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Ritual war game on a small Indonesian island aims to ensure good harvest

Reuters photographer Yusuf Ahmad describes his trip through Indonesia to photograph Pasola: The atmosphere is very lively and aggressive, full of the noise of shouting men, the thumps of running horses, and spears splitting the air. The crowd cheers whenever somebody is hurt from the spears.

Yusuf Ahmad / Reuters

A man riding a horse prepares to throw his wooden spears at his rival during the two-day Pasola War Festival in the remote Kodi Pangedo village, in Indonesia's West Sumba province on Friday. Held on February 16 and 17, Pasola is a ritual of the West Sumba people, a part of the local Sumba belief called Marapu in which the participants, whose livelihoods are dependent on their corn and rice crops, ask for the blessings of the gods for a good harvest.

The Pasola ritual is a war game between two groups of 100 men from the Hill village and the lowland village, forcing the horses which they ride on bareback with no saddle to run faster, and how they strategize to win the war, with the rest of the villages as the judges.

To get there I caught a small plane from Bali, and arrived at Tambulaka airport, which is small and surrounded by green hills. From there, I rented a car and drove on small paved roads that cut through villages and little wooden houses. During the journey, I discovered a strong presence of animism, in the form of respects to ancestors. At every corner of the towns and villages, the houses have a traditional worship place and the graveyards of their ancestors, and at this time of year, when it is high time to prepare for blessings from the Gods, the graveyards are adorned with offerings of beetle fruits.

Yusuf Ahmad / Reuters

A man and his son smile before they take part in the two-day Pasola War Festival in remote Kodi Pangedo village.

Yusuf Ahmad / Reuters

Tribal elders walk during a ritual procession amidst the two-day Pasola War Festival in the remote Kodi Pangedo village, in Indonesia's the West Sumba province.

After a two hour drive, I arrived at the remote Kodi Pangedo village, a place where the Pasola festivity is held each year in February and stayed for four days there without electricity and very little water for the shower. In fact, I only showered once for three days in the village.

Yusuf Ahmad / Reuters

A woman and several children gather in front of a house during a ritual procession amidst the two-day Pasola War Festival.

Usually there are minor injuries to the arms and legs of the fighting men. Each drop of blood spilled on the earth is considered a salvation of sins or violation of rituals in the past year, and hence a seal of guarantee that the harvest in the months to come will be abundant.

Yusuf Ahmad / Reuters

Villagers walk along a beach near the remote Kodi Pangedo village in Indonesia's West Sumba province.