A rider prepares to throw a blunted spear during the Pasola festival on the Indonesian island of Sumba
A rider prepares to throw a blunted spear during the Pasola festival on the Indonesian island of Sumba

The remote Indonesian island of Sumba has just wrapped up its pasola festival, an annual event that pits hundreds of spear-wielding horsemen in a series of violent battles.

It is the night before battle in Wanukaka valley, and by candlelight, two riders are killing a chicken. Pubu Danang, who estimates he is in his fifties, and Tagu Henang, who believes he is 10 years younger, read the entrails. A bad sign could mean injury or death - but this year the signs are good.

Pasola riders Pubu Danang and Tagu Henang sacrifice a chicken the night before the festival in Sumba's Wanukaka valley - Photo: Ed Wray

Sumba Island, between Bali and Australia, was once renowned for its vicious clan warfare, slave raids and headhunting.

These days, that violent history has given way to pasola, a series of mock battles stretching through February and March to welcome the harvest.

The event is war turned into full-contact sport. On horses, two teams of riders fling spears at each other. There are no winners - the only aim is to draw blood.

Decades ago the spears were sharp, but government rules mean they are now blunt and lightweight. Even so, injuries are routine and deaths occasionally happen.

Pubu Danang says the greatest honor on the battlefield is to kill a man, or die trying - something that has not happened in this valley since 1987.

He says the name of any rider who kills or dies will live on, and that any blood spilled on the field will fertilize the earth.

Doo Gajji is an elder from the community of Wanukaka. He says traditional animist priests oversee the festival here, despite inroads by Christianity. In this valley, the sign for the fighting to begin is when mysterious multicolored sea worms appear at night on a local beach.

He says the pasola festival began when a woman from this valley ran away with a man from nearby Kodi. After a bride price was paid, and war avoided, the two sides celebrated with a mock battle.

Out on the field, the battle looks close to the real thing. Riders charge and feint in groups as spears fly through the air.

Most spears miss, but a direct hit raises rapturous cheering. Stray spears often land in the crowd too, sending spectators scuttling.

Local police chief I Nyoman Tenda and more than 150 police and soldiers armed with staves, guns and tear gas keep the peace. He says the biggest challenge is controlling rowdy crowds. In nearby Lamboya the previous week, the audience descended into a stone-throwing mob.

He says that although he will arrest rowdy spectators, police policy is to turn a blind eye to any injuries or deaths on the field.

The hours roll by as the battle continues. Struck riders fall off their horses while others collide in the confusion. One old man is struck in the face and bows out, smiling and bleeding, as the crowd roars.

Despite the intense heat, it is only the arrival of rolling storm clouds that breaks up the fight.

As the riders trot home, the tally is counted: three injured riders and a few wounded horses. Blood has been spilled, but not too much, and Sumba can look forward to a bountiful harvest.