Sumba Megalithic culture, where ancient traditions run deep

Hanging precariously off of the Nusa Tenggara Archipelago like a delicate pendent on a chain,  Sumba is a gem of an island whose remote obscurity seems to have allowed it to escape the very passage of time.  In the heart of the expanding city of Waikabubak on the island of Sumba, clumps of straw can be seen peeking out of fences on the top of a hill. There, people in the village still hold steadfast to their old religion and traditions that have been taught them through the centuries by their ancestors.

 sumba megalithic 2

Sumba is a dynamic mystery. With its rugged undulating savannah and low limestone hills knitted together with more maize and cassava than rice, physically it looks nothing like Indonesia’s volcanic islands to the north. Sprinkled throughout the countryside are hilltop villages with thatched clan houses clustered around megalithic tombs, where villagers claim to be Protestant but still pay homage to their indigenous marapuwith bloody sacrificial rites. Throw in outstanding hand-spun, naturally dyed ikat, and the annual Pasola festival – where bareback horsemen ritualise old tribal conflicts as they battle one another with hand-carved spears – and it’s easy to see that Sumba runs deep. One of the poorest islands in Indonesia, an influx of welcome government investment has brought recent improvements in infrastructure – best seen in Tambolaka, the island’s newest city. And change has trickled down to traditional villages, as well. Thatched roofs are becoming tin, tombs are now made from concrete, traditional dress is increasingly rare, and remote villagers expect larger donations from visitors. Some traditions persist, however. Sumba’s extensive grasslands make it one of Indonesia’s leading horse-breeding islands. Horses still serve as a mode of transport in more rugged regions, they remain a symbol of wealth and status, and can still win a bride.

Sumba was identified for centuries as a source of sandalwood, slaves, and horses as well as a land of cannibal tribes, today is renowned for its sculptured megalithic tombs, war game rituals and intricate textiles. Sumba is approximately 300 km long and 80 wide, the island is divided politically and climatically into two parts. West Sumba is more wealthy half, higher and so lush and green during the rainy season. It is also more culturally varied, with separate linguistic groups. People of West Sumba live in huts with picked roofs. Agricultural communities thrive and ancestral and land worship are still strong. East Sumba is dry and rocky and mountainous, with the highest peak, Wangga Meti, t 1,225 metres. Most of people live in close proximity to or on the coastline, and extensive hand-loom industry has flourished for several centuries, producing characteristic woven ikat. In spite of modernization, the old traditions remain and the social organization in Sumba is ordered according to customary law, the main aim of traditional Sumbanese religion is to maintain a undisturbed relationship with ancestral spirits. The most impressive ceremony on Sumba is the Pasola, a ritual battle with spears featuring hundred of horsemen.

 sumba megalithic 1

The culture is also well preserved. Those who say “time stands still in Sumba” mean it. As Sumba people still faithfully practice their ancestors’ animistic religion and rituals, anthropologists often refer to it as a living megalithic culture that first emerged 4,500 years ago.

Among these, the villages of Tarung and Waitabar should be on your list to visit. Although they have different names, they are in fact connected in one compound and are located in the heart of Waikabubak. Just within minutes from the city center you will be suddenly carried back to ancient times and come face to face with the original Sumba faith from long ago.

The animistic religion is called Merapu and has influenced almost all aspects of the people’s life, from the shape of the house to the funerals. In the Merapu concept, the people believe that they are watched over by their ancestors. The people maintain a harmonious relationship with them through ceremonies conducted by priests, who are seen as direct communicators.

The priests, always male, are seen to be upstanding and honest members of the society. The line to become priests often passes from father to son. The priests must have an excellent memory since Merapu knows no formal written version of its prayers. In all ceremonies, the priests must recite the prayers verbally. Some rituals such as yaigho can last up to 12 hours, so this oral tradition is an art and history in itself.


sumba megalithic 3

Although Sumba islanders have long traded horses, textiles and slaves with the Islamic sultanates to the west, they resisted conversion to either Christianity or Islam until the very last years if the 20th century, remaining loyal to their ancestral religion, the worship of Marapu. Marapu teachings concern the balance of universal life through which happiness can be gained. This balance is symbolized by the Great Mother and Great Father who live in the universe and take the forms of the moon and the sun. In mythology, they are husband and wife who gave birth to the ancestors of the Sumbanese. The Sumbanese believe in temporary life in the world and eternal life in the Doomsday, the world of spirits in Marapu heaven.

While the influence of evangelical churches  is growing in Sumba and reflected in mass conversion ceremonies, many islanders retain their beliefs, which are practiced in secret. These days an estimated 35 percent of the population still adheres to the traditional animist Marapu religion. The other 65 percent claim to be converts to Christianity, but have interestingly woven in many of the traditional religious practices into this conversion. Marapu traditions may not be able to continue as a nationally recognized ‘religion’ but they still live on in many aspects of Sumbanese life.


sumba megalithic 4

Sumba is a vestige of one of the last surviving megalithic cultures on the planet. Despite contact with western cultures, Sumba is one of the few places in the world in which megalithic burials are used as a ‘living tradition’ to inter prominent individuals when they die. Huge blocks of stone weighing up to 20 tons  are cut and dragged great distances to the mortuary ground to construct mausoleums for the rich and the nobility. Some tombs are marked with penji, stone memorials with carved crocodiles, turtles and other sea creatures depicted on them to symbolize a noble birth or  sources of wealth of the deceased.

Funeral ceremonies and burials can be delayed for decades during which the bodies of the deceased are kept in the homes of the living. Failure to perform the necessary rites, including the butchering of large numbers of buffalo, cows, pigs and occasionally horses, and nightly protection rituals at the quarries where the stones are cut, risks a violent reaction from malevolent ancestral forces whose approval is sought through the divining of animal innards. In many cases individuals will put their families into debt extending into future generations in order to build these tomb stones in the traditional manner and carry out the necessary funeral rituals.

Location :

The traditional villages of  Tarung and Waitabar are located on a hill surrounded by large boulders.  They are easy to reach from the city center of Waikabubak, capital of the District of West Sumba. The town is about  one hour ride from the Tambolaka Airport. Garuda Indonesia operates regular flights to Tambolaka from Bali and Jakarta.

 sumba megalithic

Getting to Sumba can be a challenge for even the seasoned traveler.  But when you are traveling with us, all the tough stuff is done for you.  All that’s left is for you to explore and soak it in for yourself.   Come and experience the Soul of  Sumba for yourself: For further trip arrangements, white our reservation at

One thought on “Sumba Megalithic culture, where ancient traditions run deep

  1. Pingback: Thousands Of Remarkable Megaliths On The Sumba Island | Ancient Pages

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.