Indonesian island sees future in age-old horseback battle

Indonesian island sees future in age-old horseback battle
A Sumbanese man stands beside a house wall decorated with water buffalo horn.

RATENGGARO, Indonesia - Two teams of tribesmen on horseback charge at each other hurling bamboo spears in a thousand-year-old ritual on the Indonesian island of Sumba aimed at producing a prosperous rice harvest.

Spectators, their mouths reddened from chewing betel nut, scream them on from the sidelines of the show in Ratenggaro village, reaching for their machetes when a rider is struck at close range and the referee calls foul play.

The annual "pasola" - which comes from the word "spear" in a local tribal language - takes place over four weeks in February and March in western Sumba, an island in the centre of the sprawling Indonesian archipelago.

Traditionally it was a barely disguised form of human sacrifice in which tribesmen would aim to spill each other's blood onto the fields. It has evolved into a mock-up of such battles and people are not usually badly hurt, although accidental deaths do occasionally occur.

The spectacle attracts few foreign tourists - only around 10 were at the recent pasola in Ratenggaro and up to 100 normally attend larger ones.

But now officials are hoping to use it to boost the economy of the desperately poor island, which is dependent on subsistence rice and corn farming and woven rattan goods that yield few profits.

"It's a major attraction and has huge potential for development," said Bona Fantura Rumat, from the tourism board of East Nusa Tenggara province, which includes Sumba.

Despite its pristine beaches, azure seas and traditional villages, last year Sumba attracted around 2,500 tourists - compared to more than three million who visited the nearby resort island of Bali.

Rumat said plans are afoot to promote the pasola more, improve infrastructure by building better roads and start flights to more destinations in Indonesia to make Sumba easier to reach, as well as to Darwin in northern Australia.

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