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Pasola: The Heart-racing Horse and Harvest Festival of Sumba, Indonesia

  • Cynthia Ord
  • 4 February 2011
Pasola_Festival_Sumba

Wearing traditional headdresses and costumes, Pasola riders excite the crowds with cheers and stunts before facing their opponents on the field. Photo courtesy of Ng Sebastian

The annual Pasola festival is a hallmark of culture on Sumba, one of the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia. Wrapped in legend and of uncertain origin, it is a raucous event that attracts huge crowds of locals and visitors, all drawn to its curious combination of wild celebration and rigid ceremony pulled straight from ancient Indonesian lore.

Blunt Swords and Sharp Horsemanship

The term pasola is derived from the words pa, which means ‘game’, and sola or hola, meaning spear or stick. It actually refers to the equestrian competition that is the climax of the entire harvest Pasola celebration. For thrill-seekers and sports spectators, it is indeed the leading highlight of the festivities, a great confusion of ritual displays full of potent meaning.

In keeping with tradition, Pasola is only for men. Drama and suspense run high as the participants, once assembled, are divided into teams of two, usually determined by clan and region. The games then take place on a Pasola field surrounded by hordes of cheering and chiding onlookers. To begin with, two pairs of horsemen are positioned on opposite sides of the field. On cue, they charge toward each other at full speed, as if at a joust, exercising extreme riding skill on bareback horses and wielding blunt spears. Once the riders are near enough to each other, they propel their bladeless weapons at each other. The crowd watches, breathless.

Sometimes, the face-offs end in bloodshed. Riders fall from their horses and even a blunt sola may leave a wound. The spilt blood, however, is a powerful part of the tradition of this harvest festival. According to legend, drawing blood on Pasola is a necessary step in the cleansing and purification of the fields, thus ensuring a successful harvest for the year to come. Ironically, though, Pasola is about peacekeeping, not violence. The game is thought by some to have been invented as a sort of dispute settlement mechanism, a bellum pacificum or peaceful war through games. For example, it is prohibited to attack or aim a sola at a fallen rider.

The Legend of Pasola: Love Lost, Won and Negotiated

The historical facts surrounding the first celebrations of Pasola are foggy, but the narrative legend of its beginnings lives on in full colour. It is a tale full of variations on the themes of lost death, forbidden love, fraught reunions and a happy ending of settlement and celebration.

One version of the story tells of three brothers from the small village of Waiwuang. The oldest, named Umbu Dula, decides that the three of them must sail east in search of rice; however, they tell the village they will just be away for a few days on a fishing trip. Time passes and the villagers assume the brothers have died.

After the funerals and the passing of time, Rabu Kaba, Umbu Dula’s beautiful wife, falls in love with Teda Gaiparona, a man from nearby Kodi. Their love is prohibited by local Waiwuang custom, so the two elope in Kodi.

Meanwhile, to the amazement of everyone back in the village of Waiwuang, Umba Dula and his two brothers return from their voyage. When Umba Dula asks for his wife, the villagers report that she has been kidnapped by a man from Kodi. An angry mob heads out to rescue the beautiful Rabu Kaba.

Pasola_Festival_Field

To a chorus of roaring applause the Pascola riders thunder onto the playing field on bareback horses, dressed in their clan's costume and carrying blunt spears. Photo courtesy of Ng Sebastian

Umba Dula and his mob find the lovers at the foot of Mount Bodu Hula. Teda Gaiparona and Rabu Kaba cling to each other, unwilling to part. Umba Dula, who is a fair man and a keen negotiator, offers to accept their love, but he insists that Teda pay him the bride price that he paid to Rabu Kaba’s family.

All agree to this arrangement and a big wedding is celebrated in Kodi. The people of Waiwuang are saddened because they have lost the lovely Rabu Kaba, so to liven up their own harvest festival that year, the game of Pasola is invented, symbolising the rivalry between the two regions and the negotiation that kept things friendly between them.

Pasola in 2011

In 2011, the Pasola festival will be celebrated in Sumba beginning on February 24. The event then moves on to other parts of the island, reaching Lamboya, Wanokaka and Wainyapu on different dates.

After having attended four Pasola festivals, Ng Sebastian of Incito Tours, the whl.travel local connection in Komodo and the Lesser Sunda Islands, is pleased to offer a Pasola 2011 tour. He recommends that visitors come at least one day earlier to attend the Nyale ritual in the nearby village. This involves searching on the beach early in the morning of Pasola. A nyale is a sea worm that normally appears on the shore on Pasola day. The number of nyale collected is believed to be a sign of the richness of the farmers’ next harvest season.

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Cynthia Ord

Cynthia Ord discovered the WHL Group while interning with the local partner Outdoor Albania for a summer. She is currently based in her hometown of Denver, Colorado, helping out with The Travel Word newsletter, and planning her next trip. On the side, she writes about the impacts of tourism for her blog, tourism, people and the earth.
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Asia, festivals & events, Indonesia, islands, local knowledge, South-Eastern Asia, whl.travel,

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