Balai-Balai #1

Home in Sumba is excited to receive articles and reflections from the many people who have studied and worked in Sumba.

This first article in the series is by Dr. Elvira Rothe who now lives and works in Munich she writes regularly on Sumba and is currently reseraching 'Ethical standards in business'


Ritual Speech on the Island of Sumba

by Dr. Elvira Rothe

The first time I arrived in Sumba in 1995 I had the privilege to attend the beginning of the great Marapu feast in Tarung-Waitabar/West Sumba: 'Wulla poddu', bulan pahit, bitter month. The traditional village of Tarung still boasts 33 houses around the centre place where the feast of 'Wulla Poddu' is celebrated.

Fascinated by the night-long speeches that were held by heart through the mouth of the 'rato', the spiritual leader of the community, and answered by the members of the lineages from Tarung and Waitabar I tried to understand more about ritual speech.

The exemplary centre of ritual speech is the place in the middle of the village, 'natara', with the centre stone like the navel of the community in its middle. Around the place stand the megalithic tombs, dolmens for the ancestors, surrounded by the big family houses.

Celebrating a feast in this secluded and sacred location the participants feel the unifying ring of dolmens and houses around them: they all belong together learning and remembering their tradition. All of the lineage members, 'matu mata, tenga wiwi', all eyes and lips, should be present to show their respect for their common traditional values. They all listen to the voice of the 'ratos' and agree correspondingly "Yawaoh!". Only then is it possible to deliver a speech which is 'full', that is valid to reach the ancestors.

The 'ratos' or 'kabani-bani'1 are 'men of anger'2, anger in this context meaning not so much emotion but the expression of authority and interactive strategy both of which are exemplary for social order. The 'kabani-bani' are men of high social standing whose power in respect to spiritual leadership and interpretation of traditional values is not questioned. They are the intermediaries between the ancestors and the living. They know the words of the ancestors, li'i marapu, in the form of thousands of parallel-bound verses by heart and throw them rapidly, loud, with enthusiasm into the crowd of silent listeners – "…perhaps not unlike rap music in the US…"3

The loud, angry-enthusiastic shouting reaches the listener's body and mind, thus installing a communication and also markedly pointing out the distance in this communication between men and ancestors, or between two different parties, e. g. in marriage negotiations. There are no questions or the lifting of the voice at the end of a sentence as if one would like to ask a question. Ritual speech is a monologue, authoritarian as the words of the ancestors must be, forcing the listeners into silence.

All the important and convincing leaders in history were 'kabani-bani', never slaves or unfree people, 'milla ata'. They have never been paid. Their reward for engaging in ritual feasts consists of symbolic presents: agreement and respect by the community.

People still call their country before the arrival of the Dutch (1866) 'tana mema', the real, true land, and afterwards 'tana jawa', the foreign land. This division signifies the important changes which took place after the arrival of the first Dutch administrator, Mr. Roos. The island of Sumba was divided into secular districts. This 'onderafdeeling' was meant to improve the grip on the wild Sumbanese headhunters. The traditional village, 'kampung adat', situated on a hilltop and surrounded by fences, had been prepared to be defended against attacks of hostile invaders. To enhance the feeling of security and to make administration easier, the Dutch encouraged the building of new villages along the road, so called 'garden villages'. This action also meant that the sacred centres of the villages no longer had the same importance as centres of the community life that their ancestor-founders had planned. So the slow disappearance of local importance entailed the fading of the power the 'kabani-bani' had had. The ratos' today are spiritual leaders who enjoy respect, but no longer the holistic leadership of former days.

Dutch administrators, soldiers and missionaries did not understand the way of delivering ritual speeches as means of 'authoritarian anger' but of wildness and aggressiveness. They did not understand the words, and despite the festive surroundings in village centres with happily communicating and luxuriously fitted out men, women and children they responded negatively, showing little interest, leaving the rituals before they had ended – which even today is an act of utter impoliteness - , neglecting local languages in favour of one unifying 'administration language', Malayu, and thus eroding the basis of ritual speech.

Missionaries like Wielenga (1908) and Vollenhoven (1934) were the first to suspect, that there was an emotional, religious and moral force in local languages which evoked awe and faith. Onvlee (1973) wanted to use local languages for the Christian mission by translating the bible and for the Dutch administration by translating local laws. His respect and understanding for the local people led to his book 'Cultuur als Antwoord'4 and to the edition of material to be used in schools to teach local languages and to understand ritual speech. This material disappeared during the Japanese occupation (1942).

After 1945 local languages were remembered as the languages of feudalism, belonging to former times with old social structures, whereas the Indonesian language was considered to be the language of the new democracy.

In 1987 great slaughtering feasts in West Sumba were restricted to 1 – 4 water buffaloes and some pigs. This meant that great feasts had to be held economically - no incentive for 'enhancing one's name' with long ritual speeches! Feasts, not lavishly and in this sense correctly held, were often not held at all. Only by celebrating, however, can ritual speech be kept alive, as it is not in written form but by oral tradition handed down from one generation to the next.

I was lucky to attend the feast of Wulla Poddu, because it had not been affected by the economical law of 1987. In memory of an old myth men hunt wild pigs the number of which is not restricted. So this feast has been celebrated up to now in full accordance to the old tradition with night-long recitations of ritual texts, songs and dances. They describe the journey of the ancestors from heaven to Sumba, tell the myth of the holy child Ana Kanissa Kedu, Ana Kanissa Wawi, refer to the history of the lineages in Tarung and Waitabar, and – most of all – ask the worshipped ancestors for their blessing and help, for rain and a good harvest.

Not only evolution, the magic word in modern times, should reign on the beautiful island of Sumba. Also tradition should be kept alive in the form of local language and ritual speech. Speech, language is the vessel of culture. To lose it means losing one's identity.


1 Wielenga, D. (1917: 17), Vergelijkende Woordenlijst…. In: Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap... s'Hage, M. Nijhoff. 'kabani = man, 'bani' = angry.

2 Kuipers, J. (1998 : 43), Language, identity, and marginality in Indonesia: the changing of ritual speech on the island of Sumba. University of Cambridge, U. K.

3 Kuipers, J. (1998 : 2).

4 Onvlee, L. (1973) Cultuur als Antwoord. In: Verhandelingen van het Koninklijk Instituut …. Gravenhage.