Sea Worms Herald Riotous Game in Indonesia
Big contests commonly generate anticipation and excitement especially when they are the featured event of a traditional festival. In the vast archipelago of Indonesia, while there are all kinds of festivals and contests, there is only one competition that is deemed successful when blood is shed.
To call Pasola a game, a contest or sporting event is an understatement. This celebration for the annual rice harvest is more akin to staged warfare where groups of skilled horsemen from two or more villages compete against each other to settle disputes accumulated over the past year. This wild contest is held each year on Sumba Island, one of several islands in Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands, which include Bali, Lombok, Timor, Sumbawa and Flores. Sola means long wooden stick and pa indicates it’s a game.
There is a lot of mystery surrounding the Pasola Festival since the beginning of this two-day tournament is determined only weeks in advance by the Rato, the spiritual leader of the Sumba people. The Rato waits until a colorful sea worm appears in the sea. Only appearing two days out of the year around the time of a full moon, these sea worms are the embodiment of Nyale, a beautiful sea princess who still plays an important role in the religious beliefs of Sumba islanders. When the spiritual leader confirms the sea worm’s arrival, he gives the green light for the Pasola to begin.
Villagers prepare their handmade wooden spears with a blunt tip to protect their opponents. However, there are still casualties every year, sometimes by accident and sometimes deliberately. Actually, the whole point of this riotous game is a sacrifice to spill blood on the soil to ensure a successful rice harvest. To increase the chances of bloodshed, several boxing matches are organized during Pasola where opponents wrap their hands in sharp grasses to increase the bloodletting.
For outsiders Pasola can be a gory and chaotic event, but for the people of Sumba it’s an important recurring occasion to appease the spirit gods and ensure a plentiful harvest. Where normally your travelers are encouraged to participate in local customs and join in with the locals, this festival is one event where it’s better to be an observer on the sidelines!
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