Ancestors and Marapu in Jewelry of Sumba


Ancestors and Marapu in Jewelry of Sumba


Air Susu, Leluhur, dan Marapu.

Hanging off of the Nusa Tenggara Timur archipelago like a pendant, Sumba is an island where ancestral tradition escapes the passage of time. Sumba is divided into two parts. East Sumba with its dry and rocky character that’s relatively barren and West Sumba that’s amenable for agriculture.

Despite this difference, Sumba has no ethnic groups. What they have is Kabihu, the kinship system that bonds one blood-related family. With Kabihu, they hold steadfast to traditions that have been passed through generations by Marapu or forefathers. Their honoring to Marapu, kinship, and family can be seen through jewelry.

In Sumba, Jewelry has three functions. First, is something they bury when one passes away. So the dead have enough wealth in the next life. Second, a symbol for social status. The carvings and the material of jewelry represents high social status in Sumba society; gold represents the sun, the eternal light and wealth, while carvings like Rooster, Pohon Andung (Skull Tree), and squat man represents power, the heads they’ve collected, and the slaves that they have. Last, jewelry is Belis (dowry) given by the groom’s family to the bride’s family.

We wrote down some of the best craftsmanship from Sumba, Jewelry worn by the noble family. Our collection of Sumba jewelry is mostly taken from the early 19th century, with various materials from silver to brass.

Belis or dowry in Sumba has a different meaning. In other cultures, it is seen as the value offered to women to get them into the men’s family. In Sumba, Belis is the value of mother’s milk, offered as an exchange for having raised a daughter. It is also seen as something that fills the void when a daughter moves out of her house. 


Mamuli or Mamoli is the Belis given to the bride’s family. It is the opposite of Kanatar, representing feminine energy. The omega shape resembles the womb, the source of life.

Coming in plain gold or decorated edges. From two roosters with arching feathers, two men representing their Marapu, or beloved family horses. Mamuli is the last part of the dowry, kept and worn by women. In West Sumba, women wear their Mamuli as earrings, while in East Sumba, Mamuli is worn as a pendant, hanging on the coral necklace.


Men and women in Sumba are equally adorned in jewelry. For men, one piece of jewelry that becomes a symbol of male energy is Kanatar, a long chain jewelry made either with silver or gold. The long tubular shape of Kanatar represents male sexuality. Worn either as a necklace or wrapped around the wrist as a bracelet.


To top off the look for noble women or Papanggang (a person who bridges the communication between the world and the dead), a tortoise-shell comb is tucked on the hair. Hai Kara Jangga or Tiduhai is a hair comb that indicates a noble lineage. It’s a remarkable beauty of art. Carved on the edges with Pohon Andung, the skull tree to put all the heads collected by the family, rooster, horses, and images of Marapu. Such an intricate detail!


Madaka comes in many names; Madaka, Mendaka, or Mandaka. This shapy spiky gold jewelry is often mistaken for earrings. However, Madaka is a pendant, worn usually by the Kabihu leaders. Worn during a party, a feast, or ceremony, Madaka represents power with its radiant gold and spikes that represent the spine of a dragon.


One of the finest metal works in the history of jewelry is Marangga. Made from precious metals like silver or gold, Marangga were among the heirlooms clans accumulated over time and displayed during feasts. The size of Marangga varies, they’re usually hung to show the social status of a family on a feast or party. When they’re not displayed, Marangga are kept in the sacred attic of Uma Mbatangu; the same attic where the spirits of Marapu dwell.

Illustration by Septi Ilham