In an untamed corner of eastern Indonesia, where shamans and sea worms dictate the cycles of ritual life and horsemen do battle on sunbaked fields, a laid-back beach resort has forged a close-knit relationship with its community—and set the standard for tourism development on the remarkable island of Sumba
Photographs by James Morgan
High above a moonlit valley on the southwest coast of Sumba, three ratos (shaman priests) sit cross-legged on a great burial stone. One of them murmurs incantations as he absently stirs a gourd full of pungent betel. At some preordained moment, all three begin a slow ululation that gradually fades into the predawn silence. Their voices seem to echo back from the far side of the valley, but then I realize that the chant has been taken up by other holy men in the villages below us. They are summoning the nyale, sea worms that, as manifestations of a sea goddess of the same name, are augurs of the year ahead. The ratos rise and begin walking down toward the ocean, unaccountably sure-footed in the darkness. I stumble after them, feeling every one of the 72 hours that I’ve been awake.
The people of Sumba, a Jamaica-size island in eastern Indonesia, are as adept at divination as they are at the age-old ritual of sacrifice. They read signs in the eviscerated entrails of chickens; they butcher water buffalo and horses so that the dead are provided for in the afterlife. And they shed each other’s blood in ritual battles with just as much gusto. Theirs is one of the last megalithic cultures on earth, the dead residing among the living in giant tombs etched with esoteric symbols. Though Christianity has been widely adopted, the animistic Marapu belief system continues to thrive alongside it as one of the world’s last animist religions. Yet this tropical backwater is being touted by many as the future jewel of Indonesian tourism. Some are even calling it the next Bali.
“I sincerely hope not!” The sardonic ring in Claude Graves voice was clear even over a dodgy Skype connection. Sumba was still a week away and I was sitting hunkered over my laptop as London slowly froze over. “I’m hoping things will be much more sustainable in Sumba; luxury tourism done properly, in line with the island’s environmental and social makeup.”
A bold vision, perhaps—but then this is a guy who chose a remote (even by Sumba standards) stretch of shoreline to build Nihiwatu, today among the most singular boutique resorts in the world with a string of industry accolades to its name. Graves, a lanky American who washed up on Sumba in 1988, is also the reason I now find myself blundering down a mountainside behind a trio of woo-wooing shamans, a wad of betel leaves tucked in my cheek to stave off sleep. Few outsiders get to witness this rite, and it is only Graves’s good standing with the community that has made my tagging along possible. I’ve come here with a small film crew to document a remarkable ritual cycle that will culminate in a few hours’ time when hundreds of warriors charge at each other on horseback, hurling spears with grievous intent in a bloody battle known as the Pasola. Graves has also hooked us up with the Weru family, one of the more influential clans in West Sumba, through his close friend and associate Rudy Weru.
Our first four days were spent in the pretty village of Wanukaka, immersing ourselves in the buildup to the battle. This included an audience with Wanukaka’s most revered holy man, Rato Danguduka. He lives, appropriately, on top of a mountain. And he looks the part, too. One side of his wizened face is covered in a smoky birthmark; electric-blue rings encircle his irises. If anyone could explain the Pasola to me, it would be him.
“It is for the harvest,” the old man intoned with poetic formality in the local dialect. “When the warriors go into battle, the community is hungry. They fight so that the rice will be bountiful. Therefore the fight is a good one.” Good, so long as someone gets hurt. What he’s basically talking about is a blood libation—an offering to the earth to make it fertile. On Sumba, it always comes back to blood.