Sumba island

Sumba is one of the Lesser Sunda Islands, in eastern Indonesia. To the northwest of Sumba is the island of Sumbawa, to the northeast Flores and to the east is Timor. To the south, across part of the Indian Ocean, is Australia. The largest town on the island is the main port of Waingapu, in the east. Roughly twice the size of Bali, Sumba’s population is only a sixth of Bali’s: less than 700,000 at the 2010 Census.

Historically, Sumba exported sandalwood and was known as Sandalwood Island. Today it is one of the poorer islands of Indonesia; infant mortality is still high and a relatively high percentage of the population still suffers from malaria, although the illness is almost eradicated in the west part of the island.

Sumba is famous for its very detailed hand-woven ikat textiles. The process of dying and weaving is labour-intensive and one ikat can take months to make.

Sumba is one of the few places in the world where megalithic burials are still relative common practice. Burial in megaliths used to be practiced in many parts of the world during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, but has survived to this day in Sumba. Another long-lasting tradition is the sometimes lethal game of pasola, in which teams of often several hundred horse-riders fight with spears.

Sumba’s landscape consists of low limestone hills rather than the steep volcanoes of many Indonesian islands. No lush green covers the landscape, as most of the original forest has been cleared. The north and east of the island are extremely dry and the landscape resembles a savannah. In the central highland hills are covered with alang-alang grass. Hardly anything can be grown here and only in valleys and along river banks small agriculture areas can be found where people plant maize, cassava and other crops and breed Sumba horses, Indian Brahman cows, water buffaloes, pigs and lots of poultry. The south and west are more green and here and there covered with original forest, but only in valleys and on the southern slopes of the mountains. The western side of the island is more fertile and more heavily populated than the east.

Access to water is one of the major challenges in Sumba. During the dry season many streams dry up and villagers must depend on wells for scarce supplies of water. Many villagers on the island still have to travel several kilometres a couple of times a day just to fetch water.

In the past, Sumba had a social system consisting of nobles, peasants, and slaves (Maramba, Kabthu, and Ata). Although today this system is no longer functional, it continues to exist by name and Sumba still has a highly stratified society based on castes, especially in East Sumba. Families who came from nobility still tend to be rich and those who do well still keep their titles. West Sumba is more ethnically diverse.

Until today 25 to 30% of the population in Sumba practices the animist Marapu religion. The remainder are Christian and a small number of Sunni Muslims can be found along the coastal areas.

The Sumbanese traditionally build their houses and villages on hills or mountains, as to be protected from enemies and to be closer to the spirits and ancestors. Traditionally they surround their villages with a stone wall with 2 gates: an entrance and exit. In the middle of the village is a yard with tombs and sacrificial altars (Kateda). The houses with their mostly high, pointed Marapu roofs form a circle around this yard or are arranged in 2 parallel rows.

The traditional houses, called Uma Bokulu or Uma Mban, have a wooden structure of 4 main pillars, representing the cardinal directions, and a few supporting pillars. The main pillars are surrounded with rings made from wood or stone: they symbolize ”Lingga” and ”Yoni”, the sexual aspect of life, and serve as a symbol of fertility. Its practical function is to keep animals such as rats away from the food and seed storage. The fireplace is in the middle of the house and symbolizes the sun. Houses can be up to almost 30 meters high.

The traditional pointed roofs are made of alang-alang grass and in some coastal areas also from the fan-shaped leaves of lontar palm trees. Traditional roofs do not last much longer than 5 years and are increasingly replaced by corrugated tin. The pointed roofs function as a chimney for the fireplace and has a cooling effect as well.

The walls and floors are made of plaited bamboo. Often patterns are woven into the walls. In East Sumba there are also houses with walls made from buffalo skin. Newer houses have walls made from wood and are often painted.

A traditional house has 3 storeys, symbolizing the underworld below the house - where the animals live - the human world - where the living live - and the spiritual world - where the gods and ancestors live, and also cult objects and supplies are stored. According to Marapu belief the storeys represent the harmonious relationship between man and Gods and a traditional house is therefore not just for housing, but also forms a spiritual unit.

Generally the people of one village belong to one clan, although there are cases where 2 clans share one village. These villages then have double names and the living areas of clans within such a village are clearly divided. For every clan (Kabisu) there is a clan house, the Rumah Adat. These are houses where ancestral spirits dwell and cult objects of the clan are kept and are usually in the middle of the village. They are built differently from houses of the living people and are a symbol of the presence of Gods or Marapu in the village and may only be entered with the permission of the clan.

In or near each village you will find the typical Sumba megalithic graves. The megalithic culture in Sumba originated about 4,500 years ago and this tradition is still alive today, and not just amongst supporters of the Marapu faith. A megalithic tomb consists of a large rectangular stone plate over the actual grave, looking similar to an altar. They are either closed, with a grave chamber direct under the plate, or open, with smaller chambers in the ground, each with an individual cover plate. Older grave chambers were carved out of a single large piece of limestone, with a matching cover plate. The different designs and dimensions of individual graves are in accordance with the importance of the family. The material of the cover plates is until today still mostly limestone, weighing often many tons. Grave stones are usually decorated with scenes and sculptures from the life of the deceased and his life after death according to Marapu faith.

The Sumbanese are famous for horse breeding. Horses are an important status symbol and in rural areas they are also still an important means of transportation. Horses are cheaper than motorcycles and most Sumbanese learn to ride a horse as a child. They are excellent riders and like to show their talents at equestrian events and the traditional Pasola.

The most important lesson of the Marapu faith is the belief in the limited life in our world and eternal life after death. Death means that someone goes into the world of spirits, the “heaven of Marapu” - Praing Marapu.

For more about the Marapu faith and photos of a royal funeral ceremony in east Sumba click here (coming soon).

For the most complete reference about Sumba Island: http://www.sumba-information.com/

For this blog post I have used and re-written some of its content, with permission from author Matthias Jungk.  

For a very nice aerial video of the south coast of West Sumba click HERE.

Through this website you can book accommodation in Sumba that might not be available elsewhere: http://www.bedforest.com/en/sumba