Living megalithic culture in Sumba

Located in the eastern part of Indonesia, Sumba Island is indeed hard to reach. However, the secluded location has its own advantages. Its nature has not been spoiled, at least for now, despite the fact that the island is home to one of the most luxurious surfing resorts in the world. The culture is also well preserved. Those who say "time stands still in Sumba" mean it. As Sumba people still faithfully practice their ancestors' animistic religion and rituals, anthropologists often refer to it as a living megalithic culture that first emerged 4,500 years ago. The animistic religion is called Merapu and has influenced almost all aspects of the people’s life, from the shape of the house to the funerals. In the Merapu concept, the people believe that they are watched over by their ancestors. The people maintain a harmonious relationship with them through ceremonies conducted by priests, who are seen as direct communicators. The priests, always male, are seen to be upstanding and honest members of the society. The line to become priests often passes from father to son. The priests must have an excellent memory since Merapu knows no formal written version of its prayers. In all ceremonies, the priests must recite the prayers verbally. Some rituals such as yaigho can last up to 12 hours, so this oral tradition is an art and history in itself. The values of Merapu also appear in the famous Pasola ceremony. It is an annual event that pitches young warriors against each other on the playing field. People come from all over the island, and now the world, to witness this skillful yet brutal tournament. The name is derived from the word hola, which means long wooden stick. The ceremony is held on the western part of the island during the beginning of the rice-planting season around February or March. However, there is no exact date for this ritual. The priest waits for the arrival of small vivid marine worms called nyale on the shores below Lamboya before determining the time of the ritual. The exact date is then decided and announced by the religious leader (rato). Two groups of men from different tribes are chosen to compete in the game, which involves throwing spears at your opponents whilst on horseback. Today, blunt spears are meant to be used. Even though they are not supposed to cause injuries, bloodletting is crucial in this tournament, as it is for so many other parts of this culture. It is believed that blood from the participants and the sacrificed cattle are symbols or fertility and prosperity for the coming crop. The act of sacrifice is tied in with fertility, birth, death and is seen as a portal between the past and future. In Merapu, the bigger the offering, the better. A buffalo is seen to be superior to a chicken. The soil will be doused in the offering’s blood before planting season. Blood can also be used to seal contracts and new business ventures. The offering has another function, as a mean to read someone’s fortune in the forthcoming year. In a funeral, the heart of the offering is used to predict the deceased’s journey into the afterlife. This ritual is conducted prior to wrapping the corpse in ikat fabric, it is then interred in a megalithic tomb. These amazing structures can be seen dotted throughout the dramatic landscape and in villages. The tombs, a magnificent sight to behold, are made from limestone or marble from Tarimbing Beach. The rocks often weigh several tons. It requires another ritual called Tingi Watu, a ceremony to quarry and pull the stones into place.These huge slabs are dragged by hundreds, if not thousands of people, to the final resting place of the deceased. The tombs are also intricately carved with various shapes and symbols to reflect a person’s position in life. Anakalang village is the most famous place to visit these tombs in Sumba. The majority of tombs are found in the west of Sumba and the practice still exists. However, due to its cost there are fewer people who practice it. Every two years a mass marriage is held here among the eerie stones, to coincide with the full moon. Another element central to the Merapu religion is gold. The gold ornaments symbolize the male, while the ikat textiles represent the female. These are exchanged during rituals such as marriages and alliances between families or tribes. Gold is believed to be made from the sun, while the silver is from shooting stars. The most significant objects made of gold for the Sumbanese are mamuli that were used for the elongation of earlobes but are now worn as earrings or as a pendant. Mamuli are kept along with other sacred objects treasured by tribes and are now used to communicate with the ancestors in certain ceremonies.

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