Sumba Tribe

Sumba Tribe


Sumba island has an area of 11,153 km², and the population was officially at 611,422 in 2005. There is a dry season from May to November and a rainy season from December to April. Historically, this island exported sandalwood and was known as Sandalwood Island.

To the northwest of Sumba is the island of Sumbawa, to the northeast, across the Sumba Strait (Selat Sumba), is Flores, to the east, across the Savu Sea, is Timor and to the south, across the Indian Ocean, is Australia.

Sumba is part the province of East Nusa Tenggara. The largest town on the island is Waingapu with a population of about 10,700.

The island is roughly of oval shape, and the greatest concentration of those who worship spirit (of Merapu) is found in the West of Sumba, where two-third of the population hold on to their traditional religion.


Before colonization, Sumba island was inhabited by several small ethnolinguistic groups, some of which may have had tributary relations to the Majapahit Empire. In 1522 the first ships from Europe arrived, and by 1866 Sumba belonged to the Dutch East Indies, although the island did not come under real Dutch administration until the twentieth century.

rumah tradisional Sumba

The Sumbanese people speak a variety of closely related Austronesian languages and have a mixture of Malay and Melanesian ancestry. Twenty-five to thirty percent of the population practises the animist Marapu religion. The remainder are Christian, a majority being Dutch Calvinist, but a substantial minority being Roman Catholic. A small number of Sunni Muslims can be found along the coastal areas.

Despite the influx of western religions, 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. Burial in megaliths is a practice that was used in many parts of the world during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, but has survived to this day in Sumba (mainly at West Sumba).

Wae Rebo, Sumba island

Wae Rebo village, West Sumba

Gold ornaments play a central role in marapu, the indigenous religion of the island of Sumba, which continues today. In the ritual exchanges of gifts that accompany marriages, alliances, and other rites, gold jewelry and other metal objects, considered symbolically male, are exchanged for textiles, which are identified as female.

Memuli, omega shaped jewels of gold

Memuli, omega shaped jewels of gold

Perhaps the most important Sumbanese gold objects are the Omega-shaped jewels known as mamuli. In earlier times, when the Sumbanese practiced artificial elongation of the earlobes,mamuli were worn as ear ornaments, but today they are hung around the neck as pendants or attached to garments.

In Sumbanese culture, precious metals are believed to be of celestial origin. The sun is made of gold and the moon and stars of silver. Gold and silver are deposited on earth when the sun and moon set or shooting stars fall from the sky. Golden objects signify wealth and divine favor. Kept among the sacred relics housed in the treasuries of Sumbanese clans, mamuli are employed, in some cases, by religious specialists to aid in contacting ancestors and spirits. The most precious and powerful examples are rarely removed from their hiding places as their dangerous supernatural potency is believed to be able to kill unsuspecting onlookers or cause natural disasters.

The overall forms of mamuli represent stylized female genitalia; however, each is considered either male or female depending on its secondary characteristics. Male mamuli , such as the present work, have flaring bases, which, in the finest examples, are embellished with minute figures of humans, animals, or other subjects. This exquisitely detailed mamuli depicts warriors clad in turbans and loincloths brandishing swords and shields as they stride boldly forward accompanied by smaller figures, who appear in attitudes of supplication.

Places of interest

Waikabubak is a small village in West part of Sumba island, full of old graves carved in motifs of buffalo horns, man heads, horses, nude men or women symbolizing social status or wealth of the people. West Sumba is the regency whose capital is Waikabubak. It can be reached by plane from Kupang via Waingapu and Denpasar via Bima. In Waikabubak, you can see find the megalithic tombs of Kadung Tana, Watu Karagata, and Bulu Peka Mila. Tarung Village is an important ceremonial center, located on hill top west of Waikabubak.

Anakalang is a village that has the largest megalithic tombs in Sumba. The tombs show most unusual carvings. Anakalang is the site of the Purung Takadonga Ratu, an important mass marriage festival which is held every two years, on a date that coincidences with a full moon.

Beach at Sumba island

Waingapu is the capital city of the East Sumba regency and is known for its traditionaliIkat weaving. Some megalithic tombs can also be found in the area.

Rende is a village with traditional Sumba houses adorned with buffalo horn and has a number of massive carved stone graves.

Kaliuda is one of the Ikat weaving centers of the area.

Surfing at Sunda – The island’s southern coast has great surfing with sometimes 12-foot swells

Traditions of Sumba

Many traditional activities, all with a part of paying homage to the spirit, take place in the months of July to October. These include the building of adat houses and burrials where sometimes hundreds of pigs, water buffaloes, horses and dogs are sacrificed. Other ceremonies include the pajura or traditional boxing contest, in which the fists of the boxer are wrapped in wild grass leaves with barbed edges, and the traditional pasola spear fighting tournament on horseback.

In Sumbanese tradition the rooster is a connection between this life and the afterlife. When a king dies a ceremony takes place where the rooster is used as a medium to connect with the ancestors. Many animals belonging to the deceased king, for example his horses, are sacrificed to accompany him to the afterlife. A symbol of power of the kings of Sumba is the dragon.

The traditional Pasola Tournament

Traditional culture of Sumba island - Pasola spear fighters on horseback

Pasola is the name of a unique, traditional spear fighting tournament, whch is a ceremonial part of the Marapu religion. The Pasola tournament is performed by two groups of selected Sumbanese men who wear traditional costumes. 

Pasola is derived from the world Sola or Hola and means ‘long wooden stick.’ The ritual game is allowed by the government on the condition that blunt spears are used.

Pasola spear fighting at Sumba island

The Pasola ceremony is held yearly in the months of February and March. In February it is held in the villages of Lamboya and Kodi and during March in Gaura and Wanukaka. The main activity starts several days after the full-moon and coincidences with the yearly arrival at the island’s shores of strange and multihued sea worms – the nyale.

The precise starting date of the event is determined by the Rato (the religious leaders) and it always falls in wula podu (a fasting month).

The people of Sumba believe that the Pasola ritual is closely related to habits and behaviour of men since it arranges these in such a way that a balanced condition between physical and material needs and mental and spiritual needs can be reached. In addition, Pasola is also closely related to the agriculture. Any bloodshed of men who participate in the tournament as well of cattle that is sacrificed, is considered as a symbol of fertility and prosperity. Without the element of blood, therefore, Pasola would have less meaning to the Sumbanese. It is also believed that contestants who die in thePasola arena must have broken the law of tradition during the fasting month.

Sumbanese ikat

Within the realm of textiles, weaving from Sumba is one of the world’s best-known arts, and has already become a major attraction to visitor worldwide to the remote barren island. The recognition is a justified one. The craft is intricate, demanding great dexterity and patience, which results in breathtaking pieces of cloth.

Among many preserved Sumba traditions, like weddings and funerals, weaving is likely to continue for a very long time because, besides being sought after by tourists and collectors, Sumba people themselves still produce it for their own everyday use.

The Sumbanese have two main groups of cloth: one is called ikat, the other hikungIkat, meaning to tie, is made by tying palm leaves onto white threads and dyeing them repeatedly until it shows the desired motifs. Hikung is made by weaving different colored-cotton yarns into interesting motifs, for example a depiction of a snake with a fish’s tail. At several villages in eastern Sumba — even those that are rarely visited — women can be seen weaving in their porches. Moreover, the skill has been passed on continuously from one generation to another. A lot of beautiful and valuable ikat and hikung cloth are priced from Rp 200,000 (US$22.2) to Rp 5 million. Most families in Praiyawang and Pau, Rende, the most famous ikat area, also rely on the ikat trade, on top of agriculture.

Ikat from Sumba island

Sumba ikat has different sets of motifs for every occasion and caste. The Sumbanese used to weave a special motif that belonged to royal families in the dark, secretly, because they risked their lives weaving it. Royal guards could barge into the house and punish them if they found out what was going on. Nowadays, weavers could make such motifs without fearing for their lives. 

Most weaving families usually greet local tourists with sincere warmth; they will happily display all their cloth and offer it to visitors. But they never insist you buy it because they know most Indonesians cannot afford the more expensive pieces.

Traditional village of Sumba island


Sumba island can be reached within an hour by plane (twice a week on Tuesday and Thursday) via Bali, Kupang or Flores and by slow boat or fast ferry (Pelni, twice a week on Monday and Wednesday).


There is an expensive, community-minded resort called Nihiwatu. The hotel has day trips to nearby villages, where you can chew betel nut with the locals, buy colorful ikat cloth, and volunteer at a clinic funded by the resort. see:,

The more affordable Sumba Nautil Resort (from $116) is located down the

Sumba, Savu, tribes

Sumba Island, southwest coast, east of Wanukaka. Alternate names: Anakalang. Dialects: Similar to Wejewa [wew], Mamboru, [mvd], Wanukaka [wnk], Lamboya [lmy].
east half of Sumba Island, south of Flores. Alternate names: East Sumba, East Sumbanese, Hilu Humba, Humba, Oost-Sumbaas, Sumba, Sumbanese. Dialects: Kambera, Melolo, Uma Ratu Nggai (Umbu Ratu Nggai), Lewa, Kanatang, Mangili-Waijelo (Wai Jilu, Waidjelu, Rindi, Waijelo), Southern Sumba. Dialect network. Kambera dialect is widely understood. Lewa dialect and Uma Taru Nggai have difficulty understanding those from Mangili in many speech domains.

Kodi, Sumba , tribe, suku

West Sumba. Alternate names: Kudi. Dialects: Kodi Bokol, Kodi Bangedo, Nggaro (Nggaura). May be most similar to Wejewa [wew].
Lamboya -25.000
southwest coast, southwest of Waikabubak. Dialects: Lamboya, Nggaura. Similar to Wejewa [wew], Mamboru [mvd], Wanukaka [wnk], Anakalangu [akg]
Northwest Sumba, between Kodi and Mamboru. Alternate names: Laora. Dialects: Laura, Mbukambero (Bukambero). Not intelligible with Kodi [kod].
Northwest Sumba Island, Memboro coastal area. Alternate names: Memboro. Dialects: Related to Wejewa [wew], Wanukaka [wnk], Lamboya [lmy], Anakalangu [akg].
southwest coast, east of Lamboya. Alternate names: Wanokaka. Dialects: Wanukaka, Rua. Similar to, but unintelligible to Wejewa [wew], Mamboru [mud], Lamboya [lmy], and Anakalangu [akg] speakers. Intelligibility with varieties in east Sumba and Kambera uncertain.
Wewewa, Kambera-113.000

West Sumba Island interior. Alternate names: Veveva, Waidjewa, Wajewa, West Sumbanese, Wewewa, Wewjewa, Weyewa. Dialects: Weyewa, Lauli (Loli), Tana Righu.

The Wewewa live on the western part of Sumba. Sumba, one of the Lesser Sunda Islands, is located in eastern Indonesia.
The Wewewa are distinguished from the people on the eastern part of the island (the Kambera) primarily by language, although there are some cultural differences as well.
Sumba’s mainland consists of plateaus with scattered, irregular hills. Since the climate is hot and dry, most people live on the plateaus, where extensive grasslands support grazing and small scale agriculture.
Sacred myths that describe the origin of the Wewewa mention ancient places such as “Mecca” and “Djawa.” However, documented records of their history only go back as far as the fourteenth century. By the seventeenth century, the island of Sumba was well known for its sandlewood and horses. Even today large herds of wild horses are used for export as well as for riding.
Most of the Wewewa are small scale farmers. Income is also generated by the raising of animals and bartering of goods. Rice and maize are grown in season, in addition to year-round gardens and tree crops. Water buffalo are eaten as ceremonial food on very special occasions.
Fine fabrics that have been woven from locally grown cotton are famous throughout Sumba. This also plays an important role in the economy of the people.
A large bartering system exists on island of Sumba. Labor, services, ceremonial foods, and goods are all commonly traded among groups of relatives and friends.
Marriages are arranged by the Wewewa elders. In the case of first marriages of aristocrats, considerable negotiations are commonly made prior to the wedding. Cross cousin marriages are preferred.
Traditionally, the Wewewa culture recognized two classes of people: the tau kabihu (humans), and the tauata (slaves). The tau ata were either prisoners of war or law breakers. Class distinctions are still recognized today, and are heredity, based on the status of both parents.
While nearly 10% of the Wewewa are practicing Muslims, the remaining 90% worship a variety of gods and “animistic spirits.” (Animism is the belief that non-human objects have spirits.) Their legends tell of the creation of the world, of man’s descent from the upper world to the mythical mountain top, and of the origin of man. These stories also include details about the adventures and travels of their ancestors. Such tales have become, over time, a sacred oral tradition of the Wewewa.

The Wewewa regularly hold religious ceremonies in hopes of maintaining harmony between man and the spirit world. Local priests officiate at all religious ceremonies and funerals of clan members.
Communication with the spirit world is primarily done through blood sacrifices, food offerings, and prayers to the spirits. Sacred altars are a common sight, and are located in houses, villages, fields, and even in the bush.

southwest coast, southwest of Waikabubak. Dialects: Lamboya, Nggaura. Similar to Wejewa [wew], Mamboru [mvd], Wanukaka [wnk], Anakalangu [akg].
Laura-N-W Sumba-11.000
Northwest Sumba, between Kodi and Mamboru. Alternate names: Laora. Dialects: Laura, Mbukambero (Bukambero). Not intelligible with Kodi [kod].
Northwest Sumba Island, Memboro coastal area. Alternate names: Memboro. Dialects: Related to Wejewa [wew], Wanukaka [wnk], Lamboya [lmy], Anakalangu [akg].
The livelihood of the Mamboru people is primarily a combination of small-scale farming and raising livestock. They also barter and trade for items they do not have. Their crops are mainly rice and corn. Recently they have used irrigation systems that bring water across the valleys for farming. The family leaders have the goal of collecting wealth in the manner of owning water buffalo and horses, as well as acquiring cloth and jewelry. Honor for Mamboru people can be earned by conducting traditional and religious ceremonies. During the ceremonies the entire family takes this opportunity to display their wealth. The traditional culture of the Mamboru people recognizes two divisions of society, tau kabihu (humans) and tau ata (slaves). These divisions determine one’s land rights and place in society. The tau ata consist of prisoners of war and people who have broken traditional laws and are no longer considered part of the tau kabihu. These two classes of society are passed down from the parents to each new generation, and even today are a large factor is determining one’s status in society. 

The majority of the Mamboru people adhere to the belief system of their ancestors, which is animistic. They have stories and myths that have been passed down through the generations, which are often retold in night time gatherings. These stories and myths are about the history of the earth’s creation, the origin of man (he was lowered from the heavens to a mountaintop), and how people were dispersed to different areas and formed the first clans. The Mamboru people carefully obey and follow their holy laws and have special religious ceremonies to guard the harmony between humans and spirits.

southwest coast, east of Lamboya. Alternate names: Wanokaka. Dialects: Wanukaka, Rua. Similar to, but unintelligible to Wejewa [wew], Mamboru [mud], Lamboya [lmy], and Anakalangu [akg] speakers. Intelligibility with varieties in east Sumba and Kambera uncertain.
Savu Island
Sabu, Savu-Savu Island-126.000 

savu, sabu, tribe, suku

15,000 to 25,000 outside of Sabu (Wurm and Hattori 1981). Kabupaten Kupang; south of Flores and west of Timor, Sawu and Raijua Islands; Sumba (especially Waingapu and Melolo); Flores Island, Ende; Timor. Alternate names: Havunese, Hawu, Savu, Savunese, Sawu, Sawunese. Dialects: Seba (Heba), Timu (Dimu), Liae, Mesara (Mehara), Raijua (Raidjua). Similar to Waioli [wli], Gamkonora [gak]. Related to Dhao [nfa].
Sabu is still a stronghold of animistic beliefs,
Portuguese missionaries first arrived before 1600 and there work was continued by the Dutch ,despite this traditional beliefs persist.
Sabunese societies are divided into clans and Sabunese women have a thriving ikat-weaving tradition, their cloth typically has stripes of black or dark blue interspersed by stripes with floral motifs.
The island is dry, most of the trees are palms
From these trees is made a thick sweet syrup, which is very sticky, a Sabunese expression says that the Sabunese women, who are renowned for their beauty and caring, are like this syrup as if you try you will be stuck forever,
How to get there
Ferry from Kupang
Air connections from Kupang

savu, sabu, tribe, suku

The Belief

More than 60 % of the population of Sumba are Marapu (a kind of religion which believes the ancestral spirit). The rest are Christian (both Catholic and Protestant). Only small numbers of the pupulation are Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Marapu comes from two words Mar and Apu which means Grandfather as a creator and source of life. The main teaching of the Marapu religion is believing in the temporary life in this world and the eternal life after death. Death means someone enters into the world of spirits namely in Marapu heaven – Prai Marapu. The spirits of the ancestors still alive and watch over the livings. Rituals and ceremonies are the way to keep and maintain a peaceful (blessings) relationship with the Marapu. As far as you obey the rule of ceremony, the Marapu will bestow you blessings such as: good relationship with family and neighbor, good health, the rice crop will multiply etc.

The word Marapu has different meanings, such as:

  1. the occupants of the eternal heaven, who lead a similar existence to men. They live in couples and one of these couples was the ancestor of the Sumbanese.
  2. the spirits of Sumbanese ancestors in Prai Marapu.
  3. the spirits of Sumbanese’s relatives
  4. all spirits dwelling the universe. Marapu has mysterious and magical authority over human life.

So, Marapu has animistic, spiritual, and dynamic elements. This is obviously seen in every festival held in Sumbanese daily life that the festivals into magical factor strongly influencing the belief by placing spirits role as the main component. According to Marapu beliefs, any spirits consist of two elements i.e. Ndewa and Hamanangu. In short, the Marapu concepts are the teachings about the balance of the universal life through which the happiness can be gained. The balance is symbolized by the “Ina Mawolo” (Mother of being) and the “Ama Marawi” (Father of Creation). Ina Mawolo and Ama Marawi live in the universe and take the forms of the moon and the sun. In mythology, they were husband and wife who giving birth to the ancestors of the Sumbanese.

To honor the Marapu, the Sumbanese put effigies, called Marapu statues, on stone altars where they lay their offerings in the forms of Sirih Pinang (a dish containing betel leaves, nuts and lime) and sacrificial cattle such as: chickens, pigs or buffaloes. The statues of Marapu are made of wood in the shape of human faces. These images are usually placed in the yard of their houses or inside the traditional houses.

Marapu Priests of East Sumba waiting for funeral ceremony.

Merapu Priests in special dresses

House of Marapu (dwelling place of Marapu)According to the Marapu belief, the main house is a symbol of God’s present in their village. It is located in the middle of the Kampung (village).

These pictures were taken from different villages, but they have the same explanation.

Blood and Heart of Animals in Marapu Belief

In Sumba culture some animals such as, chicken, pig and buffalo are good offerings to Marapu. By shedding the blood of animals it symbolizes:

  • Life. We are grounding on earth and we live our life just because we have blood in our body. No blood it means no life.
  • Reconciliation (forgiveness) with the Marapu and with the other. New era and future are bound in the blood.
  • Fertilization. Shed the blood on the ground before rice plantation means ask for the Marapu to look after the field and will give a good harvest.

For the Marapu belief buffalo is an important animal for Marapu Ceremony such as funeral. Marapu priest gives the blessing to the buffalo which offers to Marapu and later will be slaughtered as appear in the pictures below. The heart of the buffalo will indicate the fate of the owner.

Heart is a “letter” to read the fate of human being. Who you are for the next year will predict through the heart of animal. It’s a glimpse of future. Even, if someone is sick or experienced so many problems can be read and getting to know the cause of the diseases and the troubles. Other word; what happened in the past, connecting to the present even in the future.

A glimpse of future – reading the fate of human being through the heart of Buffalo.

Smiling is a symbol: “You are good and blessed by Marapu”.

Wulla Poddu
Each year, in November, some tribes in Sumba (Loli, Waukaka, Sodan and Umbu Koba) celebrates a ritual namely Wulla Poddu. Lexically Wulla means month and Poddu means Bitter. So Wulla Poddu means holy month which all the people under some prohibitions or taboos such as to mourn the death, marriage, having party, building house etc. Actually, Wulla Poddu comes from agricultural custom. It is a time for thanksgiving to the Marapu especially before planting season. The end of Wulla Poddu there are some ceremonies such as hunting board and sacrificing chicken. Fat of the board and shedding blood of the chicken is good for Marapu. Whole families of the tribe gathering together and celebrate the dismissal of the Wulla Poddu. They share their story and food to each other. It’s a time of family reunion. Also a time for reconciliation to each other; forgive and forgiven! But, the main meaning of the Wulla Poddu is still there: may our land, harvest, cattle and good efforts will be blessed by Marapu.

Hunting for poddu (the holy month). Located at Umbu Koba village, Sumba Barat Daya. There is a tribe who believes that harmony of the ecosystem will be good if the human being look after the environment. The people of this tribe has a time for hunting, planting, for harvest, etc… And those times will be celebrated with a special ceremony as a way to ask for permission from Marapu so that the efforts and planns of humankind will be blessed.

A board caught by hunter as an offering to Marapu. According to the Marapu belief
the fat of animals such as pig is a good offering to Marapu

Wulla Poddu of Umbu Koba – Shedding the blood of chicken for Marapu – May our land be fruitful!

Villager bring rice for offering to Marapu. Marapu Priest, ahead, lead the people

Marapu presented as a statute (totem) and placed in the middle of the village. Whole tribes gathering together as a family. They offer rice and meat to Marapu and also they share food to each other as a symbol of friendship and reconciliation.


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