The island of Timor is very mountainous in relation to its size. The majestic mountains seem to rise without pattern that would be expected for ranges in other places. The river valleys cut into the mountains in most unlikely angles. They are always steep with fast running streams, especially when it rains. The total area of Timor is nearly 3,000 kilometres. It is one of the most easterly island in the Lesser Sunda archipelago, most of which belongs to Indonesia. East Timor has an area of about 19,000 square kilometres. For almost 450 years the area has been known as Portuguese Timor, but in 1976 was annexed by Indonesia as Timor Timur (East Timor), it's 27th province. In 1974, the last official Portuguese census, the population was 680,000. In 1980 the population was 555,350 according to the census conducted by the Indonesian authorities.

In Dili, the capital, it is always hot and there are only two seasons wet and dry.

The morals and social behaviour are not governed by our European standards, but it would be a mistake to regard the culture is in any way primitive. There is no doubt that much of its past culture has deprecated because of events that have occurred since 1975, nevertheless there will be enough of the old culture left to open the eyes of all who see it. It is important to look below the surface and the gain the most from your visit to the island. The KUTUAS (wise old men) say, "Only those with their eyes open can see."

Much of my own Timorese cultural knowledge may be historic, and not applicable to present day East Timor, though the fundamental beliefs of the Animists in Mother Earth must still exist in the minds of everyone in what is a very complicated culture. It is always hard to discover the deep intrinsic beliefs and mores of any society. I hope when you leave East Timor you will come away with some of the understanding and admiration I have for these very caring and brave people.

Timorese are of three different racial groups. But because of a long history of intertribal marriage there are no distinct physical features among people except in language. There are 16 languages and between 34 and 36 dialects. The people living along the south coast are Polynesian in language and custom, while those living on the north coast are Melanesian. In the mountains there are people who can be described by their language as Aboriginals.

Timor has had sophisticated contact with the world for many centuries. The Belu (Tetun) empire extended its power over much of the island but after the Europeans arrived much of the old empire contracted to its present area of indigenous Tetun speakers. The Chinese were regular visitors long before the Portuguese arrived in Timor. The indigenous lunar calendar is similar to the Chinese, the Timor pony has Asian origins and existed in Timor before the Portuguese. The musical instruments are Asian in design and sound. It has been recorded in Chinese history that the Liurai at Besa Kama (the old Belu capital) paid a yearly tribute to China before the Portuguese Dominicans were on the scene in 1566. The attraction to Timor was because of its sandalwood, supposedly the best in the world. It was the sale of sandalwood that gave the Liurais their power and was the cause of their long past internecine wars. The Liurais wanted land - land that grew sandalwood, and with the land came people to harvest it. Sandalwood gave them the power to expand their empires. This greed of the Liurais caused their subjects to be involved in the danger of war. In the 16th and 17th centuries the Timorese had a reputation for being very warlike. The people of East Timor have a long long history of rebellion against their Portuguese colonial masters.

Timorese are by nature most polite with a great deal of outward humility and seem willing to agree to anything rather than upset strangers in their land. Thus it is easy to receive a wrong answer to questions, especially leading questions, merely because most people will only be trying to show good manners. Timorese respect others for their social position and education, as well as wealth, but they do not discriminate on the ground of race. This simple fact will put most Australians on an equal footing in their initial contact.

Timorese relatives cover a much wider circle than in Australia. Close kinship is regarded to exist among the uncles, aunts, and cousins of their in-laws' in-laws and a strong loyalty is given to all relatives. In past times the whole society revolved around incurring debts to ones relatives to build a bank of indebtedness for future help in all of the various tasks of living that could be accomplished more efficiently with a number of people, such as growing food, harvesting, house building, feasts, and the Animist religious ceremonies of death, birth and marriage.

Timorese culture was oral, therefore it is only natural that the people had developed strong skills in story telling and in poetry which could be told by anyone. But the ultimate in the art were the LIA NA'IN (also NA'I LIA, literally meaning lord of words), who could without hesitation relate verse on any subject at great length straight out of their heads. There were a number of traditional patterns, but the most common was DADOLIN, where each verse was in two lines and each line was in two phrases. The first phrase of the second line repeated the meaning of the last phrase of the first verse but with different words. It was not uncommon for a skilled Lia Na'in to recite for hours, all of it verse that had never been heard until then. The actual words of the poetry rarely spoke on any subject with direct meanings. The true meanings were intended for people versed in the culture; e.g. reference to a blossom not yet in full bloom = a virgin; nectar tasted by many = a girl of easy virtue; fruit eaten before it was ripe = drought; things that move in the night = spirits; dreaming of riches = greed; to cry alone = loneliness, or deserted, and so on it went. The real art was to repeat the important points as often as necessary to drive into the mind the message that the poet thought was needed. It is also important to keep in mind the Timorese philosophy that everything has a balancing opposite, such as hot and cold, wet and dry, good and bad, up and down, sky and earth, etc. which were also included in the poetry to complicate the telling.

In every village, the Katuas would tell stories to the children to instruct them in the lore and the code of behaviour of the clan so that on adulthood each person would know how to behave socially and know and accept their position in life. The society was very class conscious. Before the Portuguese the lowest class was LUTUN (the cattle keepers) then ATAN (slaves), EMA RAI (common people), DATO (nobility and royalty). Interspersed were MATAN DOOK (doctor), BUAN (sorcerer) MALULIK (keeper of sacred relics) and LIURAI (king). These were inherited upper class positions. From the Dato came ASU'UAIN (warriors). Marriage offered the only means of rising above the class into which one had been born.

A most important facet of Timorese life for Christians and non-Christians alike, was living with the KLAMAR (the souls of the dead) who had not gone to heaven or were unable to leave this earth for any reason. It was a Timorese belief that a wandering soul was always on the lookout to invade (or return to) the body of living persons where it would cause untold havoc and eventual death unless the klamar was persuaded to leave its new home. These spirits would enter the body through a number of body orifices. Their favourite entry sites were the nose or eyes, never through the mouth or genital orifices. Not all spirits were evil. Some in fact were guardians to keep the evil ones away and in times of danger would appear to warn their ward so that a degree of stability continued to exist. Living in the Animist world was a continual struggle to keep life flowing with as much stability as possible. The MATAN DOOK (doctor) could invoke all sorts of potions (herbal medicine) and fetishes to nullify a HOROK (spell) from a klamar or one placed by the BUAN (sorcerer), who had very wide powers to create havoc among everyone. His power was much stronger than the Matan Dook. The position of Matan Dook was handed on from father to son after many years of training. It was usually inherited among the Dato therefore it was a social status within the clan. The position of Buan could be inherited by any likely candidate with the proper aptitude after a long period of training and be either male or female, but usually male. A Buan had a religious standing in the community, which would give him a fearful respect. Even an important Liurai would treat a Buan with humble respect and fear. Within the orbit of the Animist religion all living things have souls, both plant and animal. Evil spirits came from creatures, especially those who spent the first half of their lives in water, and also came from the souls of people who lived a bad life.

Another being with supernatural power was the witch, in some areas known as KUKULASAK. In natural form she was an old woman, but had the power to transform herself into any other living thing. She could appear as a beautiful young woman to entice innocent people into sorts of danger with her beguiling ways. Every village had stories about witches appearing before some relative and by all sorts of trickery taking them away, never to be seen again. Some parents even told their children that witches like to eat people, especially plump, naughty children.

In the Animist religion it is believed that we are on this earth for a short period and after death on this earth we would return to the womb of the earth through the many vaginas that exist in the FATU KUAK (caves) in Timor. Therefore we must live a good life to return to our origins at the completion of the ephemeral stay on earth. All tribal debts have been repaid by our surviving relatives in order to free the soul and enable a feast to be held to celebrate the spirit's passage to heaven. Every community has a legend about the first men appearing out of the earth to form their clan. In previous times Timor was a cashless society and the wealth of an individual was assessed by the amount of livestock that they owned, such as horses, buffaloes, goats, pigs as well as gold and silver. These animals were not used in everyday life as food. There was a much more important use for them; in life they showed how successful a person had been and in death many of these animals were slaughtered for the feast which sent the soul to heaven. Animals were NEVER sacrificed as a tribute to any religious ceremony, but as food for the invited guests. Feasts were held to celebrate births where the correct proportion of direct and in-law relatives were invited. As marriages were often arranged as political alliances rather than for any other reason, the guests at a birth feast could easily be from another kingdom far away. These feasts or gatherings served to reinforce obligations that each alliance placed on each clan and helped keep peace within the whole community.

At planting time special ceremonies were conducted to placate the Klamar and ensured that the guardian Klamar knew the seeds were being planted in the womb of Mother Earth. The guardian Klamar could then ensure the seeds were fruitful. If the planting was carried out at the first rain but no following rain occurred then it was said that an evil spirit had killed the soul of the plant and not that the farmer had made a mistake by planting too early. At harvest time it was always a race to reap the crops before the rats consumes the year's crop. Rats, of course, were the work of an evil spirit. The same was said if the plants became diseased, or failed for any other reason, like too much rain.

The UMA (house) in Timor was much more than a place for the family to live. In the Animist religion there was no church, and the family home served this purpose much better. The traditional house had two poles as its base foundation. These two poles represented the male and female (all things in Timor came in pairs), and divided the house into two areas, where the woman of the house ruled supreme. Because the house had this religious significance. The woman of the house acted as the religious head of the family. On the female pole hung the woven bags containing the dried placentas of the occupants of the house. These articles should follow each person throughout their life, otherwise they had no protection against any Klamar. Also each person would not be able to return to Mother Earth as whole person on their death.

Disasters were accepted with stoic fatalism as the work of an evil spirit. Even accidents were ascribed to fetishes or invasions of spirits. Therefore the Timorese were able to accept the most horrific ill-fortune and still be able to carry on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Because of the importance of combating the effects of the Klamar, some people would change their name after a serious misfortune so that the Klamar would not know them any more, and nothing would persuade them to admit to being previously known by their prior name, which was very disconcerting for the Portuguese conducting the biannual census. During the Second World War the Australian soldiers in East Timor employed many adolescent boys to help them with their baggage. One day while being chased by the Japanese, we had to cross a flooded stream. The usual method was to enter the stream with the upstream leg bent and down stream leg stiff and by a forward hopping action progress across to the other bank. During the course of crossing two of the Timorese boys were hit by rocks along along the bed of the stream and were swept down stream and drowned. The Australian soldiers were most upset with such a tragic personal loss but the Timorese said, "We are here to protect the Australians. All the Australians are safe, and that is all that is important." It would have been very bad manners to have shown grief to us. There are many other instances that could be related about the care for other people the Timorese showed us during our war in Timor.

Marriage and the arrangement of marriage consumed a great deal of time and ceremony. The usual and preferred method was by HAFOLI (lit:to fix the value) where a go-between (a katuas close to the family) would spend up to a year and even longer fixing the terms of the alliance. The proper gifts were passed to each side as the terms were gradually sorted out. At each stage the Lia Na'in would recite long lengths of poetry DADOLIN (two line verse) emphasising the merits of the alliance to the opposite side. A Lia Na'in from the other side would do the same, as the guests ate food supplied by the groom's relatives. When the terms had been agreed upon, and the initial gifts exchanged, (buffalo, and horses from the groom's family as well as gold and silver, and from the bride's family goats, pigs and cloth) the two young people often lived together on a nightly basis in the house of the girl's parents. Consummation was the only recognised rite of marriage. Now that so many Timorese are Christian, the priests could be insisting on a marriage ceremony similar to that conducted in our churches.

In times past marriage was not entered upon lightly. Firstly the prospective groom would approach his parents for permission to marry. Then the elders would decide if the young man was a suitable candidate to become a full member of the clan, as only married men and women were allowed to enter fully into all the religious rites and secrets. If for any reason the elders decided that the young man was not suitable to become a full clan member (as a practising priest of Mother Earth), then no arrangement could be made for his marriage. Of course this does not happen any more. Since 1975 many young men take the woman of their choice as their wife without any ceremony. This is called HAFE. Unlike in our Western culture, marriage between first cousins is not frowned upon, provided the nuptial couple were the children of a brother or sister. Two children of sisters or brothers was strictly forbidden.

Slavery was an accepted way of life even in 1975. It was a very benign practice, but it still existed, even though it had been outlawed by the Portuguese. It was not uncommon for young boys and some girls to be sold into slavery. I personally know some young Timorese refugees who were slaves in Timor. Another way of describing the practice would be to say the ATAN (slave) was an unpaid servant, also called KREADO (nurse for a baby), who was not free to leave the family. Their masters were responsible for their welfare and usually the slave was treated humanely. It was not unusual for a slave to become part of the family to such a degree that on adulthood he married a daughter of the family.

The Timorese have a special reverence for death. It was the time when the virtues of the deceased were told to the world at great length by the mourners. The demise of an important clan member meant much displacement of power, with new positions to be filled. Sometimes it was found that the only solution was to offer the position to someone in a neighbouring clan. In extreme situations the clan was split into two. It has been said to me by a KATUAS (wise old man) that by nature man is a spiller of blood, and is incapable of controlling his actions which are against the needs of Mother Earth, where harmony will ensure a fruitful life for humans. Therefore it is better for him to satisfy his instinct outside his family, so that he can live in harmony at home with his wife and children. After about a year, all the relatives and those who had a debt owing to them, or those who had an alliance with the deceased were invited to a KORE METAN (celebration of departure) back to where the soul of the deceased had emerged form the womb of Mother Earth. Many final debts were repaid in the work involved in the preparation of the feast. The guests gorged themselves with meat and TUAKA (palm wine) for anything up to a week of dancing and telling stories of the virtues of the departed.

I do not purport that what has been written is anything but a thumbnail sketch of the psyche of East Timorese culture, because it is difficult to obtain more than a glimpse into the religious life of the Timorese Animist world. I am happy if it helps the traveller have a greater understanding and appreciation of life in East Timor.