Sumba is an island adrift, a castaway from the modern world. Here, priests predict the fates of sick children through the entrails of slaughtered chickens, colossal megaliths house the dead and headhunting is remembered by the living.
It is also a place that stuns the senses. Soaring and spectacular homes built of bamboo and grass; fascinating rituals untouched by the outside world; endless and empty white beaches. It is a rich travel experience, yet amazingly few tourists make it here. The numbers each year are counted in the hundreds.
Sumba is one of the Lesser Sunda islands of Indonesia. Just an hour by plane from Bali, getting here is easy, moving around is more challenging.
On my first day I travelled by motorbike. It’s hard going. Some roads are good, most aren’t, many are just rough tracks. Finding traditional villages without basic Indonesian is almost impossible. The island has five other languages, not mere dialects. A guide is crucial …….and can save your neck.
Ratenggarro in the Kodi region is the most amazing example of a traditional Sumbanese village. The homes are towering pinnacles rising almost vertically up to the sky. Ratenggaro’s position is breathtaking. The settlement stands above a tidal inlet and the wild waves of the Indian Ocean. To its east and west are glorious but deserted beaches. Most villages were built with defence in mind.
Arrival in a Sumbanese village is a surreal experience. A journey back in time. Some children scream and wave others stand in mummified silence, slack-jawed by the rarest of sights, a western tourist.
The adults are cautious and unwelcoming, even with a guide from the region. Gifts of betel nuts, a Sumbanese favourite, are handed over to the village elder along with a few cigarettes and a little cash. Slowly, in every village, the atmosphere eased and the people became friendly and inquisitive.
Their homes are built on three levels, animals on the ground floor, humans the next and finally the Marapu, or ancestral spirits, in the cathedral like spires.
Marapu is the island’s ancient religious belief system. It is fundamental to the way they live. Ratos, village priests, read signs through dead animals or by talking to rocks. Some innocuous stones are at the heart of Marapu beliefs. Standing on these can have serious consequences. The spirits sometimes occupy corners of the buildings. Venturing too close is also not a trivial event.
(More on them in the next blog).
The houses are based around four pillars of wood, each intricately carved. Status symbols of buffalo horns and the jaw bones of pigs line some walls.
The homes and the lives of the villagers are defined by the dark. Little light penetrates the bamboo walls. In the centre of the houses are open fireplaces for cooking. The smell of smoke infects everything. Bedrooms are small, semi-partioned with a basic rush mat on the uneven bamboo floors for sleeping. Food and water are often short and government aid is crucial. Malnutrition and malaria are both fatal here. It is Bronze Age living.
Outside the homes are the megaliths. Mammoth rocks weighing many tons which are mausoleums for the dead, new and old. Each carries carvings of spiritual symbols. In ancient days when members of the royal families died servants would be sacrificed as well to continue their roles in the afterlife. They are immense and it is not uncommon for more than a hundred men to be required to haul them into position.
Villages also feature an andung, ceremonial trees where the heads of enemies were hung. Headhunting officially ceased about 50 years ago, although some darkly suggest 30 years is more accurate. Violence between clans does still erupt and can be fierce. Just over a decade ago 3000 men stormed one town in a dispute and dozens of people died horrific deaths.
In traditional areas most Sumbanese men still carry long sword-like knives. Essentially for working in crop fields they are also lethal weapons. Arguments which end in extreme violence do still happen. Land disputes are a particular problem. But for tourists Sumba is safe. Beyond that is is also a unique place that offers a window into a distant past.