Gado Gado International

Sumba: History and Religion

Posted in Culture and History by gadogadointl on March 14, 2009

by Tyler Keeley

Gado Gado collects antiques and relics from multiple Asian areas, but none as intriguing as the Lesser Sunda region of Indonesia. Travel to the southeast end of the chain to find the islands of Sumba and Timor.

The majority of the indigenous people there still carry the belief system of their ancestors, practicing the rituals passed down by their parents. These beliefs play a large role culturally and socially, reflected in the carvings of stone and wood that populate the native settlements.

General map of Indonesia. Sumba and Timor are located in Eastern Indonesia

General map of Indonesia. Sumba and Timor are located in Eastern Indonesia

Sumba is a hilly, arid island with a population of about 400,000. The eastern half of the island boasts a general cultural and linguistic uniformity, while the western region is home to about a dozen separate ethnic groups. The fragile economy of the east is supported by exports of cattle and textiles, whereas the west is dependent on cash crops including coffee and cloves.

Mountainous area of Sumba.

Mountainous area of Sumba.

Three-fourths of Sumba’s population adhere to the Marapu religion, which centers on worshiping ancestors, local tutelary deities, and various other minor spirits. This is accomplished through a system of prayers, fasting, and sacrifices.

When a death occurs in the village, the artists from Sumba are charged with the task of inscribing images on stone as a visual recording of the person’s pageantry, and mourning which follows. The iconography carved into tombs refers directly to both the visible participants, like slaves and sacrificed animals, as well as the invisible ones, like ancestral spirits.

Sumba Stone Ancestor Figure, Three Angles

Sumba Stone Ancestor Figure, Three Angles

An important and very frequent image is the rider of a horse, a symbol of virility. A tail sticking up is interpreted as very strong, encouraging horse trainers to break their horse’s tail bone, forcing it to re-grow upwards. Moreover, it is the horse which bears its master’s soul into the afterworld.

Sumbanese ikat depicting riders with horses

Sumbanese ikat depicting riders with horses

To be continued in the next installment.

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