The Traditional Village

Most Sumbanese live in the village or area where they were born. Women often live in the village of their husbands. Sumbanese traditionally build their houses and villages on hills or mountains. They surround their villages with a stone wall with two gates: the entrance and exit. In former times this was to be protected from predators, today it is more to corral the cattle. In the middle of a village is a yard with tombs and sacrificial altars (Kateda). The houses with their (mostly) high, pointed Marapu roofs form a circle around it or are arranged in two parallel rows.

According to the Marapu belief, a Rumah Adat, a house where the spirits of the ancestors dwell, is part of every village. This house is usually in the middle of the village. It is built differently from the houses of the living people. It is a symbol of God’s presence in the village and should only be entered by the priest or on religious occasions.

Traditional houses are constructed with a wooden structure. The lower columns are surrounded with rings made from wood or stone, they symbolize “Lingga” and “Yoni”, the sexual aspect of life, and serve as a symbol of fertility. But maybe it is only against parasites. The columns represent the cardinal directions. The fireplace in the middle is the symbol of the sun.

The roofs should normally be made of Alang grass. But corrugated tin is found more often now, especially in open terrain and areas with strong wind. Not all houses have pointed roofs, as they can be seen in brochures of Sumba. This is not really necessary. Probably the costs are more important today than the tradition. Also the origin of the residents plays a role. For example the homes of immigrants at the coasts generally don’t have pointed roofs.

The high pointed roofs also have a physical benefit, through the chimney effect they cool well. But they are endangered by lightning. Often houses or whole villages get destroyed by fire. Whatever the shape of the roof, the fear of lightning is great. Often old motorcycle tires can be seen on the roofs – this is said to protect against lightning.

The walls and floors are made of plaited bamboo. Often patterns are woven into the walls. In East Sumba, there are also house walls made from buffalo skin. Newer houses have walls made from wooden boards, these walls are often painted.

A traditional house has three storeys. Each of them is a symbol: the underworld below the house – where the animals live – the human world – where the living live – and the spiritual world – where the ancestors live, and also cult objects and supplies are stored. The storeys represent the harmonious relationship between man and God, according to the Marapu belief. Therefore, the traditional house is not just housing, but also a kind of social and ceremonial unit.

The construction of a house is accompanied by rituals. For the topping-out ceremony animal sacrifices are made, and the Marapu is asked whether everything is ok. For that the liver of a sacrificed animal is cut out and examined by the spiritual leader of the community, the Rato. All the men help with the construction of the house and all the women help with the cooking.

The villages are usually very simple. The prosperity of a village is not measured by the houses and their equipment, but by the number of water buffaloes and horses.

With an increasing population and thus increasing village size there is often not enough space on the hills for everyone. Influences of our modern world show that it makes sense to live where the fields are or near the road. So there are fewer and fewer traditional villages. There are villages, which are partly on the mountain and partly in the plane. There are also villages where only the Rumah Adat stands on the mountain, but the residents have moved completely to the plane. And there are the “New villages” built by the government.

The village as a centre of life also loses importance due to another aspect: there is the pull of the city and trade with the things that you have not had in former times. People find work outside the village. Children finish elementary education school and then go to high school in town. Some already work in Bali or Malaysia and bring money back home. A rapid change in values is on the way.



Social Structures

In the past, Sumba had a social system consisting of nobles, peasants and slaves (Maramba, Kabthu, and Ata). This system continues to exist by name only but has no social function anymore. However, families who came from the nobility still tend to be rich. One who has done well in the new society can keep his title. Due to the fact that there was no land reform in Sumba, the nobility still owns a large part of the country. The nobility can determine who may buy land and who may not. In recent times, the planned establishment of a hotel in Tarimbang and a resort in Mambang by foreign investors were thus prevented.

The bride price is expensive but important. It is part of Sumbanese culture and independent of the particular religion. Means of payment are horses, water buffalos and pigs. Recently, cattle thefts have increased dramatically in the context of the bride price. Poverty, particularly in West Sumba, forces people to steal the needed livestock in Central and East Sumba. Today a good horse may well be substituted by a motorcycle. Many men, who do not have sufficient resources, nowadays look for women from other islands, where their families do not expect a bride price. Vice versa, many women remain unmarried in Sumba. The bride price is not demanded by official law. An unpaid or partly paid bride price gets inherited as debt.

While women play a significant role in the household and while they contribute significantly to the family income by selling their agricultural products on the market, their social status is rather low. In everyday life division of labour is needed. At official occasions women have at least a say. Marriages are allowed from 14 years upwards, today they are only partially arranged by tradition and custom. Polygamy is tolerated as before, but due to the bride price only wealthy Sumbanese can afford it. In some regions women have no right to own property.

Sumba horses are a status symbol. In rural areas, they are still an important means of transportation. And horses are cheaper than motorcycles. In the towns you will often see men proudly riding their horses like we do with cabriolets. The Sumbanese are excellent riders. They learn as a child and as adults they still train whenever they can. They show their talents at equestrian events and the traditional Pasola.

Despite the efforts of numerous Christian missionaries around a third of Sumbanese lives and remains firmly in the world of Marapu.

The Marapu Belief

Marapu comes from the words Mar and Apu, which means grandfather as the creator and source of life. Marapu is a collective term for all spiritual forces, like gods, spirits and ancestors. The most important lesson of Marapu is the belief in the limited life in our world and eternal life after death. Death means that someone goes into the world of spirits and into the heaven of Marapu – Prai Marapu. The spirits of the ancestors are still alive and watch over the living. Rituals and ceremonies are to keep and maintain a peaceful connection to the Marapu. As far as the ceremony complies with the rules, the Marapu bring blessings such as good relations with neighbours and family, good health, good harvest etc…

Marapu has animistic, spiritual, and dynamic elements. This you can clearly see in the ceremonies. The magic factor influences the faith. Ghosts play an important role. The Marapu teaching says that there is a balance of universal life energy through which happiness can be achieved. The balance is symbolized by “Ina Mawolo” (mother of being) and “Ama Marawi” (father of creation). Ina Mawolo and Ama Marawi live in the universe, and assume the shapes of moon and sun. In mythology they were man and woman who gave birth to the ancestors of the Sumbanese. In honour of Marapu you put images or Marapu statues on stone altars. The Marapu statues are made of wood with human faces. Offerings are placed there.

Small Marapu offerings are “Sirih Pinang” (a dish with betel leaves, betel nuts and lime). Sirih Pinang is an integral part of almost all the rites and ceremonies. It is also the minimum a visitor should bring a village chief as sign of respect.

Great offerings are animal sacrifices such as chickens, pigs, and water buffalo. Shed blood of sacrificial animals symbolizes life, reconciliation with the Marapu and good harvest. Any type of blood that flows into the earth makes the earth fertile. Exceptions are dogs. They are no sacrificial animals, but used in daily life as an edible gift.

From the excised heart and liver of an animal the Rato, the spiritual leader of the community, can read the fate of people, the success of the harvest, and important events. It allows him a glimpse into the future or the reason why things happened.

In the country the Marapu belief is still widespread, while the newer religions are found mainly in the towns. In some villages, the Rato has no longer a strong religious position today, but only a formal one in the administration.

If someone asks you about “your book” it is not the “Lonely Planet” but the Bible or the Koran.


Ikat weaving is done mostly in Flores, Timor and Sumba. In Sumba, it has achieved the highest development. For the people of Sumba Ikat is firstly a traditional garment for everyday life, but it has also ritual value as exchange object for weddings, Marapu ceremonies and as a shroud: A dead person of high status can be wrapped in many Ikat cloths.

Ikat from Sumba is shown in museums of the world as an example of the highest quality of textile design. The patterns of Ikat are traditional, and represent the village where the cloth was manufactured. In West Sumba there are more geometric patterns; in East Sumba they have figural ornamentation like village scenes, animals and mythical creatures. The figures have historical or religious significance.

Unlike batik it is not dyed when it is finished, but each individual warp yarn is dyed individually before it is clamped in the loom. This is done in a bamboo frame. According to the desired patterns the threads are tied or wrapped with strings and then dyed or protected from colour. This process gives the name of Ikat = string, band.

Genuine Ikat is still made with natural dyes. The blue colour comes from indigo, the red colour from a mixture of bark and roots of the Mengkudu tree. The combination of red and blue makes depending on the intensity of the two colours, brown, purple or black. Some Ikat have additional yellow colour from the bark of the Kayu Kuning tree. After dyeing, the threads are clamped into the loom. Deviations of the frame, inaccuracies during setting, different absorbency and different strain of the threads lead to the typical slight misalignment of the Ikat pattern.

According to the complicated production procedure Ikat is a valuable cloth. In the past, only high-ranking clan members could afford it. Meanwhile, the production has been simplified and partially mechanized. This is why really old Ikat pieces have a special collector’s price.

Customs and Traditions

Welcoming: Within the family and if you have not met for a long time, you welcome each other in the traditional way by “rubbing noses”, touching the nose. Doing this you have to compress your lips. With sorrow or deep sympathy you can touch the forehead in addition. For formal occasions you also welcome or thank each other with this ritual. Tourists should do it in the same way as Sumba people, but the locals should take the initiative.

Participation in festivities: If you have not been invited in advance, you will be asked if the people want you to take part. People like you to get fully involved in the event. As a leading figure or a foreigner you will often be given preference.


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