Stone Tombs and Ancestor Worship …

Ancestor sculpture adorning a stone tomb

Ancestor sculpture adorning a stone tomb

Pristine white sandy beaches, tranquil villages perched on green hills, fertile valleys strewn with sculptured stone tombs, the air filled with sweet smelling sandalwood and proud natives clad in their fine colourful woven costumes, their bodies glisten with fabulous gold ornaments, warmly greeting visitors. This is probably 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 abound with fragrant sandalwood tree is today but shadows of the past. Beautiful landscape with white sandy beaches and a well preserved ancestral tradition, these are the unforgettable images I had when I first came to the island. Sumba, also known as Sandalwood Island (Pulau Cendana) was first mentioned in the sixteenth century by Pigafetta, the travelling companion of Magellan, the Portuguese explorer but it was only in the middle of the nineteenth century when the first European actually settled on the island. The “secret” island was soon to be revealed to the outside world. A flight away from the island of Bali, today the island has become another fabulous get away destination in the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago.

Royal stone tombs, east Sumba

Royal stone tombs, east Sumba

The island has quite a number of sculptured ancestral stone monuments. Megalithic stone monuments in Sumba, despite their resemblance in structure and 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. These traditional ways of burial are still a custom in Sumba, where great festivities and rituals in connection with erecting stone tombs are carried out during the secondary burial.

Carved ancestor figures on stone tomb

Carved ancestor figures on stone tombs

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 (village priest/shaman) 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.

Stone tombs in the village of Pau

Stone tombs in the village of Pau

The most common stone tombs found on the island are dolmens, placed on six or four pillars, like those found in the villages of Rende and Pau. 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.

Stone tombs of the Raja of Rende in the village

Stone tombs of the Raja of Rende

Various shapes inspired from the cock’s feather characterize 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 and in the village of Bondo Maroto, where the stylized feather has a human head. Other variety of West Sumbanese stone sculpture is inspired by the traditional headdress of a nobleman, which has been stylized to fit a standing figure between the two projecting “horns”. Simple carved stone tombs can also be seen in the village of Wainyapu.

Monumental stone tombs on the island of Sumba

Monumental stone tombs 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 daily 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.

Vilage "Rato" performing the full moon rituals during the Nyale ceremony

Village “Rato” performing the full moon rituals during the Nyale ceremony

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.

A village Rato standing in front of a "marapu" spirit house

A village Rato standing in front of a “marapu” spirit house

The island of Sumba may be visited any time during the year, but it is most interesting to come during local festivities such as during the Nyale/Pasola ceremony that takes place around March or April. Stone monuments can be seen everywhere around the island especially in villages located in West Sumba. Interesting sites to explore around Waingapu are the villages of Pau, Rende and Kawangu and around Waikabubak in the western part of the island are villages of Anakalang, Lai Tarung, Waigali, Praegoli, Bondomaroto, Kandoko, Kadengar …

Stone tombs in Sumba

Sculptured stone tombs

Categories: Sumba

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2 replies »

  1. Lovely island . Thank you for sharing. We only know about Bali, these little hidden islands are gems that not advertised.

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