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.

Chewing nervously on betel nut and powdered lime, the organiser, Umbu Lei-wa, recalculates how much food and coffee and how many cigarettes will be needed to fortify the men in their labours, which could result in serious injury or even death.


In pictures: 
Grave builders gallery


"It is so expensive I am not sure I have enough rice," he says. "I am worried. If they don't have enough to eat and drink, they will leave and I'll never get the stone moved."

Sacred work

In the manner of pyramid-building armies of Egyptian slaves, the men will drag the sun-bleached 35-tonne block and its log sled across undulating terraces of dried rice paddies to Umbu Lei-wa's hilltop home.

Sumbans look down on the ancient Egyptians: they would never allow their household slaves to participate in such a sacred event.

Umbu is worried too about avoiding the government regulators who will try to prevent the slaughter of more than a token number of buffalo, pigs and horses needed to feed the men and placate mischievous ancestral spirits.

And there are Christian priests who will try to bless his stone, something he cannot allow for fear of offending the guardian Merapu spirits of the dead who would then doom the entire venture.

Megalithic culture

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.

The largest stone in Anakalang
village weighing 70 tonnes

Its 400,000 people speak eight languages and a host of dialects. They live by Byzantine codes of conduct and rituals rooted in ancestor worship. They produce opulent ikat cloth that celebrates their headhunter heritage and still maintain the only active megalithic culture on the planet.

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.

The success of every event, major or minor, in the life of the ritual-fixated Sumban is dependant on the approval of the Merapu: animals are slaughtered and their entrails divined for answers to determine auspicious dates and to sanction weddings and business transactions.

Drum beat

Each of the clans committing men to the ceremony arrives to the sound of drums and gongs, led by a standard-bearer carrying an intricately woven cloth that will fly above the stone and declare the clan's affiliation.

Heave: The hot work begins to
move the gravestone

They are greeted by Dameka villagers singing, dancing and carrying trays of sweet coffee and tea, and cartons of pungent clove cigarettes.

The women dress in their best sarongs, whose patterns celebrate Sumban history.

Virtually all the sarongs feature the ceremonial tree at the heart of every traditional Sumban village, from which the heads of opponents were hung having been killed in seemingly endless battles over gold, women and land.

Age-old skills

Other images connect them to the slavers who first arrived in the 17th century, and Sumbans' beloved horses, said to be the finest, nimblest breed in Southeast Asia.

The stone "commander", Umbu Sei-wa, arrives without ceremony and takes his place atop the stone, which has been prepared over many weeks for the day's events.

It 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.

The stone is lashed to the sled with lengths of vine as thick as a man's wrist.

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.

Team-work

The 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.

Commander Umbu Sei-wa (R)
atop the stone leading the men

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.

This is a moment of elation and danger. 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.

To stumble before the stone and be pinned beneath the sled means certain death.

Tourist trade

Traditional stone-pulling rituals are dying out, sacrificed to the aggressive expansion of evangelical Christian churches and government policies that aim to reduce the ceremonies in Sumba to nothing more than packaged curios for tourists.

Like many of his compatriots, Umbu Lei-wa is nominally Christian.

In order to acquire the mandatory national identity card, Indonesians must adhere to one of the five state-sanctioned belief systems: Islam, Christianity (Protestantism), Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

"It is my responsibility to honour the Merapu or they will not be able to sleep and will make life very hard on my family and village"

Umbu Lei-wa, villager

Those who fail to do so cannot go to school, vote, serve in the military or police, or get a job in the civil service.

Umbu Lei-wa is a government official in his village and chief of the office responsible for maintaining local "ethnic" practices.

Every Sunday he and his family attend church. And every day of the past four decades, he has put money towards the construction of his family's Merapu funeral vault.

Preserved remains

"It is my responsibility to honour the Merapu or they will not be able to sleep and will make life very hard on my family and my village," he says. "That is why I must build the rumah mati [death house]."

This elaborate Sumban grave consists of up to five chambers. According to the custom of Dameka, Umbu Lei-wa's will have three rooms.

When the time comes, he will be buried in his finest cloth, armed with a spear and a machete, alongside his wife in one chamber with the preserved remains of his grandparents and later, his grandchildren.

His children will be buried with their grandparents and grandchildren.

Taboos

To be buried with one's children is to ritually violate the incest taboo. But being buried inside a prized four-wheel-drive pick-up, as one aristocrat was, does not violate Sumban custom.

Timber and vine ropes form the
sled upon which the stone rests

Stone slabs the size of truck doors have been cut to form the subterranean walls of Umbu Lei-wa’s tomb. A larger slab will be laid on top to seal it.

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).

The villagers work through the white-hot afternoon, pausing only for a lunch of rice, vegetables, pork, chicken and horsemeat washed down with tea and coffee.

A Muslim visitor is offered a live chicken to be killed in a manner to ensure it is halal (Islamically acceptable).

Hot and bothered

At times, the stone pulling grinds to a halt. The sled becomes buried in soft soil; a squabble breaks out between youths from different villages; the men start to drop from exhaustion halfway up the hill to Dameka village.

Umbu Lei-wa frets at every turn but as the sun sets, the stone has arrived at the burial site. It only needs to be hoisted on to the waist-high latticework log bed where it is supposed to rest until the grave site can be prepared.

Crunch time: the stone becomes
stuck and will move no further

Here, in the waning light, disaster strikes. The sled has become hopelessly wedged into the woodwork. It can neither advance nor retreat.

The men continue their labours by lamplight but finally abandon the project. Umbu Lei-wa, tears of gratitude and frustration in his eyes, thanks the men, whose numbers have been halved, for their help.

Later, he sits and caresses the stone, which still retains the heat of the day. He speaks to it one of the Sumban dialects and begins the slow walk uphill to his home.

"I thought I did everything that was needed, all the ceremonies but I have failed," he says, shoulders slumped.

"All the signs were that this would be successful. I don’t understand. I fear what my ancestors are thinking. I must find a way to honour them."