The following morning at 2 a.m. I found myself on a remote beach beneath a gibbous moon, carried along by a surging sea of humanity. Flashes of torchlight illuminated wide-eyed faces as people poured down steps hewn into a limestone cliff. Fearsome war cries signaled that a fight had broken out, and I surfed the crowd as best I could to get a closer look. This was the Pajura, a boxing festival that is another important precursor to the Pasola. Fighters, their hands wrapped with makeshift boxing gloves of tough plant fiber, moved through the melee, teaming up with others from the same clan, looking for opponents. A referee of sorts materialized and the teams faced off, screaming and hopping up and down until someone made an initial attack. Injuries—bloodied or broken noses, even fractured skulls—are common during the Pajura. It’s not unheard of for fighters to surrep-titiously place stones in their fists under the cover of darkness. When I finally reached it, the fight was in full swing. We couldn’t see much in the moonlight, but dull thuds and vicious shouts filled the air; when a boxer came hurtling toward us and playfully sucker punched the cameraman in the stomach, we decided to beat a retreat.
Just why Sumba evolved such an idiosyncratic culture is not entirely clear, though its relative isolation may have had something to do with it. Unlike the closely knit string of islands—Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, and Flores—to its north, Sumba lies a good 50 kilometers from the nearest landfall. The Sumbanese are of mixed Malay and Melanesian heritage, and while tentatively colonized by the Portuguese and later the Dutch, they have always been fiercely independent, em-broiled in an insular drama of land disputes, clan wars, and struggles between local principalities. No one has ever been that keen on interfering. For a while, the sandalwood forests in eastern Sumba provided a lucrative export, until clear-cutting turned lush monsoon forests into savanna. After that, traders tended to give the island and its headhunt-ing traditions a wide berth.
The trio of shamans lead us down the mountain and on through the village. What began as a tiny group has swelled into a lengthy procession by the time we arrive at Wanukaka Beach. Dawn begins to lift on a crowd that numbers in the thousands, but the ratos sit apart, talking quietly among themselves, resplendent in their feather headdresses and rich ikat sarongs. Finally, two of them rise and walk slowly out into the ocean, picking their way over the rocks. The crowd is hushed, ex-pectant. There have been years when the nyale failed to appear at the ordained time, the worst possible omen for the harvest.
Both ratos return with a handful of fat, bluish worms, and there is an audible ripple of relief as the news spreads. Soon, half the crowd is splashing around in the shallows, scooping up the wriggling worms and stuffing them in jars to be enjoyed as a breakfast delicacy the next morning. There’s no sense in wasting the generous offerings of the spirits. I spot a member of the Weru clan astride his sturdy little pony. “Ayo! Sudah mau mulai Pasolanya,” he shouts as he wheels away and gallops across the sand. Come! The Pasola is about to start.
We stumble blearily to the other end of the beach to find a pitched battle underway between warriors of two rival clans, the Praibakul and Waihura. The riders charge at each other head on, letting their wooden spears fly and then peeling off to the right or left before they get too close. These days, the spears are blunted, but injuries and even deaths still occur. The agility of the horsemen is astonishing—they ride bareback and full tilt, clutching rope halters in one hand, their spears in the other. The best among them duck the enemy projectiles, sometimes even catching them with practiced nonchalance.
But this beachfront battle is just another precursor. As the sun begins to glaze the sand, we head inland to a flat pasture where the main battle is to take place. Police with riot shields press the crowd back as local dignitaries make longwinded speeches, protected from the sun by flowery umbrellas. I surface suddenly from an exhausted swoon to find a hundred horsemen careening across my line of vision and the air thick with spears. Several riders are unhorsed in the initial fray, before things resolve themselves into more ordered sorties.
The sun reaches its zenith and there is no sign of the clashes letting up. Then one of the Praibakul warriors takes a spear to the chest and falls off his horse to a chorus of jeers from the Waihura side. Furious, he picks up a rock and throws it—and suddenly stones rather than spears are arcing across the sky. The police let off a volley of warning shots and the Praibakul clan flees across the river.
“The Wanukaka Pasola always ends like this,” says Rudy Weru, smiling. “Harus kacau,” he adds—There has to be chaos. Yet even this apparently spontaneous outpouring of aggression is ritualized. I realize another aspect to these war games: they are a means of releasing communal tensions that have built up over the course of the year. Back at the Weru compound, someone offers me a plate of dog stew, which I politely refuse, accepting instead some surprisingly tasty sea worms, served raw and mashed. And then I sink helplessly into sleep.