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Sumba Island
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Indonesian Textile Arts
Sumba Island

Symbolism and Allusion

The island of Sumba suffers from some of Indonesia’s most intractable poverty, with entrenched social stratification, poor education and poorer soils exacerbating each other as causes. For weavers and concerned community leaders, the textile arts and related traditions can express both the best of the ancestral culture and open access for poor weavers to economic development.

Unlike Flores, its volcanic neighbor to the north, Sumba was formed by an uplift of coral and limestone from the ocean floor. To the towering cones of Flores, Sumba responds with flat, grassy plains, and steep river canyons etched into the stone. Horses, buffalo, and cattle roam open pasture-lands, which seem to belong to a different nation than the lush tropical forests of Indonesia’s volcanic islands.

The Rindi River valley

Before the 20th century, Sumba was controlled by shifting alliances of noble clans, and kept unstable by a vigorous trade in slaves. Slavers from Ende, Flores, conducted raids along the coastline, or fought in local wars in exchange for slaves. The Sumbanese moved their villages inland and fortified them on high ground in an attempt to repel slave raiders. The Dutch gained full control of Sumba only in 1912.

A nobleman in ceremonial dress, East Sumba

For centuries, Sumba’s noble families have managed and traded large herds of horses. Regional horse-trading exploded in the 1840s, and brought great wealth to the island’s traditional land-holding elite. Demand for horses declined in the 20th century, and today Sumba’s economy rests on the export of cattle, first introduced by the Dutch. Despite the shift, horses still translate to wealth and prestige on Sumba.

A mare and foal, East Sumba

The umbu or lord of the traditional kingdom of Rindi administers his lands from Parai Yawangu, a cluster of about twenty houses on a rise above the Rindi River. Although the Indonesian government dismantled the royal system in 1962, the umbu still commands great respect. Modern democratic institutions have not unseated the maramba and ratu, clans of secular and religious leaders who still control many of Sumba’s traditional kingdoms.

A local man in traditional dress, Rindi

Eastern Sumba receives a fraction of the rain that falls on the western part of the island, and is one of the least densely populated regions in Indonesia. Society in East Sumba is divided into castes; hereditary slaves once served classes of nobles and commoners. Slavery has since been abolished, but caste designations persist. Even today, Sumbanese prefer to marry within their caste. Many clans include members of every rank.

Umbu Kanabu Ndaung, lord of Rindi

Missionary activity in Sumba began in earnest under the Dutch, but most Sumbanese still follow marapu, the local traditional religion. The word marapu refers to the semi-mythical ancestors who founded Sumba’s clans. Some clans say their marapu arrived by boat. The Pahada clan in Rindi says their marapu had wings, and carried the first plants to Sumba. Sumbanese artists and craftsmen honor their ancestors with textiles, sculpture, and architecture.

A grand concrete tomb, Kaliuda

Traditional Sumbanese houses are built with raised floor and a high central peak, where relics consecrated to the marapu are stored. Marapu act as intermediaries between humans and a creator deity whose name is never uttered, but sometimes is referred to in Rindi as majii tau, ’’the one who plaited mankind.’’ Marapu have considerable power to protect clans, families, and individuals, or to leave them exposed to malevolent spirits.

A traditional house, Parai Yawangu

Parai Yawangu, like many traditional villages, centers on a row of giant tombs, topped with carved stelae and massive capstones. Men and women from Rindi’s nobility are buried in these massive sarcophagi, their bodies wrapped in as many as a hundred traditional textiles. The tomb sculptures describe the person’s life, clan, and status, and can be unconventional. In one village, a pilot’s tomb is topped with a large concrete airplane.

A row of megalithic tombs, Parai Yawangu

A royal funeral procession trails a man leading a riderless horse, the symbolic mount of the deceased. Swept along with the crowd are between two and eight members of a caste of royal servants, who have given themselves over to a sacred trance. The spirits of royal ancestors enter the servants’ bodies, and direct the unfolding ceremony. The local lord observes the rites from atop the capstone.

Grave goods, especially textiles, are interred with the body

Every element of Sumbanese life is layered with symbolism and allusion. The posts and joints of a Sumbanese house represent parts of the human body; the number of posts and the order of their construction invoke the order of the universe, and constitute a prayer for fulfillment. Simple actions like parting the hair or sweeping the house contribute to a search for balance and completeness that dominates Sumbanese ritual life.

Ceremonial dancers, Lambanapu