previous chapter
12 The Embattled Chronologer The Politics of the Calendar
next chapter

The Embattled Chronologer
The Politics of the Calendar

Those who count the months now whisper in the shadows
Those who measure the year now move in silence
The knots they tie are left unheeded
The lines they carve are disregarded.
—A Kodi reflection on changes in calendrical authority

As should be clear from the preceding chapters, for the Kodinese as for many other peoples, a calendar is not a piece of paper to be hung on the wall but a highly charged arena of interaction—a debating ground, at times even a battleground. The political significance of time reckoning in the area was evident in narrative traditions about the origins of Kodi social institutions, where the priest of the calendar is the symbolic anchor of the whole polity. The politics of time has attracted considerable attention in recent years, for with conversion came the new Christian time unit of the week (the naming and defining attribute of the church), and with nationalism and independence the new historical time unit of the epoch. Both constructs have transformed local notions of time, to the extent that the Kodinese sometimes speak of recent changes as a shift in the temporality of the heavenly bodies themselves. Although units such as the day, season, and year have a local origin, they are now perceived in a wider context; thus it seems that "the sun now sets differently, the moon now rises strangely" (ha pa hekango a pa tama lodo, napa hekango a hunda wulla ).

Nowhere is the disjunction between traditional and recently introduced modes of reckoning time more evident than in the conflicts over the timing of the pasola . While the authority of the Rato Nale to "measure the months and count out the year" is not directly challenged, hardly subtle pressures have been brought to bear to "rationalize" the timing of Kodi calendrical rites to correspond to the Roman calendar. Such pressures stem both from a misunderstanding of the flexibility and negotiability of Kodi time reckoning and from a failure to appreciate the importance of the Kodi calendar in a regional system that includes most of Sumba.


As a result of such pressures, the nale festivities and the pasola have become out of sync with the ecological rhythms they were supposed to mirror. A highly inauspicious event has become commonplace: the sea worms often do not swarm on the morning of the ritual performances. Nale ceremonies, therefore, must frequently be performed without the presence of the nale themselves. To understand why this happens, we must first examine the social consequences of this disruption, then the technical problems of primitive calendars involved.

The Politics of Sea Worm Festivities

It was at the height of the rainy season, in the damp, muggy months of the Kodi new year in 1980, that I first went to visit the Rato Nale of Tossi in his ritual confinement. Sitting calmly in the shadows of his veranda, he was pounding betel nut as he watched the sky cloud over for another downpour. For the past month he had remained within the Sea Worm House at the center of the village. He did not join the others who went to work in the gardens and could not touch or eat the newly ripened crop of corn that they brought home. He could not travel by motor vehicle, sing or speak in a loud voice, or even wander outside the stone walls of his own village. He was the highest-ranking ritual specialist in all of Kodi, yet he appeared at that time to be the most afflicted. His "brooding" in that particular year concerned a new series of threats to his authority and to the health and prosperity of the people of the region, which I was not to hear about for some time.

Ra Holo, the "holder of the new year" (na ketengo a ndoyo ) in Tossi, was a dignified, retiring man of fifty, with a lean face and large, haunted eyes. He had been called to assume the office when he was in his thirties, "just a child" as he described himself, after a period of several years when the office had been vacant. The House of the Sea Worms had been burnt down in the sixties, and none of the proper rites could be performed until it was rebuilt.

His reticence, despite his cordiality and hospitality, sprang in part from a profound ambivalence about his role as guardian of such a sacred tradition. "I was asked by my grandmother to do this," he would say humbly, referring to the divination in which the spirit of Mbiri Kyoni spoke to designate him as the next Rato Nale. "She was a great priestess, a person who knew the secrets of the months and the years, and I am an unworthy successor."

Supposedly the Sea Worm Priest is not just a carrier of important knowledge and mythological narratives; he is also their shaper. Yet unlike


Ra Holo's position as the Rato Nale has become increasingly embattled as
government officials take over many of the functions once held by
calendrical priests. 1988. Photograph by Laura Whitney.

other chronologers such as the Mayan daykeeper (Tedlock 1982) or Incan calendrical priest, the Rato Nale does not possess a large amount of esoteric knowledge. He has rights to certain narratives that are fairly well known, and in his task of counting he observes the seasons and pays some attention to the stars; but his astronomical competence is scarcely more than that


of the average layman, in a society where the names and attributes of constellations are little known or commented on.

The Rato Nale, then, represents less an ideal of knowledge than one of ritual discipline. By his own immobility, he brings unruly forces into control; by his own confinement, he keeps disorder at bay. Ritual action, and in this case inaction as well, are the key to his ceremonial importance. He is, in short, less a sage than a moral exemplar.

In the first year that I attended the festivities referred to as the "Kodi New Year," I was received by Ra Holo in the central ceremonial village of Tossi and followed him as he made offerings to the ancestral spirits. On the morning that the worms were supposed to begin their swarming, though, as I rushed to the coast along with others carrying baskets and small troughs, there was a disappointment: the worms had not arrived. Despite several evenings of ribald singing along the beaches, offerings of betel nut scattered on the tombstones, and all the complications of arranging the pasola combat, the deities from the sea did not show up to watch these festivities held in their honor.

"Why has this happened?" I asked the others who ran down to the beach expectantly. "What does it mean?"

Most of them were not particularly distressed. "It means that the big swarming will not come until March," they said. "It isn't a good sign for the year, but the worms are certain to come after the next moon. Their absence now means the harvest will be poor in Kodi this year. The rains have shifted away from us and will fall on Wanokaka instead [where the pasola is held in March]. We will have to plant more corn and more tubers to fill the empty bellies of the next months."

The failure of the sea worms to arrive was obviously inauspicious but not catastrophic. It was—as I was soon to learn—an occurrence that was not unexpected in this particular year, for reasons concerning the now-contested area of calendrical authority. The reference to fertility being transferred from the harvest to other domains played on a form of rivalry between Kodi, the acknowledged source of the sea worm ritual and the pasola combat, and districts like Wanokaka, Gaura, and Lamboya, which have more recently incorporated the celebration into their ceremonial system.

More mysteriously, the Rato Nale himself had very little to say about the worms' absence. He was not surprised and simply stated, stoically, "This is what we should expect nowadays. There have been so many changes." I tried to get him to interpret the auspiciousness or inauspiciousness of the event, but he would comment no more. The only other thing he said, a bit sourly, was that "Ra Ndengi was right to stay home."


Although I knew that Ra Ndengi was the Rato Nale of Bukubani, his ritual counterpart, and I had been told that he was sick on the day of the pasola and would not be attending, I did not immediately link these two comments. It was only later, when Others filled me in on some of backstage drama surrounding the events, that I came to see what was going on.

In January of that year, both Ra Holo and Ra Ndengi had been visited by officials from the governor's office in Waikabubak. They announced a new policy: in order to "improve and upgrade" the quality of traditional ceremonies, they would need to be told the dates of the pasola ahead of time so that important guests could be notified and "distinguished outsiders" could be brought to witness the spectacle. "The pasola has become a symbol of the local culture of Nusa Tenggara Timor," they argued; "it shows our courage, our skills in horsemanship, and our heroic resistance to Dutch colonialism." They revealed that a statue of Sumbanese men on horses and carrying lances had been erected just outside the main airport of the provincial capital of Kupang, and there were new efforts to discover how this "exercise for war," as they called the pasola , may have contributed to the regional resistance led by Wona Kaka. Ra Holo, as a man who had received an elementary education and spent some time in government service, understood that this was a form of pressurge, and one very hard to resist.

Traditionally, the date for the swarming was not announced until seven days before the event, when the Rato Nale told the people that he had sacrificed a chicken to mark the first day of the seven-day countdown after the full moon. His decision that this moon was Nale Bokolo meant that others could begin preparing their chickens and rice for the move to the coast.

Impatient with delays and uncertainties, a former district administrator declared hotly: "I can count the days and nights as well as anyone!" and asserted that all he needed was a calendar telling him when the new moon would appear in February. Other people protested this claim: "You are not the .priest who holds on to the year," he was told by a rival. "The Kodi months are not the same as the foreign months, so you cannot know unless you have been watching the stars and the seasons as the priests have."

The Roman month of February was usually, but not always, the month when the pasola performance was held. By imposing an external calendrical system on the traditional ceremonial season, the district administrator was trying to establish an exact correspondence that was not, in fact, possible. He knew that the Roman months did not begin with a new moon and so recognized part of the problem; nevertheless, he countered


that "we know the worms come in the second month of the year, so why should we wait for the priests to count it out?"

Ra Ndengi withdrew from the conflict and refused to comment on it at all. Ra Holo, called into the district office by the current head of government, confessed to a certain confusion. "I know only what I was taught and the way they told us to count," he said simply. "The Kodi months are not the same as the foreign ones, but if you want to announce the date when you think it will be, we will not fight you. Still, it is dangerous to try to dictate to the marapu . Who knows if the sea worms will come?"

Other commentators, more forcefully, said that they thought the government efforts to meddle in the traditional calendar would endanger the health and prosperity of the whole region. Using the veiled language of ritual speech, they whispered to me:

When you start to count the months

Ba na kede a baghe wulla

You swim deep among the white
     swirling pebbles of the surf

Na pangnani jalo nani a walla watu

When you start to measure the year

Ba na kede ghipo ndoyo

You climb high on the unstable bough
     of kamoto leaves

Na panene jeta nani a tenda rou

Not even the foreign mother, stranger

Mono inde diyo a inya dawa, bapa

Can hide where the nets do not catch

Na laiyo ela pandouna nja pa ghena

Or climb where the winds do not

Na laiyo ela pandouna nja pa li

Their words suggested ominous consequences. And indeed, when the pasola was held on the date announced by the government spokesman, no sea worms swarmed off the western beaches. Only after the next moon did they appear, making March 6 the "large swarming" instead of the "leftover one" (hale wallu ). The harvest that followed, moreover, was a 'very poor one, the rains were sparse and insufficient, and many young rice plants never filled with golden kernels as they should have. The damage was worst in Mbali Hangali, the home of the former district administrator, but all over the area traditionalists speculated that it was related to efforts to meddle with the traditional calendar.

Ra Holo himself declined to given an opinion on the issue. Instead, on my next visit, he asked me to make a chart of the Kodi months to show to government officials, so if they decided to set the dates again they could do so more accurately. He said it was important to explain something of how the system worked but confessed that he could not fully understand


what was involved in "shifting" the months from one year to another. Although he knew well that it was difficult to predict exactly which day the sea worms would swarm, he had no idea that he was grappling with the abstract problem of intercalating the lunar calendar and the solar year.

The Problems in Primitive Calendars

Ra Holo was not alone in his confusion. The study of variation in notions of time and time reckoning has long been vexed with such problems, and it is increasingly difficult in the modern world to find groups whose original, preliterate temporalities have not been clouded or even permanently distorted by comparison with the now ubiquitous Western calendar.

In the earliest description of Sumbanese notions of time, Samuel Roos, the first Dutch official to travel on the island, reported that "there are no names for the days or the weeks. The Sumbanese live, in what concerns the reckoning of time, as in all else, in a continuing state of ignorance." He did record fourteen different names for periods of time within the year, which corresponded roughly to the Malay category of "moons," but noted a high amount of inconsistency in informants' statements: "Among fifty Sumbanese, only one will be encountered who is able to give the names of the periods in the proper order or who can say which is the present month" (Roos 1872, 70).

Inconsistency is not, however, the same thing as ignorance. Many students of non-Western time systems have found people hard to pin down on which lunation it is, and they have often interpreted discrepancies as signs of laziness or lack of care. More recent and sophisticated analyses, however, have revealed that a certain flexibility may be necessary to keep annual cycles adjusted to seasonal variations in variable ecological regions (Aveni 1989; Turton and Ruggles 1978). Temporal knowledge is an attribute of individuals as participants in organized societies, and it varies with the social needs of the group.

Two of the most famous peoples in the ethnographic literature, the Nuer and the Trobrianders, have lunar calendars that are complexly calibrated to conjoin natural and social needs. Evans-Pritchard (1940, 100) tells us that the Nuer conceptualize the named moons in relation to the activities that they perform, and are much less concerned with the lunar cycle than the round of subsistence activities in which it is inscribed: "Nuer do not to any great extent use the names of the months to indicate the time of an event, but generally instead to some outstanding activity in process at the time of its occurrence." Similarly, in Kodi many events are situated in time as before or after the harvest, before or after planting,


and to a certain extent people may try to figure out what name to give a month on the basis of these activities. However, the degree to which Kodi month names are fixed varies throughout the annual cycle.

Malinowski (1927, 211) believed that the Trobrianders did not have a calendar in any full sense because he could locate only ten common names for the months of the year (he thought, on the model of the Roman calendar, that there should have been twelve). He noted, however, a fair amount of regional variation in which month was given which name, and this was related to the timing of the milarnala harvest festival, which—as in Kodi was supposed to coincide with the swarming of sea worms (also called milamala in the Trobriand language). Edmund Leach (1950, 245), relating Malinowski's data to other Pacific societies, provides clues to unravel these differences; he also suggests an underlying pattern that is found, in a different form, in the Kodi calendar as well.

The purpose of any calendar, lunar or otherwise, is to measure the progress of the seasons and make possible the accurate prediction of their arrival. But the concept of the year as a fixed number of days (365.24 for the solar year) is an artificial temporal development associated with an advanced state of astronomical knowledge. Therefore, it is the periodicity of the seasonal cycle that is appreciated first, by all early chronologers, and not the duration between successive periods.

If, as in most primitive calendars, the year is first divided into periods by naming the moons, some mechanism must exist for intercalating the lunar and solar years. Because the lunar month consists, astronomically, of 29.53 days, a lunar year of twelve months would be only 354.36 days long. Each year, as the months were named and passed in succession, there would be a gap of 10.87 days, and after three years the months would have fallen behind by one in relation to the solar cycle. If an extra month is inserted in the lunar year once every three years, the two calendar years will be closely synchronized but not completely congruent. Once every twenty-nine years or so, a further intercalary month would be required. The problem that faces every user of a lunar calendar, therefore, is how to keep the "counting of the moons" in pace with the passage of the seasons—the part of Kodi chronology referred to as the "measuring of the year" (ghipo a ndoyo ), so that the wet and dry seasons do not slip away from the months named for the activities of planting and harvesting.

Evidence from the Wogeo, Yami, and Trobriand calendars surveyed by Leach (1950) suggests that this is done by adding—in certain years—an additional lunar month. Obviously, some ritual authority is needed to decide when the addition must be made, and some external check is needed to keep the two calendars in synchrony. Materials from many parts of the Pacific suggest that the annual swarming of sea worms is often what


provides this external check, with the sequence of ceremonial activities coordinated around this event.

If, as in the Trobriands, the festival of the sea worms is staggered from one district to another, the total number of month names may not add up to thirteen or even twelve, because a group of month names may be counted but not named, or counted only after the occurrence of the festival itself. Malinowski had argued that the use of month names by the Trobrianders was not calendrical but simply a haphazard correlation of gardening activities with the sequence of the moons; "gardening seasons" he said, "constitute the real measure of time" (Malinowski 1927, 211). Gregory Forth's meticulous examination of temporal classification in Eastern Sumba likewise does not address the issue of intercalation. He says Rindi wula are periods "of varying and indeterminate lengths . . . and do not coincide with the lunar months" (G. Forth 1983, 59), so they cannot be used for intercalation.

Yet even if we grant that the occurrence and naming of a particular moon is reckoned according to natural phenomena and social activities, this does not mean that there is not also a rudimentary calendrical function. The Rato Nale's role in "counting the months and measuring the year" after all, permits measured numerical prediction of coming events and is thus an independent scheme of time reckoning that goes beyond haphazard empiricism. As Leach (1950, 249) says, "if some event in the seasonal cycle is required to occur at some point in a lunar sequence, then a true calendar must exist, and this implies the existence of a correlation." The correlation is perhaps less evident in East Sumba, where the annual appearance of the sea worms is not ritually celebrated, but it is nevertheless indicated in the names of the months.

In addition, inconsistencies in the names reported for moons in Kodi and other districts of Sumba suggest that (1) there is a definite period of "forgetting the moon name" which is where the flexibility and possible intercalation must be found; and (2) the festivities held in Kodi require the prediction of the worm's swarming and thus work a bit differently from the Trobriand example. Thus, I argue that a Kodi lunar calendar does exist and that its functioning was once of great political significance. Reconstructing how it works today involves a delicate and complicated examination of a tradition under fire and a continuing struggle to keep an indigenous temporality alive in the face of new incursions.

Lunar Calendars in a Regional System

Leach proposes that the swarming of the sea worms off the southern edge of the Trobriand island chain each year following the full moon that falls


Table 5. Scheme of the Trobriand Calendar







2 Milamala




2 Milamala





2 Milamala





2 Milamala checkpoint


























1 (same as Vakuta)


2 Milamala



2 Milamala



2 Milamala



2 Milamala checkpoint

Sources: After Leach 1954a and 1950. Reprinted in Aveni 1989, 175.

between October 15 and November 15 (our time) is used to "restart the year" and keep the ten-month lunar calendar in concert with the seasons (table 5). The "sea worm month" of Milamala, he argues, must in fact be considered as a set of four months that are broken down regionally among the different districts of Kitava, Kuboma, Kiriwina, and Vakuta. Only the people of Vakuta are able actually to observe the swarm, so their calendar serves as the checkpoint for the others. Once the swarming occurs, the people of Vakuta call the next full moon "the moon just past milamala. " In order for the intercalation to work, that is, they must name the moon retroactively : the year is "extended" if the worms fail to show up at the appointed time. In practice, then, one year in three has thirteen months, since the milamala is duplicated periodically to keep the moon names in sequence with the worms. As Leach (1950, 254) sums it up:

The whole territory can thus complete a 12-month cycle without any one area bothering to count more than 10 months. So long as each group knows the relative position of its own "calendar" to that of its neighbor, the system is complete. . . . Clearly it is a much


simpler piece of intellectual analysis to know that one celebrates milamala one month later than someone else than to bother working out whether the year really contains 12 or 13 months.

Leach's case that the sea worms can be used to restart the year and keep it in sync with the seasons is convincing on a hypothetical level, and it explains the staggering of Milamala in different districts to permit adequate prediction of the festive season's approach. Yet it is not necessarily the only method used by the Trobrianders, or even the predominant one in all districts. One wonders what other social factors are involved when the moon "goes silly," to use the Trobriand term, and the Milamala is extended. Is this inauspicious? Does it confirm or threaten the position of Vakuta relative to the other districts? One commentator compares the event somewhat facetiously to "those of us in northern climes celebrating another December if snow didn't arrive in time for Christmas" (Aveni 1989, 176). In fact, a more complex system would seem to be involved, one that involves potential conflict between Vakuta, the "standard-bearer" and other districts that use alternate methods.

Leo Austen, the resident magistrate whose description of Trobriand calendars forms the basis of Leach's discussion, believed that observations of the stars were the defining feature of Trobriand garden periods. Native astronomy involved a "counting or reckoning" not only of the moon but also of constellations and was centered on a man in the Wawela village of Kiriwina who held the office of "local astronomer." "Garden times" corresponded not to lunations but to named star groups, most notably the Pleiades, Aquila, and Orion's Belt. All of the garden magicians (towosi ) had some knowledge of the seasonal garden times, which they needed to regulate the phases of work involved in cultivating taitu yams. The old man in Wawela, however, was the greatest authority, and his knowledge became the basis of Austen's own standardization of the calendar, since "the native himself often needs leading in the right direction, especially in those years when there are thirteen months (when the moon goes 'silly')" (Austen 1939, 240-41).

In describing and systematizing the Trobriand garden times in terms of European months and dates, Austen effectively destroyed the functions of the traditional astronomer and garden magicians. He assumed the familiar "white man's burden" of "rationalizing" the calendar in the name of progress and increased productivity:

There were famines in ancient times, but that may have been due to poor tools and late planting (owing to the moon having gone "silly")


but nowadays the yearly harvests should be greater than in the olden days, and the native should have more spare time. It is most important for the European, be he missionary, government official or trader, to understand Trobriand horticulture, for by knowing the important phases of gardening and the times when they should be taking place, he will be able to regulate his contact with the Trobriander so that he will not interfere with most necessary work. Again, the European will be able to watch that the native himself does not waste his time when he should be doing important garden work.
(Austen 1939, 251-52)

As on Sumba, local government assumed the task of ordering people back into their gardens when the rains seemed to be approaching, thus displacing the traditional authorities who had once fulfilled that function.

Austen (1939, 247) notes, however, that astronomical knowledge was unevenly distributed throughout the Trobriands; in particular, he wrote, "the Vakutans have lost most of their star-lore, since it was unnecessary when they could always adjust their calendar correctly by the appearance of the palolo annelid [sea worm]." This comment suggests to me that both systems of intercalation—one based on astronomical observation, the other on the sea worm swarming—coexisted but were of greater or lesser importance depending on the region. Leach (1950, 256) acknowledges that his model may have required a "supplementary stellar check" three months later, or a judgment based on the Pleiades, but is unwilling to sacrifice the principle that the different regional calendars depend on one another for verification.

Sumbanese regional calendars show a similar range of similarity and difference. Month names collected in four districts of East Sumba (Kambera, Kapunduk, Umalulu, and Mangili; table 6) and West Sumba (Lauli, Wanokaka, Anakalang, and Lamboya; table 7) all contain references to the swarming of sea worms, which they may use for coordinating annual cycles. Months are named after seasonal activities, and because the onset of rainfall and the blossoming of particular plants vary slightly in time across regions, some deviation is to be expected. All over the island the sea worm swarming is called nale or ngeli , and it falls in the moons that correspond roughly to February and March. Most calendars name two moons after the sea worms, in Kodi there are three (with the center one marked as the largest swarming), and in Lamboya five. Significantly, the word nale itself is sometimes given the Indonesian translation musim ("season"); in other words, it can be used as a phase of the solar year and not only to refer to the worms themselves. All of the Sumbanese calendars


have a period of prohibitions and ritual silence, called the "bitter months" in the west (wula padu, piddu , or podu ) and the "older months" (wula tua ) in the east.

The amount of agreement between the calendars is strongest concerning the moons when the sea worms are said to swarm and—in the west—the timing of the bitter sacrifices. In the seven interviews I conducted in different districts,[1] all my informants situated these events at roughly the same period in relation to the Roman calendar. There was much less consistency in the naming of the moons that fall toward the end of the dry season—roughly July, August, and September. One person, speaking about the Lamboya calendar, said that there were no month names for that period (Mitchell 1984). In Wanokaka, this period includes a month that "has no name" (wula dapangara ); in Anakalang it is a month that "is not counted" (wula dapa disa ).

Austen (1939, 244) also noted a period of "calendrical amnesia" among his Trobriand informants, which he situated in the period following the first new moon in June and extending until the heliacal rising of the Pleiades. In this "time of confused ideas" it would be possible to intercalate a thirteenth month without much popular awareness of the fact, because very few people know the moon's name at that time.

My field experience revealed a similar pattern in Kodi (table 8). After wula padu (the "bitter months"), people were well aware of what lunar month they were in and could give the Kodi name for the moon quickly, especially as the dates of Nale Bokolo approach or are still in the recent past. If asked for the name of the Kodi moon toward the end of the dry season, however, most informants will stop to count the months out on their fingers, consulting others and trying to remember the proper sequence of named moons. Inconsistencies that I recorded in eliciting the sequence of named months all concern the period from June to September, the common pattern being to invert the order of the two month pairs named for flowering plants (Rena Kiyo/Rena Bokolo and Katoto Lalu/Katoto Bokolo).

It therefore seems reasonable to expect that if there is slippage in the


Table 6. Regional Calendars of East Sumba





1 Hibu




2 Mangata

Ngali Kudu or Wai Kamawa

Ngeli Kudu or Wai Kamawa

Ngali Kudu

3 Ngeli Kudu

Ngali Bokulu or Mbuli Ana

Ngeli Bokulu or Mbuli Ana

Ngali Bokulu

4 Ngeli Bokulu


Mangata or Pamangu Langu Paraingu


5 Paludu




6 Langa Paraingu




7 Wula Tua

Tua Kudu

Tua Kudu

Tua Kudu

8 Kawuluru Kudu

Tua Bokulu

Tua Bokulu

Tua Bokulu

9 Kawuluru Bokulu

Kawuluru Kudu

Kawuluru Kudu or Landa Kawuluru

Kawuluru Kudu

10 Wai Kamawa

Kawuluru Bokuku

Kawuluru Bokulu

Kawuluru Bokulu

11 Ringgi Manu

Ringgi Manu

Ringgi Manu

Ringgi Manu

12 Amu Landa

Tola Kawulu

Tula Kawuru

Tula Kawuru

13 Wandu Bokulu


14 Wandu Kudu


Sources: I consulted four sources: Roos's (1872) month names collected in Kambera; Adams's list from Kapunduk in 1969 (Adams fieldnotes); G. Forth's 1975 collection from Umalulu (in Forth 1983); and Mitchell's (1984) notes from Mangili. I have rearranged all of the lists to correspond to the numbered sequences of Roman month names; Roos's list originally began with Kawuluru Kudu, Adams's with Mangata, Forth's with Tula Kawuru, and Mitchell's with Habu.

Notes on month names and their meanings

Hibu/Habu ("nesting") and Mangata ("white flowers") are used in West Sumba as well.

Ngeli and Ngali are variants on the name of the sea worms, whose presence in the sea is apparently observed though not ritually celebrated in East Sumba.

Wai Kamawa refers to a small cephalopod.

Mbuli Ana means to "thrash children" when food supplies are low.

Pamangu Langu Paraingu is a feast of souls ceremony once performed annually.

Paludu is the "time of singing" as one harvests corn and other crops.

Ngura is said to refer to any "young plants" (Forth 1983, 61).

Tua Kudu and Tua Bokolu are the "revered, respected months" after the harvest, considered an inauspicious and dangerous time and marked off as a period of restriction and quiet (similar to the "bitter months" in the west).

Kawuluru is a spiraling wind, and Landa Kawuluru is its crest.

Ringgi Manu is when chickens cover themselves from the cold.

Tula Kawuru means "time of the Pleiades" and refers to the first sighting of this constellation at the beginning of this period.

G. Forth (1983, 64) explains apparent discrepancies in the final months of these calendars by noting that wandu in the Kambera language is a more general term for the dry season and not usually a month name. He also suggests (1983, 61) that "the order in which Roos presents the terms is mostly inaccurate" but the month names do resemble those he found in Umalulu, though "many of the component terms of this classification are no longer widely known or employed in East Sumba."


Table 7. Regional Calendars of West Sumba

Lauli a

Wanukaka b

Lamboya c

Anakalang d

1 Mangata




2 Nale Lamboya

Nale Laboya



3 Nale Wanokaka

Nale Wanukaka

Nale Gouru

Nyale Bakul

4 Nale Mubbu


Nale Moro


5 Ngura


Ro Hull


6 Boda Rara

Bada Rata

Nale Ngisi


7 Meting Katiku

Metingo Katiku

Nale Mabu

Bada Rata

8. Menamo

Oting Mahi

Kaba Ro Yayu

Regi Manu

9 Pattina Mesi

Dapangara or Pidu Tou Danga

Kaba Pari Biru

Dapa Disa

10 Podu Lamboya

Pidu Lamboya

Podu Lamboya

Wadu Kei, Wadu Bakul

11 Podu Lolina


Padu Patialla


12 Koba



Hibu, Kaba

a From Rato Podu, Tarung.

b From Kering Hama.

c From Y. D. Kole.

d From Umbu Anagoga.

Notes on month names and their meanings

Mangata or Mengata refers to the blossoming of a white-flowered shrub.

Nyale Bakul means "great sea worm swarming."

Nale Mubbu means "sea worms that have already dissolved," while Nale Moro means "raw sea worms."

Ngura means "young tubers"; Nibu means "spear blossom."

Mura means "unripe," while "tua" means "ripe."

Ro Huh means "leaves of wild tubers."

Bada Rara or Boda Rata can be translated as "red" or "yellow-orange fields" and refers to the golden color of ripening paddy.

Nale Ngisi means "to bear fruit," and Nale Mabu means "mature or dissolving fruit"; both refer primarily to the rice harvest.

Meting Katiku means "black heads" and refers to the image of many people bending down in the fields to harvest the rice.

Menamo refers to threshing the harvest with the feet (of. Ind. menyamun).

Regi Manu means "covering chickens" to protect them from cold.

Pattina Mesi and Oting Mahi both mean "boiling salt."

The "bitter months" of taboos are variously called Padu, Pidu, and Podu, with Pidu Tou Danga meaning "of many people." Patialla is a region near Lamboya.

Both Koba and Kaba refer to the "bland months" that are free of taboos. In Lamboya, the first stage is "bland tree leaves" (Kaba Ro Yayu) and the second is "bland freshly harvested rice" (Kaba Pari Biru).

Wadu Kei and Wadu Bakul mean "little or great drought."

Hibu, Hi'u, and the Kodi Habu all refer to the "nesting month" for birds.

Dapa Disa means the month that "cannot be counted," and Dapangara means the "month that cannot be named."

See also Mitchell 1984; and Keane 1990, on Wanukaka and Anakalang calendars.


Table 8. Variations in Reports on the Kodi Calendar



Homba Karipit


1 Nale Kiyo

Nale Kiyo

Nale Kiyo

Nale Kiyo

2 Nale Bokolo

Nale Kodi

Nale Bokolo

Nale Bokolo

3 Nale Wallu

Nale Wallu

Nale Wallu

Nale Wallu

4 Bali Mbyoka

Bali Mbyoka

Bali Mbyoka

Bali Mbyoka

5 Rena Kiyo

Rena Kiyo

Katoto Lalu

Rena Kiyo

6 Rena Bokolo

Rena Bokolo

Katoto Bokolo

Rena Bokolo

7 Katoto Lalu

Katoto Lalu

Rena Kiyo

Katoto Walarongo

8 Nduka Katoto

Katoto Bokolo

Rena Bokolo

Katoto Walakare

9 Padu Lamboya

Padu Lamboya

Padu Lamboya

Padu Lamboya

10 Padu Kodi

Padu Kodi

Padu Kodi

Padu Kodi

11 Habu




12 Mangata




I collected the names of the months from four specific "authorities"—Ra Holo, Rato Nale of Tossi; Ra Ndengi, Rato Nale of Bukubani; Tanggu Bola, an eider in Homba Kapirit; and the Rato Nale of Weingyali, Balaghar—as well as asking a wide range of ordinary people about them.

Notes on month names and their meanings

Three stages are noted for the sea worm celebrations: Nale Kiyo (the minor phase or the preparations), Nale Bokolo (the major phase), and Nale Wallu (referring to the residue or leftover sea worms).

Bali Mbyoka refers to the opening up of the rice shaft filled with grain.

Rena Kiyo and Rena Bokolo are the minor and major phases of the harvest and refer to foodstuffs whose fruit is ready to be taken.

Katoto means a blossom, which opens up partly (Katoto Lalu) or all the way (Katoto Bokolu). In Balaghar, it is specifically the flowers of the cottonwood tree (Wala Rongo) and the "buffalo tree" (Walakare). The end of the blooming period is suggested in Nduka Katoto ("enough blooming").

Padu is the "bitter" month of silence and prohibitions.

Habu refers to the period of bird nesting.

Mangata is a flowering white shrub.

References to other regions occur in the naming of Padu Lamboya and in the use of the name Nale Kodi instead of Nale Bokolo for the month in which the sea worms are collected in Kodi.

traditional lunar calendar, it will occur in the period of vagueness and confusion, when people are distracted by the accelerated temporality of the feasting season with its large-scale gatherings.[2] From the time of the rice harvest of April-May until the bitter sacrifices that precede planting, people say that "the moon is watched only for dancing." What this means


is that since singers and orators face dancers across the central plazas of the ancestral villages, if the feast can be coordinated with the full moon, spectators will enjoy it much more. The full moon of the ceremonial period, indeed, is sometimes called "the full moon of dancing" (wulla taru, nenggo ore ), instead of one of the conventional calendrical names being used. Thus, I side with Austen over Leach in supposing that an intercalary month must come in the period of the "dancing moon" and not at the sea worm swarming, but I agree with Leach that the swarming can work as checkpoint and corrective device. In the end, therefore, I think that both seasonal indicators in the dry season and the sea worms are used to keep the lunar calendar synchronized with the solar year.

The evidence concerning Sumbanese "native astronomy" is more difficult to assess. The calendars of West Sumba make no reference to the movement of other celestial bodies, focusing exclusively on social activities (harvesting, singing, ritual silence) and natural phenomena (the blossoming of certain plants, the nesting season for birds, the appearance of animals in the sea).[3] The last month of the East Sumba calendars is called the "time of the Pleiades" (tula kawuru ; lit., "the prop of the cluster") and falls in late November or early December. G. Forth's (1983) informant in Rindi used this month as the starting point for his list of month names. An Eastern Sumbanese myth about the Pleiades tells of a brother and sister who committed incest and were separated by being banished to opposite ends of the sky. They turned into stars and became associated with the all-knowing and all-powerful deity of the heavens (Kapita 1976a, 166). In one version, their exile was the beginning of the division of the year into a wet and dry season, and hence essential to the genesis of garden crops. They were sent away "so the maize may reach its early stage of growth, and the rice may make its first appearance above the ground." When one of the three children born of this union was killed, furthermore,


food crops were created from the body (G. Forth 1981, 86-87; Kapita 1976a, 166).

The myth is a variant of one collected in West Sumba, which interprets the constellation as representing the "seven brothers and eight sisters" who migrated to the island together and intermarried. The last sister had no one to marry, so she became the wife of Lord Rat, who cut open her pregnant body to pull her down the hole into his underground home. After four days, her body was transformed into rice (Hoskins 1989b, 434). (See also text #4 in chapter 3, on the origin of bitter and bland months.)

Many other Eastern Indonesian peoples recognize that the Pleiades and Antares are never present in the sky at the same time (Arndt 1951, 1954; Barnes 1974, 117-18), and throughout the Pacific these celestial bodies assume an important place in the mythology of Polynesian peoples, including the Maori, Hawaiians, Marquesans, Tahitians, and Marshall Islanders (Nilsson 1920, 126-27).

In Kodi, the Pleiades are called the "signs of the year" (tanda ndouna ), and many people are aware that the heliacal rising of these stars corresponds to the coming of the rains and thus to the period of planting. A few other stars and star clusters are named, but they seem to designate general seasons rather than specific months. Antares, for example, is called the "man in the sky" (tou ela awango ); the evening rising of this star marks the start of the feasting period (as in Rindi; see G. Forth 1981, 86).

The presence of Antares and the "morning star" (presumably Venus) is considered necessary to the ritual singing of the dry season (July—October). The end of a long night of yaigho orations is signaled by a verse that explicitly mentions the constellations:

When the new day dawns

Ba na mahewa a helu

When light comes over the land

Ba na mandomo a tana

Along comes the star with a Savunese

Emenikya a mandune tonda haghu

Along comes the glowing red star

Emenikya a motoroma rara

Orion is observed and a story is told: In the early hours of the dawn, first three smaller stars become visible, followed by a large red one, which would seem to be Betelgeuse. It is perceived as the procession of a great lord (tou rato pinja ) and three companions: his pig (mandune wawi ); his slave, Lero Nggata (tou papawende ); and his warrior guardian, who carries a Savunese shield (mandune tonda haghu ).

Astronomical observation apparently plays a greater role in East Sumba, where the sea worm swarming is not ritually celebrated and in fact rarely


observed. G. Forth (1983) suggests that the Pleiades and Antares are used in a binary Sense as seasonal indicators, but they are not explicitly pegged to the moons or the lunar-based calendrical system. Kodi materials tend to support this idea, with the addition that a greater reliance on the nale has supplanted extensive stargazing.

The idea of "major" and "minor" sea worm swarmings may be something of a fiction, or at least open to conflicting interpretations. Affected by factors such as rainfall, tides, and ocean currents, the exact moment Of the swarming of the sea worms is triggered by the waning light of the moon. The tail end of each worm swells and fills with eggs or sperm; then the worm travels to the beaches and buries its head in the sand as the posterior, genital parts break off and swim to a rendezvous at the surface. Each large female cluster of eggs is surrounded by a knot of smaller males, which twist and writhe in a sexual dance. The scientific literature on this marine annelid, a segmented worm of the Eunicid family (Leodice viridis ), mentions two swarmings (Saunders 1977) but does not explain how the lunar illumination might work differently in neighboring districts. As a Zeitgeber that entrains the animal to a lunar periodicity, it is also reported to produce two swarmings on the southern coast of Savu (Fox 1979a, 153).

It is perhaps more accurate, therefore, to say that the swarming occurs in either February or March, with a few of the worms showing up early or late. The Kodinese say they catch "the heads" the first day, then "the bodies" at the main swarming, and only "the tails" on the last day. The conventional wisdom that there are two swarmings, with the most abundant one on the predicted day, allows the Sea Worm Priest's prediction to be considered accurate if it holds true for a two-month period .[4] He can use the major swarming to check the intercalation and then, if needed, correct his predictions for the following year.

What happens elsewhere on Sumba if the sea worms fail to show up? Edgar Keller, who did ethnographic research in Lamboya in 1984-86, reports that the big swarming that is supposed to occur there at the time of pasola (also "in February" according to official sources) does not happen most years. The explanation he heard was that the priests in the ritual center of Sodan "made a mistake" in the past, and as a result the ancestral spirits sentenced the Lamboyans to perform the rituals of the nale month


without the sea worms being present. Even when the festivities do coincide with the swarming, the priests are not allowed to collect the worms or consecrate them in their ancestral homes (Keller, personal comm.; Hoskins 1990a, 58-59). Geirnaert Martin (1992) confirms this account.

I suspect that this "mistake" had to do with the Sumbanese moons being confused with foreign months; that is, the worms were predicted to arrive "in February" instead of during a particular phase of the lunar cycle. Whether any of the traditional calendars on the island can now operate independently of the printed Western calendar, in fact, is very much in doubt.

The 1980 Controversy over the Dates for Nale

Using our knowledge of other lunar calendars, we can now reexamine the events of 1980 to understand why the synchronization of the sea worm swarming and the nale festivities did not work in that particular year. Traditionally, the Rato Nale used seasonal indications and rudimentary astronomy to fix the advent of the "bitter months" (wulla padu ). Once that date was fixed he simply "counted out" and named four other moons (Habu, Mangata, Nale Kiyo, and Nale Bokolo) to determine when the worm swarming would come. Usually this date fell late in February. My records, for example, indicate that sea worms did swarm in some abundance on February 27, 1981, and on February 15, 1982. However, this disjunction between Kodi moons and Roman months has meant that at times the dates predicted by the Rato Nale do not fall in February—as in 1980, when the worms swarmed in greatest abundance on March 10.

Only much later did I realize that the Rato Nale had in fact forecast this date, but no one had listened to him. On October 30, 1979, just a month after my arrival on the island, I went to visit him in Tossi because of rumors that "a ritual" was being performed that day. The ritual, at which we arrived too late to hear the full invocations, turned out to be the "roasting of the bitter chicken" (tunu manu padu ), which began the four-month ritual silence of the bitter months. On that day, the Rato Nale had put in motion the naming and counting of months: hence, the moon during which the ceremony occurred bore the name Wulla Padu; the following one, which began November 19, was called Wulla Habu; on December 19 came Wulla Mangata; on January 17, Nale Kiyo; and February 16 signaled the first appearance of the Wulla Nale Bokolo. By consulting an astronomical almanac,[5] one can reconstruct the lunar months


as they were named in the traditional system and realize why the Rato Nale had told government officials he was "not yet ready" to announce the date of the pasola at the beginning of February. The new moon, which made its first appearance on February 16, did not become full until March 1, and it reached its zenith on March 3; the sea worms swarmed seven nights after that moment, on March 10, 1980. The swarming of the nale worms is a particularly appropriate event for this intercalation, because it is pegged both to a lunar phase (the seventh night after a full moon) and a solar season (the height of the rainy season). In contrast, the padu sacrifices do not occur at any specified phase of the moon but are determined purely by seasonal markers—and their impact on the "measuring of the year" can be understood only retroactively by checking the lunar phase in which the sacrifice occurs so the significance of naming the new moon for the yearly calendar will be appreciated.

The functioning of the traditional calendar and its mode of intercalation can be further checked by reconstructing the rest of the lunar months for the period 1979-88 (table 9). We know that the sea worms swarmed for the nale festivities and pasola performances on February 27, 1981 (because I saw them), and on February 15, 1982 (because I asked an informant to send me a letter to confirm the date). We also know that on two recent occasions—in 1984 and again in 1988—the pasola was held in February, but the worms did not put in an appearance until March (March 6, 1984, and March 10, 1988). Performing the rituals without the sea worms is considered inauspicious, since the timing and abundance of the sea worm swarming is said to indicate the timing and abundance of the harvest. "If there are many sea worms, then the year [ndoyo ] will be a good one," people say, using the term ndoyo in its original Austronesian sense (Nilsson 1920, 96) to mean "season" or "agricultural produce."

The blame for mounting these rites at an inauspicious time does not belong to the Rato Nale, for my records of the padu ceremonies indicate that they were held at the correct time to keep the named moons in sync with the seasons. Rather, the government officials did not heed the priest's predictions but insisted on holding the nale festivities "in February" adhering to the Roman calendar. In 1980, namely, the padu sacrifices—which I attended were held on November 5, at the end of a lunar month (October 9-November 8) that was designated Wulla Padu Kodi. This naming of the month could have been determined in either of two ways: (1) the Rato Nale could have observed seasonal indicators and decided that


Table 9. A Speculative Model for Sea Worm Intercalation

Known Dates for the Jousting (Pasola) and Sea Worm Swarming (Nale)

Speculative Dates Based on Published Lunar Calendars



Feb. 12



Mar. 10




Feb. 27



Feb. 27




Feb. 15



Feb. 15





Feb. 7



Feb. 7



Feb. 9



Mar. 6





Feb. 23



Feb. 23




Feb. 12



Feb. 12




Feb. 6



Feb. 6



Feb. 13



Mar. 10


Source: For the speculative dates I consulted theAstronomical Almanac, 1980-88 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office); for the period before 1980 it is called theAmerican Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac.

If the speculative dates are correct, then after three years a "lag" between the lunar and the solar cycles causes the sea worm swarming to fall in March instead of February. In order to keep his predictions accurate, the Rato Nale would have had to add an intercalary month at padu in 1979, 1983, and 1987. The dates that 1 recorded for the padu ceremony in 1979 seem to indicate that he did so, but official pressures to hold the ceremony in February defeated these efforts and have made the intercalation a retrospective "correcting" instead of a use of traditional methods of timekeeping. If the proper relation between padu and nale were observed, it seems that the swarming could be kept in sync with the Kodi months, but not with the government ones.

the bitter months must come "later" in that particular year, or (2) the Rato Nale could have used the timing of the sea worm swarming in 1980 to determine the moon names retrospectively . Since the worms swarmed on March 10, he would consider the moon from February 16 to March 15 as Wulla Nale Bokolo and simply count out eight more moons until the proper time for Wulla Padu.

Either method would have allowed him to predict the next swarming, which occurred in the moon that ran from February 4 to March 5—coming, on schedule, seven nights after the full moon "sat" on February


20. My questions about what method he used to determine this chronology elicited an ambivalent response:

My grandmother Mbiri Nale told me to watch the signs of the year [tanda ndoyo ]. She repeated these verses about the coming of the bitter months:

When the dust of the dry season

Ba na kambukongo a mara tana

When patches appear in dry grass

Ba na kolokongo a rumba rara

The chickens must be readied for

Tanaka ena a manu

Closing off the cycle of the dry season

Na tondanya la handomo mara tana

Returning to the cycle of the sea

Na hambalingo na hawungo wulla

For our mother of the sea worms

Tanaka inya nono nale

Who floated off like fibers in the tides

Na lingo na pa tenango kandiyako

For our father of the ipu fish

Tanaka bapa ipu mbaha

Who vanished like the coconut leaves

Na lingo naikya pa ledengo kalama

Bringing you back from the floods

A konggolo ghu waingo loko la

Returning from the swarming waves

A waliku ghu mbanu nale la

The signs she said to watch for were the winds of the end of the dry season, which blow the dust in little circles, the closing of dedap blossoms [nduka katota , also the name of the moon just before Padu Lamboya], and the absence of small fish [teppe, ighya katapa ] in the ocean. These all show that the rains will not be long in coming.

The interview that I conducted in 1980 did not go further than this, because at the time I did not realize how important the timing of the padu sacrifices was to the whole calendar. When I returned to Kodi in 1988, however, and once again saw the pasola performed in the absence of the sea worms, I realized that a more complex calculation was necessary to keep the Kodi moons in accord with the solar year, and nale with pasola . I asked if the task of the Rato Nale involved not only counting the moons but also watching the stars, and in particular if he paid attention to the Pleiades. He responded: "There are some stars that are called the signs of the year [tanda ndoyo ]. They are seven stars [mandune pitu ] that appear low in the horizon at dusk at the end of the dry season. This is a sign that we should begin planting soon [tanda tondo ] because the rains will be here soon. But the bitter sacrifice [padu ] must be performed before these stars are visible, so the stars do not tell us how to count the moons." On Sumba, the Pleiades are usually not seen until late November, when they rise just


after sunset. Ra Holo's response here seems to admit to some use of astronomical observation, but he distinguishes between his own task—which is a specialized ritual duty, that of naming the moons in order to predict the arrival of the sea worms—and the more generalized popular knowledge of the wet and dry seasons.

It might appear, from the speculative model I have presented, that the gaps in the sea worm swarming form an almost exact analogue to the Western calendrical "leap year" and that, therefore, it would be possible to achieve the intercalation simply by inserting an additional month every fourth year. This may in fact have been attempted (as it was in Western history), but such a solution would approximate the relation between solar and lunar years only inexactly. If three months were inserted over the course of eight years (as the dates I have given suggest should be done), the remainder after the solar year (365.24 days) was divided by the lunar synodic month (29.53 days) would be approximately 3/8, or .368. If four months were intercalated over the course of eleven years, the remainder would be about 4/11, or .3636 (Aveni 1989, 113). However, any simple mechanical rule would allow for some slippage, and thus probably for some retrospective correction. In fact, the system only works at all because it is determined to be vague and open to social interpretation (Leach 1954a, 120).

Regional Calendars and the Control of Time

A third possibility could explain how the task of intercalation is managed within this calendar, and in particular why many districts of Sumba that do not celebrate the swarming of the sea worms nevertheless name certain moons after this event. The arrival of the worms could in fact be used as an anchor for a more complex system in which one region "checks" its moon names against those of its neighbors. Leach's analysis suggests that such a system exists in the Trobriands, but he does not provide enough ethnographic data to ascertain how it works.

His hypothesis about regional coordination has been taken considerably further by Frederick Damon (1982, 1990), in a study of calendrical transformations along the northern side of the Kula ring. Looking from the vantage point of Muyuw, Woodlark Island, he concludes (1990, 20) that "New Year" ceremonies are not tied to specific phases of the moon but reflect a spatial progression from east to west, with different regions differentiating themselves with respect to equinoxes and an intervening solstice: "The system's rigor concerns space (and kinds of time), not the amount or sequence of time" (1990, 9). While the Trobrianders are vitally concerned with "catching time reckonings" (Malinowski 1927, 205) and


"great arguments take place over the naming of the moon" (Austen 1939, 243), in Muyuw a spatial vocabulary is more important than a temporal one for modeling the culture's main principles and institutions (Damon 1990, 17). Damon's analysis suggests a pattern of cultural differentiation, with one area designated as the "timekeeper" and others focusing on other criteria of order. The local astronomer of Wawela would thus occupy a ritual office quite similar to that of the Rato Nale in Kodi.

Looking at the whole set of Sumbanese regional calendars as a system and considering their interrelationships, we see that relations between districts are related to moon names. It would seem that even in the precolonial period there was communication about the timing of seasonal rites. As in many other "primitive" systems of time reckoning (Nilsson 1920), the names of certain moons are either duplicated or distinguished as "greater" or "lesser" versions of each other (thus the Kodi Nale Kiyo and Nale Bokolo, the Umalulu Tua Kudu and Tua Bokolu). In addition, the moons named for crucial calendrical rites (nale and padu in the western districts) are staggered over several districts, often occurring one month earlier in one district relative to its neighbor. The calendars in fact refer to each other constantly, naming moons after the ceremonial practices of a neighboring domain.

The names of the moons indicate a coordination not only of natural events (sea worm swarmings) but also of social events: the ritual celebrations associated with these swarmings. Kodi, as the source of the sea worm festivities, is indeed the "base of the year" (kere ndouna ) for the whole island. The importance of coordinating the festivities is suggested by the fact that Wanokaka, Lamboya, and Gaura (the other coastal districts that celebrate nale ) acknowledge Kodi as the source of the rite.[6]

The complex interrelations between the calendars of the districts of West and East Sumba suggest several conclusions:

1. The different regional calendars could have been used, as Leach suggests, to coordinate a common system for the whole island, loosely


based on the nale swarming. This coordination would be based on a shared understanding of calendrical principles, rather than on direct communication between the ritual officers concerned. The counterpart of the Rato Nale of Tossi is called the Rato Wulla in Wanokaka and Lamboya, but they have never met and, without a common language, could not communicate even if they did meet. Before the recent paving of roads in the 1980s, each district was several days' travel from the next, across dangerous rivers and rugged mountains. In addition, the districts of Kodi and Gaura once took heads from each other, as did those of Wanokaka and Larnboya. Nevertheless, the calendrical priests in the other districts affirm that the method of "counting the moons and measuring the year" originated in' Kodi. It must have been through inland districts (Ende, Rata, Weyewa, and Lauli) that the names of the months spread, and the nale swarming was used to coordinate a calendrical system shared, with minor variations, by all people on the island.

2. The moment of intercalation occurs at the padu sacrifice, when a new planting year is begun; this point is thus the real "beginning" of the calendar. Immediately before padu , people have only a hazy idea of the Kodi moon and are aware that the "bitter sacrifices" can come early or come late, depending on whether or not the rains seem about to fall. The Rato Nale thus performs the important social function of shutting down all ritual activities so as to concentrate the attention of the population on preparing their fields, and he has the delicate task of coordinating this moment with the seasons and the rains. He may use some astronomical signs but relies primarily on seasonal indicators (dust, plants, the sea) and the moon in which the swarming occurred eight months before.

3. Within the moon called Nale Bokolo, seven nights are counted from the moment at which the moon reaches its zenith in the sky and prepares its descent. In Kodi, this is called the time when the moon "sits" (londo a bei wyulla ) in the sky, temporarily immobilized in its fullness. Although the swarming is said to occur seven nights after it sits in Nale Bokolo, it takes place only six nights later in Nale Wallu; this is expressed in the couplet pitu nale ndoyo, nomo nale wallu , "seven for the sea worms of the year, six for those that are leftover." The training of the Rato Nale includes instruction in "reading the moon" to determine the moment it reaches its zenith—as opposed simply to its fullest phase. The moon's temporary immobility, hesitating at the edge of transition, is symbolically expressed by the ritually enjoined immobility of the Rato Nale.

4. Within each domain, the lunar calendar appears as an annual cycle with a defined phase of "looseness" or "slack" before the padu sacrifices; as a regional system, however, it has a permutational aspect. Different


domains punctuate different parts of the year by holding their most important calendrical ceremonies in various months. The two different months for nale festivities (the first celebrated in Kodi and Lamboya, the second in Wanukaka and Gaura) are only one instance of the rotation of "New Year" rites. In Lauli, the most elaborate ceremonies are held at padu , so the "New Year" is said to fall in October-November. In Anakalang, the annual cycle climaxes in the "descent to the priest valley" (purungu ta kadonga ratu ), which usually falls in April.

Social and cultural differences are marked by varying punctuations of time, which also allow members of neighboring domains to attend calendrical rites in other regions as spectators. Damon's argument that the northern Kula ring calendars are structured as a system of continuities and discontinuities could also be made of the Sumbanese months. Although the swarming of sea worms continues to serve as a temporal checkpoint, at least to a certain extent, on Sumba the cultural significance of calendrical variation clearly lies in its character of ordered diversity. While the people of Kodi are still proud to be the "time masters" (mori ndoyo ; lit., "the masters of the year") of the island, the political centrality of the traditional calendar is coming under ever greater threat.

Epilogue: Stepping In and Out of Time

The two persons who occupied the office of Rato Nale in Kodi Bokol during the 1980s negotiated their positions quite differently. In 1980, when the idea of government intervention was new and its consequences uncertain, neither one of them would discuss the changes openly. Ra Ndengi indicated disapproval by his absence. His younger associate, Ra Hupu, had to shoulder the mantle of priestly functions for the whole region, but did so reluctantly and with many misgivings. In 1988, when the sea worms once again failed to swarm in February, he was willing to speak a bit more openly.

"It is not my business to tell the government when they should invite their guests," he told me. "But neither should they tell us how to count the moons. The pasola of our ancestors was staged to greet the sea worms as they swarmed on our shores from across the sea. If we do it without their presence, we are not keeping our promise to the ancestors. Now that so many people are Christian, however, they may not care."

I asked him if the government edict would affect the timing of the padu sacrifices, since these set in motion a cycle of month names that effectively predicts the arrival of the sea worms once Nale Bokolo has begun. "No,


we will perform the padu sacrifices as we have always done, but say the names of the Kodi moons softly and under our breaths so there will not be an overt conflict. They pay no attention to the names of the moons anyway, since they close off the feasting season themselves with government orders."

He referred rather ruefully to a series of government orders issued in the regency capital that put an early halt to livestock slaughter in order to limit the "wasteful" consumption of animals. Citing regional goals of improving economic conditions, these orders preempted traditional calendrical authorities from beginning the four-month ritual silence by roasting the bitter chicken. Since Kodi had sponsored the largest feasts of recent years (several of them involving over a hundred buffalo), the new restrictions were enforced particularly strictly there. Once again, his words implied, official bureaucracies had acted first, leaving him in the position of simply reacting or of offering a retrospective traditional legitimation to events that had already occurred.

In 1980, a government letter, dated September 2 and signed by the regent and district administrator (camat ), announced that no feasts would be permitted after September 15, "so that all activities could be oriented toward village development, including the cleaning and preparation of gardens in order to await planting and the coming of the rains." The letter came as no surprise, since an earlier announcement in 1976 had expressed the same sentiment, followed in 1987 by yet another. Periodically, the inflationary spiral of feasting was contained by government restrictions, only to burgeon out again in the intervening years. In particular, the government outlawed "chain feasting" (Ind. pesta berantai ), or feasts that required a "chain" of participants, each one obliged to contribute because of membership in an ancestral village.

The next month, a small group of villagers gathered to roast the bitter chicken in Tossi, making the government-enforced de facto silence into a de jure compliance with the traditional calendar. The Rato Nale held up a small chicken with these words:

This small chicken here

Hena a manu

With only a shrimp's waist

A kenda kura kiyo

This small chicken here

Hena a manu

No more than a banyan flower

A walla kawango kiyo

Will close off the flute playing

Na riri we kingyoka a li pyoghi

Will prohibit the lute singing

Na leta we kingyoka a li jungga

So we will go to dig the land

Onikya la dari cana

Without overstepping a node

Nja do kingoka pa dowa handalu


So we will go to weed the grass

Onikya la batu rumba

Without trespassing a joint

Nja do kingoka pa pala hawuku

As the ceremony came to an end, a young man standing next to me said,

In earlier times, if someone needed an extension to finish building his house or constructing a grave, he would come to the Rato Nale with a simple gift, a chicken, a piglet, a length of cloth, and ask for the time needed to complete his task. Now when people want to hold a feast after the padu sacrifice, they do not come to us. They go to the district office and are. told to pay a fine of 35,000 rupiah [approx. $30] so the government will extend the deadline. We were kinder time masters than the district officer.

Ra Holo had decided to make what he could of a situation in which his authority over the calendar was being increasingly diminished. By choosing not to confront his new rivals directly he kept his dignity, but he could only resign himself to the usurpation of his powers. Ra Ndengi, who was perhaps more offended by government interference, was also less concerned to carry on a tradition that seemed broken and devoid of meaning. He avoided conflict by withdrawing completely, retreating into the safety of old age and infirmity. "My eyes have turned foggy," he told me as he turned his gaze toward mine and showed the pale outlines of cataracts. "I cannot be a spectator at the pasola . I cannot see what they are doing to it. Why should I go?"

The master of time, thus, expressed his mastery by making himself into an anachronism. He was above time, he could step out of it, and by leaving it behind he could show himself indifferent to the debate about secular activities. His junior associate, wanting others to understand his priestly functions and respect them, asked for my assistance to explain his task to government officials in "rational" terms. We prepared a list of the names of Kodi moons and a suggestion that the date of the sea worm swarming could vary from one month to another.

But a sacred narrative can be "rationalized" only if it loses its unquestioned, separate status. In a modern world with easy access to printed calendars, many people saw little need for the elaborate knowledge that had been transmitted along a line of hereditary priests to keep the lunar calendar coordinated with the solar cycle of seasons. The arrival of the worms and the renewal of the natural world became less important than a performance staged for important visitors who did not care how to "count the moons and measure the year." It was easier to conclude, as regency officials did, that the sea worm festivities occurred "one week after the


full moon in February." Local time, first invented and given shape by ritual practice, ceded its place to an imported tradition of literate records.

Kodi, the domain that prided itself on being the "base of the year" (kere ndouna ) and the "counter of the months" (ghipo wulla ) for the whole island, was becoming increasingly aware of its own parochialism. "The numbers of people who listened when we spoke was once very great," Ra Holo complained to me, "but now it is shrinking." Competition with bureaucratic calendars was no longer possible: "They cannot hear our prayers anymore, they hear only the district office's loudspeaker at the market." If local temporality was forced to surrender to a more encompassing national and even international time reckoning, it was not without a protest and a nostalgic sense of loss.


previous chapter
12 The Embattled Chronologer The Politics of the Calendar
next chapter