Sumba is just about the only place in the world that has retained and still employs the ancient tradition of burying the dead in megalithic crypts, which takes roots in the Bronze Age. This amazing fact makes the island an attractive destination for ethnographers, historians and explorers trying to discover the mysteries of centuries past. It is particularly interesting that such an ancient tradition has been preserved to this day in a state of nature, virtually unchanged.
Sumba is regarded to as an “outdoor historical reserve”, where the burial traditions of the natives form a strictly defined rite. The megalith itself is gouged at a quarry. As soon as this is done, all parts of the crypt must be delivered to the destination by hand, no hoisting equipment or transport is allowed. Due to exorbitant weight , the stone slabs are carried by the entire population of a village. Sometimes people have to travel several kilometres to reach their village, while the average weight of a megalith accounts for several tons. One must admit a touch of civilization here as well though – modern burial structures are now often made of concrete and tiled with ceramic tiles, for the sake of saving time and money. Historical burial sites, however, look far more majestic; these are embellished with traditional ornamental patterns and various Sumban tribal symbols.
The more rich and high-status is the family, the heavier is the stone slab. For an honoured villager, 25 tons are considered normal. The largest megalith on the island weighs 70 tons and belongs to the family of the late Governor Umbu Savola, who has died in 1971. This burial site is located in the town of Kabundak, the district of Galubakul. This location is home to just about all the most famous and impressive crypts, which have turned this place into a tourist attraction many years ago. Diversity of megaliths is a truly spectacular sight. Travellers refers to this place as the “World’s museum of megalithic culture”.
According to Sumban beliefs, the dead must not have any contact with the ground in order to preserve their fundamental connection with the space and their living progeny, so that they could help their descendants. If a body is buried in a megalith, between the sky and the ground, the spirit shall remain free.
Special attitude to the deceased is characteristic of Sumba. According to the ancient beliefs, the souls of their ancestors live in the topmost parts of the elongated Sumban roofs, while their bodies reside in megaliths located in the yards or at the central square of a village. This seems extremely exotic for a person of any other civilization, as we are used to seeing administrative buildings in the central part of a settlement or a district, whereas here these areas are occupied by burial sites.
Traditionally, all Sumban natives must be buried in their home country, even if a person has emigrated long ago. Crypts are often serve as the final abode for entire families, while the living relatives use those for practical purposes – use those to dry clothes and wood, store their property, have children playing amidst the graves. Here, this is considered to be the normal course of the steady and harmonic Sumban life.