Stick & fight

Pictures by: 
Ariffin Jamar
Report by: 
Azim Azman
Video by: 
Azim Azman

It’s called Pasola - an ancient war game that happens once a year on the remote Indonesian island of Sumba.

Groups of men from rival villages ride bareback on nimble steeds, clad in ceremonial clothes. They ride at breakneck speed, turn on a dime and throw blunted wooden spears at each other.

Besides being a celebration of bravery, athleticism and ultimately, superb horsemanship, it is also a ritual to ask the blessings of the gods for a good harvest for the year.

This spectacle only appeared on the tourist map recently. Little wonder as Sumba – accessible via an hour’s flight in a small propeller plane from Bali or by ferry – is only just now opening up.

Tourism facilities are still in their infancy. Save for one luxurious resort on the southern part of the island, there are no hotel chains and every- thing closes at sunset.

Most toilets are manual-flush affairs – fill your bucket with water.

As we travel to the fight villages of Wainyapu and Ratenggaro, our driver and guide Andra Warakaka, 29, warns us that every Pasola contest ends with a riot.

We laugh a little uneasily. As recently as 40 years ago, the spears used were sharpened to a deadly point. Even blunted, the projectiles carry amazing force.

We arrive at a field slightly larger than a football pitch. Men on horseback start riding out in a circular formation. A rider from one side breaks from the formation and thunders towards his opponents.

An answering charge from the other side. The opponent, streamers of colourful cloth flapping, glides forward on a muscled horse.

They throw their spears at each other before swinging back to their sides.

Often, blood is shed during these contests. But the people of Sumba believe that the blood will make for a bountiful harvest.

As the day progresses, the participants become more rowdy.

Egged on by cheering spectators, the riders ride their steeds harder and throw their metre-long spears more forcefully.

Suddenly it erupts. We see one man repeatedly hitting the ground, face flushed with anger.

The Pasola spears, which were previously aimed solely at the opposing riders, are now being thrown all over the place.

Luckily, the unruly mob of about 100 villagers are dispersed by gun-wielding cops and officials. But some damage has been done. The New Paper on Sunday photographer Ariffin Jamar gets hit in the leg by a stray stick that ricochets off the ground.

A tourist from Sweden receives a direct hit on his chest. “I was absolutely winded when the stick hit me,” says Mr Linus Strandholm, 28.

He and his travel companion Christoffer Kullman, 26, are on a three-month backpacking trip across South-east Asia and had travelled to Sumba for this festival.

“We didn’t think it was going to be this violent but when you’re actually here to witness it, all I can say is that the stories we’ve heard are true!”

There are signs that the local government wants to leverage on this fantastic spectacle and experience to draw more tourists to this sleepy Indonesian isle.

But for now, Sumba and its Pasola remain wild and unadulterated.

The article related to these pictures was first published in The New Paper on Sunday on April 6, 2014.