In Focus

Crescent-shaped ornament (tabelo)

During the colonial period, Sumba horses were in great demand by the Dutch for use as calvary mounts. Sturdy steeds brought a high price, and payment was frequently made in gold and silver coins. In addition, gifts of precious goods, including good and silver staffs of office, were made in order to gain the support and loyalty of important noble clans. Such transactions resulted in the accumulation of great wealth by these families, especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries–wealth demonstrated in part through the amassing of spectacular ornaments and jewelry. Gold and silver coins were often worn without alteration, but many were melted down by metalsmiths, who created a wide variety of jewelry that served as symbols of aristocratic power and prerogatives. Among the most elegant and impressive of these superbly executed pieces are crescent-shaped ornaments. This ornamental form is found not only in Sumba but also in Nias and Sumatra in the west and to the farthest eastern reaches of the archipelago.

On Sumba, these ornaments are included in clan treasuries and are among the most sacred possessions of a noble family. Clan treasuries include heirlooms of past and present noble lineages and are thought to symbol­ize the “soul” of a given clan. In addition to gold and silver jewelry, exceptional textiles, beads and beaded bags, swords, Chinese porcelain, and ivory bracelets are included. In East Sumba, such crescent-shaped ornaments are called lamba and on very rare occasions are worn as a man's forehead decoration. They are kept in special storage areas in a house attic and used during important ceremonies and rituals. They require special handling and extraordinary care lest great misfortune befall their owners. Specific heirloom pieces represent sacred relics, imbued with special powers, sometimes serving as a spiritual conduit between the living and the world of the spirits.

In West Sumba, lamba are called tabelo or tobelu. As with lamba from East Sumba, they are stored in secure areas of the house and are considered sacred possessions of the spirits (marapu). Tabelo are worn by the sons of aristocratic families as regalia for dancing during important ceremonies. During high-status weddings, the bride, in addition to other finery, may also wear a tabelo.

Without specific provenance, it is difficult to determine the precise geographic origin of tabelo; the Dallas 19th-century tabelo appears to be from Anakalang, West Sumba, or a nearby village. Fabricated from a thin sheet of richly patinated gold, this ornament's repoussé decoration includes a central boss surrounded by what appear to be references to heirloom earrings (mamuli), two riders who sit astride mythical horned mounts, and writhing serpents from the world of the spirits. The rider to the left (riding a female horse) is male, complemented by the female (riding a male horse) to the right. Serpents are underworld creatures that give rise to upperworld potency and fecundity. Sprouting from their tails are the repeated tendrils of plant life, which, like growth seeking the sun, rise vertically to the upper world. In style this ornament is similar to other lamba from East Sumba, some of which may have been executed by the same itinerant artists. Most gold objects from Sumba have been attrib­uted to goldsmiths from Savu or Ndao, nearby islands. Whether from east or west, their beauty and presence make them remarkable examples of the talent and skill of indigenous metalsmiths.

Adapted from

George Ellis, "Crescent-shaped ornament (tabelo)" in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 216.