo, horses, pigs and dogs were slaughtered to accompany the departed soul to the afterlife.

The number of animals dispatched was prestige-enhancing and a sign of one’s socio-economic standing. In Sumba, where the remains of a highly stratified society of nobles, commoners and slaves still exist, it is not uncommon for a family to bankrupt itself to put on a good funeral show.

With occasional success, the government is trying to discourage this practice by limiting the amount of slaughtered animals to five.

The principle tenet of the traditional Sumbanese religion is to maintain a peaceful and fruitful relationship with the Marapu, the ancestral spirits. The living observe the many customary rules, and during all ritual celebrations provide the ancestors with food and wealth. In exchange, the living expect increased fertility and prosperity.

An estimated 35 percent of the population adheres to the traditional animist Marapu religion. The other 65 percent claim to be converts to Christianity, and interestingly have woven many of the traditional religious practices into this conversion.

The social structure of Sumba is organized around the traditional ancestral house and the patrilineal group that claims decent from it. Ancestral houses are the bridge between the visible and invisible worlds must be perpetuated over time as ritual centers.

The ancestral villages are usually built on a defensive height and surrounded by a perimeter wall of stone or a thick cactus hedge. Traditional houses with high peaked roofs are aligned in rows around an open space, which contains rectangular stone graves. Some villages, those that fielded war expeditions, kept a “skull tree” on which were hung the human heads of the enemy victims. 

The Sumbanese were feared headhunters and only formally abandoned the practice less than 30 years ago.  They are proud of their culture and value their traditional way of life and tribal unity. 

Despite all their culture traditions and strong heritage, the Sumbanese people are among the poorest in Indonesia.

In the remote regions of Sumba, outside the two main towns, most of the people live without access to clean water, basic health care and education. Malnutrition is widespread and infant mortality is amongst the highest in the world.

By improving the lives of the population and offering long-term solutions to some of the most pressing challenges they have, without disrupting cultural traditions, The Sumba Foundation believes it can add greatly to the likelihood that current generations can maintain and pass their precious culture on to future generations. Preserving the unique culture of Sumba is a priority.