Written by David Metcalf
Sumba is an island synonymous with sandalwood and slaves, mystic stones and weaving. Its history dates back as far as 4,500 years. Towering megalithic stones stand tall against the deep blue skies beside clusters of traditional thatched huts with pointed roofs aligned towards the heavens. The shape of the Sumbanese huts, along with local traditional festivals and elaborate funeral rites, are influenced by the Sumbanese animistic religion called Merapu.
I met an elder from Tarung village, who told me, “We believe in Merapu. We honour our ancestors with ancient prayers that have been recited for centuries. We have no written versions of our prayers. Our priests have very good memories. Some of our Merapu ceremonies can last up to 12 hours. Can you imagine that? Our spiritual beliefs are carried through our oral language”.
I noticed a few people rubbing noses, in a way reminiscent of the traditional New Zealand Maori. I asked about it and was told by the elder, “We only rub noses with people we have not seen for a long time. It is only within the family, so don’t go rubbing noses when you meet people. We tuck our lower lip inside, and we just have the upper lip on the outside,” he explained, as he demonstrated. “Also, when we wish to express deep sympathy or express sorrow, we touch the forehead. We express ourselves this way during formalities, and it is seen as a thank you or a welcome. We have been doing this for centuries and my father, who was told by his Grandfather, has told it to me and so it goes. Please enjoy the gesture and if you are welcomed this way by a tribal member, please return the nose rub, but there no need to initiate it, that would be strange. I like explaining our ways to tourists. So, shall we,” he gestured, and I happily returned my first Sumba nose-rub with this delightful elder.
Sumba is known as one of the last surviving megalithic cultures on the planet. Even now, megalithic burials are conducted for the rich and nobility. Large stone blocks, which can weigh up to 20 tons are carried over great distances to construct mausoleums. Beautiful carvings are etched into the cut stone and depending on the wealth of the deceased, carved crocodiles and sea creatures including turtles, symbolize the nobility of the deceased.
Similar to the customs of the people from Toraja, the bodies can lay in houses for years while finances are accumulated to honour the deceased. These funerals can be hugely expensive. They require the sacrifice of buffalos, cows, pigs and sometimes horses. Building a stone tomb involves quarry labour, nightly guard duties and protection rituals. These rituals are carried out to placate any malevolent ancestral forces. Approval is sought from the ancestors and innards of sacrificed animals are presented throughout the process.
Sumba has a mostly Christian population, around 65%, with around 35% of the population being Merapu and a very small number are Sunni Muslims. Many Christian Sumba people blend their faith with animistic religious practices. The culture is very strong and well preserved. If you want to see the culture, visit the two connecting villages of Tarung and Waitaba. It is only a short drive from Waikabubak, the main town, and here you can touch, see and feel the history of these very proud people.
Ancestors are of central importance to those who honour Merapu, and the priests are seen as the pivotal link to their spirits. Only men can be priests, and the priest-lines can be either father to son or the title can be given to those who show strong aptitude to embrace the responsibility of passing down the oral history from one generation to another. It is through these song-lines that the history is preserved.
Another aspect of Sumba culture is that of the woven threads of cultural life that take the shape of an ikat. An ikat is one of the most historically ancient forms of textile and Sumba is renown for producing the highest quality of textile designs reigning supreme over Flores and Timor.
An ikat is a piece of art. The beauty of the hand-spun naturally dyed fabric can be seen as a work in progress in many of the traditional villages dotted throughout Sumba. These weaving villages are mostly found in the East and Southeast of the island. Ikats have been woven for centuries and initially they were used as traditional garments for daily use. They also have a ritual value and are exchanged at weddings. Many of the Merapu ceremonies incorporate the use of an ikat as a shroud. Even in death, the ikat is used and depending on their status, people are wrapped one or several ikats.
Each village has its own ikat pattern, and museum collectors travel from far corners of the world to procure these fine pieces of hand woven cloth. In West Sumba, the patterns are mostly geometric design and in the east the patterns reveal village scenes, animal and creatures from mythical stories.
The beautiful soft clacking sounds of the wooden looms rise from villages spread across Sumba’s expansive grasslands and complement the rugged beauty edged along the coastline. Sumba awaits the curious traveller who searches out heritage untouched in a culture that runs deep.
Regular flights operate from Bali and Jakarta to Tambolaka
Tarung and Waitabar traditional villages – located within easy reach from the city center of Waikabubak, the capital of the District of West Sumba. Tambolaka Airport – Waikabubak – 1-hour drive.
Tour Guide – Windy
T: +62 813 3821 6319