Wild horses in Sumba

Horses as Sumba Cultural Identity

Mentioning the word “Sumba”, perhaps would remind us of a horse. Why? Because horse has historical ties with the people of Sumba. Horses have been part of life in the most southern island of Indonesia since the mid of 18th Century, far before the Dutch brought cattles to the island and assigned Sumba as cattle breeding center in 1914.

From the various types of horse in the world, Arabian horse can be considered a forerunner horse that can be found in Sumba today. The horses that generally can be found in the island as well as in other Southeast Asia regions are eastern race origin.

In Sumba, horse is called ndara. Horse isn’t named by the owner since this animal is considered nearly in a same level with the ancestors who rule the universe. The horses of Sumba are described as njapu numa ngara, njapa taki tamo; the unnamed noble. Horse is not just a means of transportation for the people of Sumba. Horse is turangga, the vehicle of life that can’t be separated from the Sumbanese private life.

Moreover, horse is a cultural identity in Sumba that has existed since long time ago. Generally, Sumbanese people prefer raising sandalwood pony which named after the Sandalwood trees as major export of the island. The sandalwood pony is one of the finest in the island of Sumba, partly due to the great amount of Arabian blood. Over 100 years ago, British traders designed a special ship and sent it to Sumba for transporting the horses.

To the people of Sumba, their life is really inseparable from those horses as described in a Sumbanese term bagga ole urra, ndara ole dewa. Horses are used for many purposes; as the most important dowry in wedding ritual, as offerings during funeral ceremony and as the primary means in Pasola festival. Horses also represent the social status of each family.

In funeral ceremony of nobles, it is compulsory to slaughter horses that had been used by the nobles during their lifetime. The slaughtered horses depict the spirit vehicle. The people of Sumba believe that they should ride a horse heading to the afterlife as what they did during lifetime. They believe that everyone who died were always picked up by the ancestors to the afterlife. Therefore, horse slaughter is always considered as a tribute to the deceased.

Moreover, a person may be considered less dignified if there’s no horse slaughtered when he dies. No wonder, almost every family in Sumba has at least one horse. In the past, even there were families that owned more than two horses. There’s a prevailing belief on the island that someone will only obtain recognition from society if he owns many horses.

In Pasola tradition, horse plays important role since Pasola game requires dexterity and spear throwing skills from horseback. If someone is not agile enough to play Pasola, he will easily get injured by others. Even sometimes someone’s life is at stake in this game.

Perhaps, we can say that Pasola in Sumba is the most exciting Jousting Festival where opposing teams run into each other on horseback, saddle-less, throwing blunt spears (called hola) to each other to unseat or hurt their opponents or horses. Fallen men or horses may not be attacked, but any blood flowing is believed to fertilize the soil and benefit the next harvest.


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Image credit: DestinAsian Indonesia