On Sumba, a remote island in the Indonesian archipelago, natives continue to celebrate their most ancient traditions. The most important of these is the Pasola, an annual festival to celebrate the harvest.
The Pasola festival is a brutal war ritual that pits two neighbouring tribes against each other. Men of age ride on horseback throwing spears, with a deadly intent to spill blood onto the soil. Without blood, the Sumbanese believe, the harvest will be bad.
Photographer James Morgan recently traveled to Sumba to document the festival. He has shared some of his photos with us here, but you can check out the rest at his website.
Editor’s Warning: Images in this slideshow may be considered graphic by some readers.
Sumba is a tiny island in Indonesia with a population of about 650,000. Unlike most Indonesian islands, Sumba has indigenous horses, which play an important role in Sumbanese culture.
Sumba is largely covered in rice paddies. The Sumbanese believe that for the rice to have a good harvest, blood must be spilled on the ground.
To spill the blood, the Sumbanese enact the Pasola. Shamans called 'ratus' determine the date of the Pasola based on the appearance of the Nyale sea worms, which show up on the beach once a year.
The ratus wait in the ocean for the appearance of the sea worms. The colour of the worms predicts the quality of the harvest.
After the ratus make their predictions and the date of the Pasola is set, the Sumbanese gather on the beach to examine the sea worms for themselves.
On the night before the Pasola, the Sumbanese gather to take part in the pejura, a boxing match that takes place on the beach. It is presided over by Ratu Bapak Rato Kameme Bili.
The boxing match is supposed to be a bare-knuckles brawl, but many fighters cheat, wrapping rocks, horns, and glass around their fists. The pejura is meant to be a way for members of opposing tribes to settle old disputes.
The pejura happens on a secluded beach. No lights are permitted, and the boxing begins as the moonlight rises over the cliff. Spectators are often punched just as much as the fighters.
The Pasola takes place over several days and in multiple towns. Men from opposing tribes ride to a field on horseback and attempt to hit each other with wooden spears. All men between roughly ages 14 and 40 participate.
The first spear of the Pasola is thrown by Alharhum Keledepiku. The responsibility has been handed down from his ancestors.
The battles can be brutal. Riders throw their spears as hard and as fast as they can. Many are extremely accurate, hitting other riders in the chest, head, and eyes.
Large crowds surround the riders to watch the Pasola. Many people climb trees to get a better view of the action. According to the BBC, the Pasola 'is essentially a fertility rite' to ensure a good harvest from the rice paddies.
This man's job is to pick up spears during the Pasola. His teeth are red from years of chewing betel, a plant that acts as a stimulant.
The Pasola used to be played with metal-tipped spears or machete-style knives, leading to many deaths and serious injuries during the rite. Today the Sumbanese use blunted spears. Even so, it's very dangerous. Several years ago, a spectator was killed when a blunted spear hit him in the eye.
If a person is knocked off his horse, the other riders will not hit him when he is down. The rider who threw the spear is considered victorious, throws his hands in the air, and takes a victory lap.
The Pasola must continue until blood is shed. According to the Sumbanese, if no blood is shed, there will be no harvest. This man was hit in the face with a spear. His nose has been split open.
In addition to the Pasola, Morgan was present for a traditional Sumbanese funeral. During funerals, animals are sacrificed as offerings to the Sumbanese gods and the deceased. The Sumbanese are extravagant with their sacrifices, despite the fact that many are very poor.
One of the odder parts of the funeral service, according to Morgan, was the presence of a Christian nun who led the service. Christianity has begun to spread through Sumba, but instead of supplanting the pagan traditions, it exists alongside them.
During the sacrifice, dogs are slaughtered first, then pigs, and then buffalo. Horses are sacrificed only when a Pasola rider dies. It is thought that doing so will give him a horse in the afterlife.
The centrepiece of the funeral is the slaughtering of the animals. The Sumbanese are sure to use every part of the animal during the sacrifice, even the blood.
Blood and sacrifice are crucial to Sumbanese culture. The carcasses are thrown into the fire to be burned after the animals are slaughtered.
NOW WATCH: Executive Life videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.