01 February 2013

Rituals, Sacrifice & Symbolism in Timor-Leste

ETLJB 01 February 2013 Guest Poster: Matthew Libbis BA (Hons) Anthropology* - Stories, songs, dances and tais (woven fabric) patterns each belong to regional extended family groupings, and the knowledge of and responsibility for them are passed down a determined lineage. People are reluctant to and fear telling stories that do not belong to them: some say it is not theirs to tell; others said that if they get it wrong they might die: at the very least, suffering or sickness will befall their family.

Ritual language is important as it is considered to be the words of the ancestors (Therik 1995:3). As such, to deliberately retell falsely risks death or misfortune for the community. They are concerned they will ‘”die a bad death’” (Francillon 1967:vi). Therik (1995:38) attributed a distinction between folk tales, origin myths and true stories to the person who and occasion at which they were recited. The more formal the situation, the more serious the consequences of getting it wrong (Therik 1995:39). Legitimacy of all things is imbued in the past (McWilliam 1989:59-60).

Traube recounts how the keeper of ‘trunk’ words passes the words on when death is imminent (Traube 1989:338). Where the person due to inherit those words is overly eager in attaining them, the keeper accuses them of trying to kill them by extracting the words. With the death of so many people under Indonesia, some stories, rituals and myths, and the meaning of dances have been lost; others are known, but the lineage has been truncated: people may know the stories, but are not allowed to tell them.

There was a move among the local elite to gather the remaining elders along the southern coast each side of the border between Indonesian West Timor and the newly independent Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste to piece together the narratives, to restore the trunk. The chasm of who would be custodian of the words (lianain) was resolve by creating a position of lianain as an elected official at suco (local government) level.

Autocratic societies have little discrepancy in mythology, but in competitive ones where there are conflicting versions, a specialised role of story teller emerges (Kirsch 1973:17). While Timor was by no means democratic, there wasan array of dynasties, each with varying degrees of despotism, which is reflected now in whether their hereditary title is dignified and validated by being voted into their hereditary office.

There a few variations on the story of the Giant of Manufahi. One involves the giant being cut into seven bits, one of being eaten by a serpent, one of being eaten by a serpent and the serpent being cut into seven bits and pieced back together in such a way that the giant came back to life, and one in which the giant’s widow returns every thousand years on the night of a full moon and calls out, beiala (ancestor), which only the birds can here. There is a landfall in Manufahi known as the Giant’s Footprint, where the giant is supposedly buried. Other versions have him buried on the Quiras plains, a distance south east from the landfall that not even a giant could straddle.

People rely on knowledge of the past in social reconstruction (McWilliam 1989:136). On the other hand, there are some people ‘whose potential to tell the past is greater than they let on’ (Traube 1989:340).

The Ablai militia terrorised the people of Manufahi district in 1999. People had been moved down from their ancestral village in the mountains by Indonesia. It is a five kilometre climb inland from the new village, on a broken, rocky track cut through the teak and sandalwood. I first went to the old village with a young man who cuts down the teak there to provide building material and scaffolding for the church being built in the new village. He told me how the liberation army, Falintil (Forças Armadas de Libertação Nacional de Timor-Leste), had been based here in 1999, and when the people fled the violence, pursued by the Ablai militia, Falintil protected the people in the jungle, and in a confrontation between Ablai and Falintil, one militia three guerrillas were killed. He showed me the stones that were monuments to the people buried there, and sign, ‘Villa Human Zorro’ hung from a tree. People had told the militia that Falintil were in the hills behind the village, but my ‘informant’ had been in Dili at the time, and had made the story up.*

There is a legend of warriors turning into dogs to escape detection. The word for hero, asuwain, means as or when a dog. With resistance leader Xanana Gusmão evading Indonesian capture, the myth was applied to him, saying that he transformed into a white dog, and roamed freely around a village while Indonesian soldiers searched for him.

Two rivers that cascade south from the mountain range converge at Mota Karau Ulun (Buffalo Head River) which has the appearance of buffalo horns. The local story is that two boys were thirsty and went looking for water. A dog led them to a buffalo head in the ground. When they pulled it out, a spring emerged and increased in flow until it became the river that now runs to the sea.

Van Wouden recounts a story of two brothers, one thrusting a spear that caused a spring to gush forth from the ground. In this version, the two brothers represent a division between earth and sky, and with the older brother belonging in the mountains (1968:110). Less dramatically, marriage alliance is symbolised in the convergence of rivers (Schulte Nordholt 1971:119).

To celebrate Timorese independence, Portugal sent the statue of our Lady of Fatima to tour East Timor. It was taken from district to district, and processions followed the statue from suco to suco. A buffalo horn was blown to herald the departure of the Figurina from one suco and its arrival in the next. The katuas (elders), wearing manufulun (feathers worn on the head), kebauk, belak (breastlplate), and tais woven with regional colours, sang and chanted between decades of the rosary. Women banged the dadili (gong) and beat the bakadudu (small drum), with rhythms specific to their respective regions.

A threshold woven from folded banana leaves marked the suco boundary. The procession stopped at the threshold, and the katuas from each suco faced each other. Those who were giving the statue performed their bidu (dance) and said their words. People knelt in the mud for the Christian prayers. The katuas from the receiving village performed a brief ceremony. The buffalo horn was played on a hilltop, facing the giving suco, to signal that the statue has been handed over, and a new procession began. In the next suco, young people played modern instruments and sang modern songs as the statue reached the church.

The buffalo’s importance in Timorese culture accords it sacral status. The buffalo horn is a recurring motif in Timorese and eastern Indonesian myth and ritual. The blood of a sacrificed animal restores the nourishment that crops have taken from the earth (Forth 1998:301). Nourishing the land in this way enhances claim to that land: the buffalo horns are the tangible evidence of that claim (Forth 1998:309).

Cunningham (1973:212) notes that houses are built according to a specific pattern that conforms to the Atoni numeric ritual. People who build the houses may be aware of the pattern, if not the ritual significance, which is consistent with Traube’s observations of Mambai knowledge of tip only.

A Kemak sacred house is built by all men associated with that particular lineage. One weekend a month for 11 months they will come, and a small ritual feast will be held at the conclusion of that month’s work. The sacred house will have seven levels, with four steps leading to each, and people of varying degrees of familiarity and intimacy are allowed at each level (visitors on the lower level, friends on the second, in-laws on the third, grades of neighbours, who are relatives, on the fourth, fifth and, in particular, a person marrying into the village, the sixth; with only the luliknain, the keeper of the sacred house and sacred goods, allowed on the seventh level. At the inauguration of the sacred house, a buffalo will be sacrificed, and a major feast takes place.

In the centre of a plateau of a Mambai village, bordered by twelve very solemn sacred houses, and on which it is forbidden to walk, is a sacrificial altar, with a pillar that holds the horns of buffalo that records who has sacrificed buffalo for which occasion.

Just as knowledge of the ritual word is passed down along a lineage, a healer will pass knowledge onto his descendants. Illness is a consequence of forgetting or failing to adequately or correctly perform these rituals (Lewis 1989:490-2). Disregard for these conventions carries serious social and metaphysical ramifications, and may be cited as the cause for conflict, sickness or death (McWilliam 1989:57). Pressure against departing from convention is therefore strong.

Failing to perform rituals to the ancestors properly, or not looking after the sacred objects, invokes retribution from the ancestors’ spirits which may take the form of barrenness, illness, famine and death (Forth 1998:246). Drought and crop failure are blamed on errors in ritual performance, rather than sin which would attract misfortune individually (Schulte Nordholt 1971:71). Healing is not a process of treating the symptoms, but of redressing the spiritual cause of the ailment (Lewis 1989:499).

Each year, after the rains have finished, the salt water is drained from Mota Masin Matan (Lake Salt Eye) into the sea. A big festival is held, and all the fish that are left are cooked and eaten. The crocodile is a sacred in East Timor and should not be harmed. However, if it has eaten livestock or attacked people, then it is fair game and may itself be killed and eaten by humans.

Schulte Nordholt (1971:322-3) cites an account of a young female virgin being sacrificed to a crocodile in Kupang, and Capell quotes Veth:


”believed they were descended from crocodiles, and whenever a new ruler ascended the throne, he gathered the populace with the nobles on the beach at the spot where the king was to be installed with a solemn offering to these features ... a young woman, beautifully dressed and decorated with flowers and rubbed with sweet-smelling oil, would be set right on the bank on a rock, and tied to a stone set there for that purpose. The crocodiles would then be summoned by the warriors present, and usually one of the monsters appeared quickly, and carried the girl back into the water, but according to popular belief, really married the girl” (Capell 1944:212)

When a young girl was taken by a crocodile from a river on the southern coast, the people had a precedent by which they could rationalise, make sense and explain. Accordingly, they claimed that the girl having being taken had cleansed the village of it sins.

Spirits of fertility and malevolence reside at once in the buffalo, which can represent fertility, or, in the case of sacrifice, malevolent spirits (Forth 1998:163). A buffalo is the supreme sacrificial animal, but is only used ‘in connection with funerals and the afterlife’ (Josselin de Jong 1965:284). The sacrificial blood of a buffalo given in exchange as bridewealth represents reproduction in the form of the wives’ menses (Forth 1998:308). Their potential as blood offering to the earth portends reproduction (Forth 1998:168).

Fertility rites are performed to ensure buffalos will reproduce. Buffalos are sacrificed at the most auspicious occasions, such as weddings, funerals and the inauguration of a sacred house. An offering of the buffalo’s heart and head is made to the uma lulik (sacred house). The kukuluk is a representation of buffalo horns fixed to the roof of the uma lulik; the sacred objects – tais, breastplate and headdress used in rituals - are kept in a raised chamber, kakuluk laran, in the ceiling of the uma lulik. Men wear a kebauk, metal headpiece representing buffalo horns. A fertility ritual known as Kesi karau ikun (to tie up the buffalo’s tail) is held each year. When the people want the buffalo to reproduce, they call all the buffalo that live on their lands to one place. The men call their buffalo with the fui dais (whistle). Women kill pigs and chickens and cook them in the forest with rice. They place the feathers in the trees. They cut the meat into pieces, and put each piece with some rice.

The women, wearing tais and with their hair out, play a keo, a gentle melody on the dadili, a soft beat on the bakadudu. The men wear manufulu and kebauk and dance the bidu. The ferik (female elder) enters the buffalo enclosure and throws coconut milk mixed with chicken blood around using a small black banana as a scoop. She places the cooked meat and rice around the enclosure.

The katuas (male elder) begins to chant. Seven children are called to sit outside the fence. They are covered with tais. Food is placed under the tais, and the children begin to eat using their hands. When the children have finished eating, they come out from under the tais, and people beat them with sticks. The ferik in the enclosure now slaps the buffalo on the buttocks so that they will stay on this land and produce calves every year. The people celebrate and dance the dahur.

An anchor is enshrined some 30 kilometres from the southern coast. People who live there cannot tell the tair mos (sacred story) as they are not the keepers of those words. They do not want outsiders to know about it, as this may attract tourists and visitors, and because the object is sacred, it has powers that could cause strange things to happen if too many people know about it, and it is forbidden to touch it.

The person who owns the words lives in a village 20 kilometres away. According to him, the anchor once hung from the Portuguese fort. It was used chime the hour. When the Portuguese left, the liurai decided that it had rung the time for so long it was an important part of the community so he had it moved to his house. It assumed the status of lulik (sacred) and is called Karau Dikur (Buffalo horn). It was hidden from the Japanese when they invaded; people were afraid that they would discover and take the sacred object. It now lies on a bed of rocks inside a structure built to house it.

I subsequently heard that the first priest to have arrived in the region trying to proselytise the population was ignored, shunned and spurned, and called for the anchor to be brought from the ship and placed in a well, and told the population that he was going to tow the island of Timor to Portugal, where they would have to become Catholics. At that moment, an earthquake occurred, and the people, in fear of the priest’s power, immediately submitted and converted.

Images of The Anchor
Ritual speech identifies the buffalo owners’ position in society (Forth 1989:509). Ritual language restores the correct order of things (Lewis 1989:499). Ritual speech determines the success of the process (Renard-Clamagirand 1996:201).

naran ema la bele loke'; (not just anyone can say it;

'soinnia nain maka bele loke’ only the possessor may say it)

(Liman Badain)

Rituals begin with the invocation in ritual language and conclude in offerings (Lewis 1996:111). This can take place over a period of minutes, hours - such as this fertility ritual - or months, such as the construction of the sacred house. Despite all the omens and ill winds that a mis-telling of a story portends, it seems to be acceptable to change the rules in order to send an inquisitive interloper off the scent!

*That is not to say that Falintil were not active in the area. In 1998, the chefe do Suco of a nearby village wanted the Indonesian military, ABRI, Angkatan Bersenjata Republik Indonesia, to kill 200 of the local youths as they were ‘out of control’, providing overt assistance to Falintil. This may have been in response to killings of ABRI spies who had been recognised at meeting in the area earlier that year. ABRI was reportedly stockpiling weapons at their barracks in preparation for the arrival of troops to launch an assault on the local population. Falintil staged a pre-emptive raid to prevent such a carnage. They seized what weapons were there, killed three soldiers and took about a dozen hostage.

This has given rise to its own myth in the making: a man who claimed to have been the second in command of the ABRI division said that he had met with the Falintil commander who had told him of the impending raid. This man claimed to be a witness to murder that was in reprisal for the Falintil raid, but he said that he was taken hostage by Falintil as part of the ruse so as not to betray his collusion with Falintil; but those hostages were not released until four or five on the afternoon when the murder had occurred earlier that day: he was lying about being at least one of those events and locations. He is more likely to have been a Babinsa, a liaison person in each village who was trained by the Indonesians military for this purpose. The fact that he was not trusted by the community is revealing, and the story illustrates how events may be reconstructed.

Photos courtesy of Dave Manning


Capell, A (1944), ‘People and languages of East Timor’, Oceania, 14:191-219

Cunningham, C (1973), ‘Order in the Atoni House’, Right and Left: Essays on Dual Symbolic Classification, (R Needham ed), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 204-238

Forth, G (1998), Beneath the Volcano: Religion, cosmology and spirit classification among the Nage of eastern Indonesia, Leiden: KITLV Press

Francillon, G (1967) Some matriarch aspects of the social structure of the southern Tetun of middle Timor, unpublished PhD thesis, Canberra:ANU

Josselin de Jong, P (1965), ‘An Interpretation of Agricultural Rites in Southeast Asia, with a Demonstration of Use of Data from both Continental and Insular Areas’, Journal of Asian Studies, 24:283-91

Kirsch, T (1973), Feasting and Social Oscillation: Religion and Society in Upland Southeast Asia, NY: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program

Lewis, E (1989), ‘Word and Act in the Curing Rituals of the Ata Tana’ai of Flores’, Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde, v. 145, pp. 490-501

Lewis, E (1996) ‘Invocation, Sacrifice, and Precedence in the Gren Mahe Rites of Tana Wai Brama, Flores’, in Howell, S (ed), For the Sake of Our Future: Sacrificing in Eastern Indonesia, Leiden: Research School CNWS, pp. 111-131

Martinkus, J (2001), A dirty little war, Milsons Point, NSW:Random House

McWilliam, A (1989), Narrating the Gate and the Path: Place and Precedence in South West Timor, Canberra: ANU

Renard-Clamagirand, B (1996), ‘Sacrificing Among the Wewea of West Sumba: Dialogue with the Ancestors, Relations Between the Living’, in Howell, S (ed), For the Sake of Our Future: Sacrificing in Eastern Indonesia, Leiden: Research School CNWS, pp. 195-212

Schulte Nordholt, H (1971), The Political System of the Atoni of Timor, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Therik, G (1995), Wehali: the Four Corner Land: The Cosmology and Traditions of a Timorese Ritual Centre, unpublished PhD thesis, ANU, Canberra

Traube, E (1989), ‘Obligations to the Source: Complementarity and Hierarchy in an Eastern Indonesian Society’, The Attraction of Opposites: Thought and Society in the Dualistic Mode, D Maybury-Lewis & U Almagor, eds), Ann Arbor: Uni Michigan Press, pp 321-344

Wouden, FAE van (1968), Types of social structure in eastern Indonesia, The Hague:Nijhoff Endnotes

*Matthew Libbis conducted anthropological fieldwork from 2000 to 2002 in East Timor, focusing on how the population was making the transition from occupation into independence. In addition to exploring socially sustaining institutions such as marriage, ritual and customs, his research was guided by prevailing issues that most concerned and affected the community, such as tensions between food production and participation in the formal economy, as well as more pressing issues of housing and reconciliation. He returned to East Timor from 2006 to 2008 following the Crisis that ripped the country apart to work in rebuilding the shattered civil society and governance structures. He has more recently been working in community resilience, social inclusion policy implementation, and humanitarian and disaster management, mitigation and recovery. He may be contacted at malibbis-at-gmail.com 

See also the following articles by Matthew Libbis on East Timor Law and Justice Bulletin
Marriages in Timor-Leste
Land use, practice and tenure in south central East Timor: some illustrations
Witchcraft, Conflict and Resolution in Timor-Leste


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