| 5 June 2004
Megalithic tradition is preserved in Indonesia
Just an hour's flight from the Indonesian resort of Bali, Sumba is a forgotten, largely desiccated island, the only blemish on the clean jaw-line of the 5000km-long Indonesian archipelago as it sweeps southeast from Sumatra, terminating in West Timor. Here, in the western half of the island, massive stone monuments are erected to honour the ancestral spirits they believe play a crucial role in day-to-day village life.
Months of negotiations and feasts have secured the cooperation of friendly clans from five surrounding villages. About 300 men have volunteered to haul a massive limestone funeral slab by hand. They are to move it almost 2km to a future gravesite in Dameka village. The stone was carved from the quarry by machete and loaded on to an A-frame sled made of two tree trunks, one of which has been carved to resemble a horse's head. More than a dozen ropes up to 10m long radiate out from the frame. It is these ropes the men will use to haul the massive gravestone.
The "stone commander" sets a cadence by chanting and singing until the crowd begins swaying back and forth as a unit, ending each emphatic line of the song with a united tug on the ropes. The idea is to synchronise their movements so that when the countdown ends, the power of hundreds of shoulders, torsos and legs is applied in the single, united explosion needed to overcome the stone's inertia. It is a quarter of an hour before the stone moves for the first time. The men hit the right cadence and the sled starts to rock back and forth, then to jump forward just a few centimetres at a time until, at a count of three, the concentrated energy of 300 men working as one sets the sled moving. The commander has the men working together but, once the sled moves, it takes off, skidding across the logs and branches that boys have laid ahead of it, accelerating as the men strain at their leads.
The elaborate Sumban grave consists of up to five chambers. Six stone legs will be set about the grave to support the 35-tonne behemoth that will serve as the roof of the house. All these stones will be dragged by hand in the traditional manner, a practice that is giving way to the use of trucks and inexpensive pre-fabricated cement batu kubur (gravestones).
Source: Aljazeera (27 April 2004)
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