Meeting the royal family of Prailiu

As Resti Rambu Ana the youngest daughter of the seventh king of Prailiu, posted her new status on Facebook, my memory flew back to my first acquaintance with the kingdom of Sumba in early 2012.

“April 28th, 2008… I miss you, Papa,” Resti said.

Prailiu is located 10 minutes by motorcycle from Waingapu, the capital city of East Sumba regency in East Nusa Tenggara.

It is easier to reach than the island’s other remaining royal villages.

In the past, Sumba has been home to several kingdoms of Marapu- a belief system that respects and worships the ancestral spirits.

Some of them, like the Prailiu, are still standing their ground amid the pace of modernization.

It was a sweltering hot day then when I took an ojek (motorcycle taxi), to travel from Waingapu to Prailiu. The ride only cost me Rp 5,000 (50 US cents).

Resti greeted me with a charming smile in front of her home, a modest traditional house with dried leaves, as its roof.

The house still retained its traditional style although I noticed that some parts had been renovated.

Compared to the Keraton (palace) buildings of Yogyakarta or Surakarta, Central Java, these houses of Sumba’s royal kingdoms are much less majestic.

“Welcome! How’s your flight? Come in! I’ll introduce you to my mother!” Resti said cheerfully.

Soon after, a middle aged woman wearing glasses appeared from inside the house, carrying a betel nut. She is the Prailiu queen Tamu Rambu Margaretha.

My husband, by introducing me to Resti and her family, first bridged the warm introductions. He and Resti both work in the National Park in East Sumba.

 

The king’s death

The Prailiu king, Tumbu Umbu, Ndjaka, passed away in 2008.

The king’s funeral required substantial funding and preparation, therefore, the king could not immediately be buried after his passing. It can take several years before the funeral can be carried out.

Resti told me that the Prailiu people had to find a proper gravestone from the Kawangu area about 12 kilometers from Waingapu.

More trouble arose as the gravestone weighed up to 40 tons.

“Until one day before the funeral day we still did not know how to transport such a massive stone to Waingapu. But someone eventually helped us by lending a big truck,” Resti said.

The king’s gravestone was decorated with carved images such as a horse rider and a deer, images symbolizing the king’s fondness for deer-hunting.

A crocodile represented the symbol of the royal kingdom of Sumba and a turtle symbolized down-to-earth behavior.

In the past, people would transport such gravestones by hand and the procession was called the “tarik batu” procession.

In Sumba’s traditional villages, people are commonly buried right in the yard of their house with their graves being called “kubur batu”, and king Tumbu was no exception.

It felt awkward when Resti took me to see the graves of her family then sat down there to have a chitchat, while several kids played among the gravestones.

“By burying them [the family] near the house, it seems that their souls have never left us. Although many people in Sumba have converted to certain religions we still cannot leave our root tradition, the Marapu,” she said.

Up to the time of the funeral, the Prailiu people had not yet appointed a new king. Resti told me that it was too complicated to explain why.

 

Tourist attractions

In Prailiu village, visitors can witness traditional local weaving techniques.

Almost all of the villages have their own special signature patterns and Prailiu woven products are among the most expensive in the island, priced between Rp 200,000 and Rp 10 million.

The fabric is thick, warm and simply beautiful.

Aside from tourists, Prailiu is also frequently visited by lecturers and students from foreign universities, whomostly come there for research.

 

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