The Belis: The proposal ritual in Sumba

June 28, 2021
Traditional sumbanese necklace with orange pearls and gold pendant

35 horses offered, 3 sleepless nights survived, 1 pig slaughtered, and potentially decades of debt… and no one has even said “I do”. If you thought getting down on one knee in the Western world was a high-pressure situation, think again. Welcome to marriage proposals: Sumba style.
In a ritual known as the Belis, every would-be Sumbanese groom must engage in a complex process of negotiation which sets a dowry and agrees an engagement. First, the groom and his family must travel possibly many hours across the island to the wife-to-be’s family while transporting an offering of livestock — typically horses and buffalo —, jewelry, and traditional knives, spears, and mamuli (ornaments).
The only rule: arrive before sunset or pay a fine.
Then as night falls, the two families start what could be hours or even days of negotiations with coffee and Betelnut (an important element in Sumbanese ceremonial life with its symbolism of fertility and balance). The bride’s family also pay their own smaller Belis, typically something considered “feminine” such as pigs or traditional fabrics. Once a sum is agreed, the Belis, and the proposal, is sealed with the slaughtering of a pig.

For Sumbanese women, this is no derogatory trade deal, but is instead a ritual of dedication and sacrifice showing respect for, and giving thanks to, the bride and her family. The higher the family’s social status and the more a bride’s accomplishments and education, the bigger the Belis. Indeed, some noble women can remain single their whole lives. And the cost to the groom, and his family who share the burden with him, can be so high that it can be years until the wedding is finally complete. For this reason, local elders say the Belis ritual cements strong bonds between families which are not easily broken. The proof — ceremonial marriages have lower rates of divorce.

Next step: wedding bells…. The actual marriage will need around three times the sum negotiated in the Belis. Who said love comes cheap?

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