Untouched white sandy beaches, peaceful villages perched on green hills, and fertile valleys swarming with sculptured stone tombs, these were the breathtaking landscapes of Sumba island. The air filled with sweet smelling sandalwood and proud natives clad in their fine colourful woven costumes, their bodies glistening with beautiful ornaments, warmly greeting visitors.
This was the image seen by the first European who set foot on the island centuries ago. Nothing much has changed since then, except that the island that once abounded with fragrant sandalwood tree is today but shadow of the past. Sumba, known as Sandalwood Island (Pulau Cendana), was first mentioned in the sixteenth century by Pigafetta, the travelling companion of Magellan, the Portuguese explorer. It was only in the middle of the nineteenth century that the first European actually settled on the island. This was when the Dutch began to establish an office for the government. But even prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the neighbouring islands of Flores, Sumbawa and Timor had already trading contacts with Chinese and Arab marchant.
In spite of its position hidden away from trade routes, Sumba was also visited by these traders. The Sumbanese would barter sandalwood and horses for gold, silver, silver and Chinese ceramics which were highly regarded as a precious items by the islanders. In the fourteenth century Javanese chronicles, the Negarakertagma, Sumba was also considered part of the Javanese empire. There is, however, no evidence of its political control, and the Sumbanese regional kingdoms remained independent, only fighting against slave traders which became one of the main trades in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Slave raids were carried out on the island, and Sumbanese were taken as slaves and sold in Flores and Bali. It was due to these incessant raids, that in order to protect themselves, their villages were built on hills and heavily fortified by stone walls.
The Sumbanese call their land Tana Humba, which means the Homeland, and believe their ancestors not only came from the lesser Sunda islands, but also further westward from the Malay peninsula. They came in groups and landed in Tanjung Sasar, northeast of the island. According to their beliefs, in ancient times a stone bridge (Lindi Watu) once connected the island to Bima and Manggarai on the islands of Sumbawa and Flores. But through a natural catastrophe, the bridge was destroyed, and Sumba became separated and isolated from the rest of the islands; The new settlers then went each other their own way after their first landing, and founded their kabisu or clans. Each of these clans began to build up social structures with complexities of rituals in birth, marriage, initiations, and funerary ceremonies. Up till today such traditions are still highly respected. The ancestors, known as marapu, are believed to have brought civilisation to the homeland.
Marapu, according to oral tradition, were the first ancestors who dwell within the eight spheres of heavens (awangu walu ndani) in which these are divided in darkness and light. In the first sphere is believed to be the dwelling place of the all-powerful father and mother (na ina mbulu na ama ndaba) symbolized by the two cosmic energies, the moon (female energy called ina kalada) and the sun (male energy ama kalada). For the Sumbanese the Great Divine Entity or Supreme Being has no name or form. He is usually called according to his nature and is generally known as Ina Ama or na ina mbulu na ama ndaba (the One without name).
According to the myth, eight males (maramba) and eight females (ratu) were born from the divine couple and generated the people of Sumba. The Sumbanese identified their first ancestors as being the children of the moon (ana wula) and the sun (ana ladu), After descending to the lower spheres, they finally settled in the eight level, talora mbidahu mau mundi, bangga bila mau njati ( under the mundi (orange) and teak tree, a flat ground and a bright place) where they remained for some time. On this last heavenly sphere they came to learn all knowledge, and carried out the first ceremonies and rituals that were to be brought down to earth. Soon the marapu decided to come down to Earth, but there was no land only water. Then the marapu conveyed their wish to the Ina Ama, and they were given stones and soil to form the land on the waters. When the land was formed, the marapu came down by ladder made of wood, first to the eastern end of the archipelago, then some sailed to the Lesser Sunda Islands and crossed over from Sumbawa and Flores to settle on the island of Sumba.
Although most of the Sumbanese embraced Christianity since the arrival of European missionaries at the end of the nineteenth century, animism and the belief in ancestral spirits or marapu still pervade their everyday life. Marapu for the Sumbanese represents either the divine spirits (marapu tau luri) or the ancestor spirits (marapu tau meti) who are venerated and act as messengers to God. They are invoked and consulted during rituals, marriages, birth, death, building of a house, and all important acts in everyday life.
Ancestor spirits are summoned during oracles, which when contacted are believed to empower the shaman or rato with the ability to foretell the future. He would then divine signs that are seen in the liver and entrails of a chicken or a pig. In Sumbanese daily life, the ancestors are always kept informed of the happenings on Earth. Thus, the link between the ancestors and the living becomes of vital importance to each practitioner of the ancient belief. The invisible world symbolized by the marapu is known through its attributes, and believed to enter into objects through invocations recited by the rato. It is common to see marapu altars filled with sacred objects such as stones, wood, coconut leaves, swords, spears. Rituals in connection with ancestors worship in West Sumba are usually carried out in the house, in the village, and areas away from the village.
Each clan , forest, mountain, lake, sea, even trees and animals, are believed to have their own marapu. A popular myth tells how Rambu Pari, while stepping down the heavenly staircase, slipped and fell to Earth. Her body transformed into a rice stalk, and from then she is venerated as the goddess of rice and fertility. The spirits of nature and ancestral spirits are venerated in many forms; they are believed to manifest their presence in the form of carved objects or in sacred body ornaments (mamuli, lamba, tabilu) which are always kept in holy places. In the village of Gallu in west Sumba, a sacred place within the village (natara podu), a closed offering altar is built to house the marapu objects. The house altar, dedicated to the veneration of the ancestors and strictly reserved for the rato, is covered by dried palm leaves (mbumbi kanoru) reaching to the ground and decorated with carved exterior wooden beams (kadu uma). Around the sacred altar surrounded by dolmen-style tombs, is a dancing ground encircled by stones. Inside the thatched-roof house altar are anthropomorphic images of stone and wood, or other objects of the marapu. According to ancient myths, when the first ancestral house was built on the eight heavenly sphere, the roof was covered by human hair taken during head hunting raids. Dried palm leaves symbolically replace human hair.
Traditional Sumbanese houses are built with high truncated pyramidal-shaped roofs (toko uma) rising from five to seven levels, and topped with a projecting wooden beam at both ends. The wooden beams on the roof are believed to be the entrance for the ancestor spirits to enter the house and give blessings to their descendants. Quite a number of important clan houses have beautifully sculpted wooden beams, as those found in the village of Wunga, situated along the cape of Sasar in the northern part of the island. The presence of marapu is omnipresent among the living and the house is also seen as an important place of ancestor worship. The four main wooden posts (pari kalada) supporting the house from its foot to the top, are closely associated with the rituals of ancestor worship. Racks made of rattan and wood hanging from the posts serve as offering altars. The first front post (pari marapu) is where the rato carries out his rituals of divination by invoking the appropriate spirit to guide him into the future. The second front pillar symbolises the female ancestors (marapu loka). While the two other rear pillars, symbolise both the male and the female ancestors (kula ina kula ima) and the spirits of fertility. These main pillars are often carved with geometric designs as can be seen decorating stone monuments.
There are also other rooms with offering altars where sacred objects of the marapu are kept, and it is in these carefully selected corners of the house that the rato make contacts with the spirits (mata marapu) during religious ceremonies. Marapu or worship of the powerful invisible forces is a prevalent element in a megalithic culture, and inseparable in Sumbanese daily life; and as in many sacred architectural forms in Indonesia, the house is not only seen a mere dwelling place, it is regarded as symbol of the cosmos linking the divine world to that of Man.
For the Sumbanese the immaterial and the material worlds are a continuous interaction, and the harmony between the living and the world beyond is kept through rituals and offerings. As the invisible penetrates into the world of the living, so it needs to be identified in the material world. Each of the marapu spirits are given their appropriate attributes as tangible objects, and it is through these objects that they are identified during rituals.
If the house is regarded as a living heavenly altar on Earth, ancestor worship is also common within the village and elsewhere needing blessings from the invisible forces. Small effigies known as katoda are placed in front of houses, at the entrance of a village, and in the rice fields. Katoda may also take the form of simple branches or an undecorated upright stone carefully chosen by the rato when performing specific ritual, the rato will first bless and “cleanse” the stone to be used as the dwelling place of the spirit. He will invoke the spirits of ancestors, through sacred chants to enter the stone. When the spirits are believed to have entered the stone, it is then given offerings of betel and areca nut.
From all the island in the archipelago Sumba, especially the western part part, is perhaps the most interesting with regard to its ancestral culture which is closely related to the megalithic tradition. In spite of the spread of Christianity since the late nineteenth century, the belief in the marapu is still strongly felt in the western part of the island. Erecting stone tombs accompanied by sacrifices continued to be carried out until recently.
The study of megalithic cultures in Southeast Asia since the beginning of the century has given rise to many theories by scholars. These range from imaginative theories, unfortunately lacking in actual facts, of Perry, Rivers and Smith, who speculated the megaliths of similar structures came from one culture, and those found in Indonesia and the Pacific had been built by the Egyptians bringing with them the cult of the sun worship, to a more plausible theory of Migration suggested by Robert von Heine-Geldern. (Perry W.J. The Megalithic Culture of Indonesia, University Press 1918, Rivers W.H. Sun Cult and Megaliths of Oceania 1913, Smith G.E. The influence of ancient Egyptian Civilization in the East and America. Manchester 1916). According to Heine-Geldern the megaliths are connected with life after death, and the building of stone monuments is meant to protect the soul during the journey to the nether world.
His comparative study of Asian and European cultures having similar beliefs, brought him to conclude they both originated in the Mediterranean region. Furthermore, he concluded that they came to Indonesia in several waves of migrations; the older megalithic that appeared between 2500 and 1500 BC bringing the tradition of erecting stone monuments, and the later megalithic which also came in waves during the Dongson period and the Early Metal Age.
(Hein-Geldern R., Prehistoric research in the Netherlands Indies, in Science and scientist in the Netherlands Indies, New York 1946). His further research on the spreading of ancient western cultures to the east begins with the Great Migration which took place around the eight century BC in the eastern part of central Europe and the northern Balkan States along the Black or Pontic Sea. The wanderers went eastward towards China, and divided in several groups and spread aver to East Asia, the Ordos country, along the Yangtze tributaries, while another branch reached Yunnan and mingled with the inhabitants. Both western and eastern stylistic traditions blended and shaped the Dongson culture. They show more affinity to the Bronze Age of Europe than to the late Chou culture of China.
The Dongson culture spread southward to the Indonesian archipelago. (Heine-Geldern R. As tocharerproblem und die pontische wanderung, Saeculum II pp.225-226. 1951). It is interesting to find that certain motifs from this culture can be seen in many Indonesian designs. Ethno-archaeology is one of the methods which is used to determine the origins of ancient statues of a megalithic nature. By either using ethnographic data then comparing it to archaeological finds, it is possible to determine the origins of these ancient cultures. Over the centuries waves of foreign influences could interweave with an already existing culture in Indonesia. Especially on the island of Sumba, foreign elements could have been adopted and adapted to the environment, and what appeared may be called the megalithic tradition, which has persisted till this day. We still do not know much about the origins of the megaliths in Indonesia and their possible dates, but perhaps studying the living megalithic cultures around the archipelago may shed light on the mysteries of these stone builders.
Megalithic stone monuments in Sumba, despite their resemblance in structure an form, are quite different from their predecessors, the ancient European megaliths that flourished at the beginning of the Bronze Age. While they are still being erected to this day, no stone monuments in Sumba date as far back as the Metal Age. The oldest would probably date back only to the late nineteenth or the beginning of the twentieth century. The only archaeological finds discovered on the island so far are the urn fields of Melolo in East Sumba, which date back to the early Metal Age. That discovery also shows a secondary burial custom, only the skull and some bones are placed in the burial urn (Van Heekeren H.R. “The Urn Cemetery at Melolo, East Sumba” in Berita Dinas Purbakala, pp 2-24, 1956) Primary and secondary burial is still a custom in Sumba, where great festivities and rituals in connection with erecting stone tombs are carried out during the secondary burial.
Lavish funerals with all its rituals are a necessity for a Sumbanese, as they believe that the soul still lingers around the living during his primary burial, and only through an appropriate rite by the family through a second and final burial can the deceased be guided to the land of the spirits (paraing marapu). In East Sumba during the primary burial, the dead is placed in a coffin kept in a special house for the dead, and guarded by male and female servants (papangga). The length of time before the secondary burial may vary from one to ten years. The bones are then taken and placed in the stone tomb. In West Sumba, the custom of burying the dead is similar, only some of the rituals are carried out differently such as the shorter length of time given to the primary burial, in which it only takes one to several weeks; When a noble (maramba) dies, he is richly dressed, covered with magnificent textiles, placed in a squatting position, and gold pieces and jewellery cover his eyes, mouth and chest. He is then buried in front of the house awaiting for his secondary burial. For a woman, her body faces East, and for a man is placed facing West, looking towards the hills, the direction of the ancestors. In East Sumba, several papanggas watch over the body while reciting sacred chants (lii marapu).
The secondary burial is when the stone monuments are erected to cover the dead, which is followed by sacrifices of animals and great festivities. Nowadays funerals can be quite expensive as it may take killing hundreds of pigs, horses, and water buffaloes. The more animals that are sacrificed the more respect that is given to the dead, who can finally rest in peace in the world of the ancestors. The dead is then carried to the grave and placed inside the stone tomb. A male cock is sacrificed so that it may awaken the soul to get ready to start the journey to the land of the dead. A horse is usually sacrificed, as the soul is believed to accompany the dead during his trip to the paraing marapu (land of the dead). Human sacrifices were once a common custom among Sumbanese during burial ceremonies. A servant or slave may be put to death following the death of his master as his soul was believed to serve him in the afterlife. Similar practices of human sacrifice connected to magical rites are also found among the peoples of Nias and the Batak of Sumatra.
Tombs of royal families or noblemen could well resemble a treasure chest, and it is quite often that they become targets for robbers seeking for precious objects. Among kingly burials, the corpse may be covered with splendid ikat cloths and offering of betel and areca nut. The preparation of the stone tombs itself is quite impressive and may take several years before it is ready for use. The stone is transported from the quarries to the selected place, dragged by hundreds of men accompanied by a rato. The stone for the dolmen is placed onto a specially made trailer made of wood and coconut trunks attached to ropes. The quarries where the stones are taken are located along the southeast coast, especially those found in Tarimbang, situated in the eastern part of the island, are very much favoured for their quality. The cost of buying the stone may take as many as twenty-five horses and water buffaloes. Sometimes a used stone from an old tomb is reused, as was the case of the grave belonging to Umbu Nggaba Haumara from the village of Pau Umebara, East Sumba, who was buried in 1983. The stone was offered by the palai Maramba family and was happily accepted by Umbu Nggiku, chief of the kabihu watu pelitu (clan) of Umalulu.
Prior to the stone dragging, the rato gather to perform a ritual for choosing the right date for the ceremony. A pig and a cock are sacrificed, and by observing their entrails the rato look up the right moment to perform the ceremony. The day is set and the dragging of the stones follows after praying to the ancestors. Depending on the size of the stone, it may take as many as hundreds of people to drag it to its proper place. While the people drag the stone, a rato encourages them by chanting sacred songs and sounding gongs throughout the journey. Once the stone arrives at the village, it is welcomed with great feasting and dances. The Sumbanese consider the stone to be the dwelling place of the spirits in the paraing marapu. It is also believed to be the incarnation of the Ndewa Watu Parawihi, the god of stone, who handed down the tradition of using stone to bury their dead.
There are many types of tomb structures found both in East and West Sumba. In his article, R.P. Soejono has given quite a helpful insight into the different burial methods in Indonesia (Soejono R.P., “On Prehistoric Burial Methods in Indonesia”, in Bulletin of the Archaeological Institute of Indonesia N°7, 1969). The Sumbanese adopted the sarcophagus and the dolmen method of burial which date from the Early Metal Age. The stone tomb consists of a horizontal dolmen structure (reti) and a menhir (penji) close to it, or placed on top of the grave. They are erected as memorials to the dead. For nobles, elaborately sculpted stone tombs are signs of their hierarchical social status as rulers, through symbolic images carved on the upright stone menhir. They are also regarded as symbolising the image of the ancestor. There are basically three types of stylised menhir found in East Sumba: those that are undecorated, destined for the common graves; those with anthropomorphic motif; and those having the form of a sword.
The most common stone tombs found on the island are dolmens, placed on six or four pillars, like those found in the village of Rende. The biggest having high pillars belong to the ruling chiefs, and those with medium and shorter pillars belong to the ruling chief’s family, his attendants and people of the village. The gravestone consists of two parts. The lower part decorated with a carved crocodile and turtle is where the body is buried. The upper part is the dolmen placed on four pillars, embellished with a sculpted head of water buffalo, symbol of nobility and wealth, flanked by a series of anthropomorphic figures carved in relief. Two carved stylised menhir are placed on top of the dolmen. The penji is in the form of a female figure topped with a carved bird; the sides are carved with gongs, zoomorphic and decorative spiral motifs. Similar sculpture on penji representing a rider on horseback can also be seen decorating the modern style grave in the form of a painted house of the Raja Lewa Kambera in the village of Parai Liu Kawangu.
The horse rider as an image can be seen decorating many stone tombs in Sumba. During the secondary burial and placing of the dead of the stone tombs, the horse of the dead is often sacrificed, as it is believed that it’s soul will accompany the dead in making his journey to the land of the marapu. A similar image is found on the ancient tombs in Bosnia, where the horse symbol is connected with the worship of the dead (Dr. Kunst J., “Cultural relations between the Balkans and Indonesia” in KITLV Mededeling N° CVII afdeling Culturele en Physische Anthropologie N° 47, 1954).
It should also be noted that horses can be found in great abundance on the island and it is part of the social symbol of wealth. The crocodiles embellishing the sides are royal symbols of the courage and bravery of kings. More anthropomorphic figures are seen on top of the grave of Raja Lewa Kambera, symbolising the guardian of the soul. Some figures were once topped with a cock figure, which today has disappeared. The grave itself is of the old dolmen style, built on short stone pillars.
Impressive relief on stone penji is another characteristic of East Sumbanese style, where images of the ruler’spower are clearly depicted, as those found on the stone monuments of the nobles of Pau Umabara in the district of Rende Umalulu. In front of chief Umbu Nggiku’s house is a complex of stone monuments consisting of four pillared dolmen with carved penji.
Among the motifs are the crocodile, a symbol of courage and bravery, and the turtle a symbol of dignity and wisdom , the cock symbol of wisdom, gold objects, and a scene of a chief with his attendants. Another penji depicts a figure of a man placed on top of the dolmen. Sword-like penji are also seen in East Sumba, like those in the village of Kaliuda depicting images of animals and geometric motifs. In modern days the Sumbanese are still burying their dead in dolmen like tombs, with modern decorations and structures. As can be seen in the village of Kaliuda, where the tomb has a shape in the style of a Javanese “pendope” house decorated with traditional images of the dead, or even simple house structure decorated with ikat weaving motif. Sometimes elaborate forms and styles reveal a blend of Christianity and animistic beliefs.
In comparison with East Sumba, the western part of the island remained traditional in their belief and practices, in spite of the spread of Christianity. Europeans first came to East Sumba as early as the nineteenth century, and this part of the island was quite exposed to foreign influence leaving West Sumba somehow untouched till recently. In these regions we find quite a number of villages encircled by stone tombs. Unfortunately, many of the carvings have disappeared leaving mostly the dolmen, and those still intact are guarded strictly by the villagers. One of the most impressive sights when entering West Sumba is the region of Anakalang, where stone tombs abound the hill above the village of Pasunga. Lai Tarung has perhaps one of the oldest remaining stone tombs; most are simple undecorated dolmen structures with a sarcophagus type chamber where the dead are buried. Along the cemetery ground are carved menhir stylistically different than those found in the east, in the form of a stylised cock’s feather decorated with the gold objects motif (wula, lamba, marangga). In former times there was an anthropomorphic sitting on a water buffalo’s head. On the same site is a more intact human figure sitting on a stylised cock’s feather decorated with geometric designs.
In the village of Anakalang Pasunga stands the most decorative grave of the village ruler and his family. The upright stone carving depicts a free standing couple in a finely sculptured niche decorated with geometric motifs and mamuli motif. The lower part is carved with animal motif, gold objects and gongs. The grave itself is fully decorated with hatched triangles and a meander designs, which, could have their origins from the Dongson culture. Some dolmen shape tombs are often embellished with decorative motifs showing symbolic objects of the marapu, anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and geometric designs. These designs depicting social rank of the dead are normally seen decorating the sides of the horizontal stone. They are represented by horizontal bands with meander motifs and vertical bands of geometric patterns. Sometimes the vertical bands are given symbolic images like the gold head ornament (lamba) and the stylised cock’s feather used as a motif on the carved menhir, or other gold ornament like the mamuli and zoomorphic images.
More intricate designs unfolding the imaginative work of the Sumbanese artist are seen in one of the largest and heaviest monoliths, weighing over 70 tons, made for Umbu Sawola in the village of Galu Bakul. It is five metres high and took more than a thousand men to haul from the quarry. The upright stone is carved in the shape of a stylised cock’s feather with the upper frame depicting the ruler and his wife, and the lower part decorated with a relief pattern forming geometric designs and the mamuli.
Various shapes inspired from the cock’s feather characterise the stylistic diversity of West Sumbanese sculptured stone tombs. The ancient undecorated massive menhir has taken on a more elegant “look” that can be seen in some villages, where they are finely decorated with geometric patterns, and at each end of the feather are circles or gold objects carved in relief. These carvings are seen in the village of Waigalli, similar to that found in Lai Tarung. Another piece of an artistic conception of the Sumbanese megalithic art, is seen in Prai Bakul. Unfortunately an anthropomorphic image placed on top of the sculpture has disappeared, but is in place in the village of Praegoli. Another style of these images of the dead is seen in the village of Bondo Maroto, where the stylised feather has a human head; next to it is a sculpture of a horse. Another variety of West Sumbanese stone sculpture is inspired by the traditional headdress of a nobleman, which has been stylised to fit a standing figure between the two projecting “horns”. Simple carved stone tombs can also be seen in the village of Wainyapu.
Just as in the east, sword-like upright stones are sometimes seen as symbolising a head of a cock; western Sumbanese styles are richly ornamented with symbolic images. Such forms have also been discovered in West Sumatra (“Laporan Penelitian Tradisi Megalitik di Kabupaten Lima Puluh Koto Propinsi Sumatra Barat” in Tim peneliti Tradisi Megalitik Sumatra Barat, Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional 1984). From a simple undecorated form to a more elaborate and decorative structure, depicting symbolic images of nobility. In the villages of Kandoko and Praegoli, standing upright curved stone monuments depict two rows of stylised head ornaments of a chief, carved in relief with ornamental designs, and zoomorphic figures climbing on the outer sides.
Dolmen structures are also of a variety of styles, less elaborate than the upright free-standing stone, but it is interesting to notice the differences. The flat horizontal dolmen may be topped by another sarcophagi-style structure where the dead is also placed. Sometimes two or three bodies are fitted inside these structures, like that found in the village of Anakalang. Several pyramidal shapestones are arranged on top of one another in the village of Anakalang, where the bodies of the ruler and his wife are placed inside the dolmen. A hole has been prepared to place the bodies, with the walls being 4 metres high and 8 metres long. The rest of the family are buried in the ground underneath the dolmen. Another style of West Sumbanese stone tomb resembles a carved house with two ancestor images placed at each end of the roof, or a simple dolmen with stones covering the sides forming the sarcophagus. An undecorated horizontal stone slab covering a small coffin like structure destined for the inhabitants, is what we see most usually in the west. Stone tombs are everywhere in these part of the island. Sometimes when they are not grouped within the village, they are scattered outside, like that found along the beach of Ratengaro. A common dolmen grave on which are carved relief symbols and images of the dead: the gong, horse, the mamuli, and the inscription of the dead man, who was a priest.
Like in the eastern part, modern grave stones is a common sight in some villages. Often they are devoid of the elaborately carved upright-standing monument, and instead the decoration can be seen on the front side of the tomb depicting symbolic images, or just a cross, reflecting the syncretisation of Christianity and ancestral belief.
Tips: The island of Sumba situated in the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago may be visited any time during the year, but it is most interesting to come during local festivities such as the Pasola ceremony that takes place around March or April. Stone monuments can be seen everywhere around the islands especially in villages located in West Sumba. Daily flights from Denpasar Bali takes you to Waingapu in East Sumba, where from there you may want to explore the island as far as Waikabubak, in West Sumba. Interesting sites to visit around Waingapu are the villages of Pau, Rende and Kawangu. There are several interesting places around Waikabubak, among them are the villages of Anakalang, Lai Tarung, Waigali, Praegoli and Kandoko.
By Kalpana Kartik, Published in Arts of Asia 1999, posted with permission