About Timor & Me – Discover a world of authentic hand woven and hand crafted curios made on a betel nut high

Falling in awe of the Timorese

I first travelled to Timor in 1990 from Darwin, arriving in Kupang (capital of West Timor) and travelling in West Timor. I was 30. Entry to East Timor has been more sporadic, and so when I talk of Timor in these pages I am nearly always referring to rural West Timor. In a land that is predominantly Christian, which is but a thin veneer atop an Animist base, I found a tough yet gracious people. People with patience enough to help this naive “cas muti” (European in local ‘Dawan’ language) gain some understanding and insight into their lives. They helped me to understand appropriate dress (cover the shoulders and not too much knee please); work out the menu (charades always wins laughs); jump on the best disco booming, flashing lighted bus or bemo (be sure of where you ask for else you’ll end up on the grand tour to show off the white tourist); and learn a few of the customs and a little culture (I can get anywhere in Timor with a pocketful of balloons and betel nut). This help contributed to my falling in awe of the Timorese.

I brought home some statues, masks, betel nut containers and a few weavings, quite unaware that I had stumbled onto the “real thing” that would turn into a 3 decades long relationship. Each year, upon my return, I found a wealth of authentic traditional crafts, of which no two are ever the same. Weavings are created on simple back strap looms often using hand-spun cotton and natural dyes to produce scarves, blankets, throws, shawls, table runners, bags and tubular sarongs or tais. Or, in the case of carvings, often using only a machete and penknife, carvers bring life to bamboo, wood, bone, buffalo horn, gourd, fossilised coral and coconut, to produce artefacts in the traditional way. Sales of those pieces led me to return yearly and served as a base for a journey of discovery both of a most remarkable island people and myself.


About the Timorese

According to local mythology, the island of Timor was originally a giant crocodile. Another story tells that thousands of years ago, some traders were looking for a place to land, saw it rising out of the sea in the mist, hence the name – The Land of the Sleeping Crocodile.  Whatever the origins, the crocodile motif is to be found in many Timorese handcrafts and holds strong significance amongst the Atoni.
Timor, a mountainous island not more that 600km long with over twenty different languages. Archaeological finds suggest that Timor was settled by Homo erectus, an early hominoid related to Java Man as early as a million years ago. It received waves of immigration for thousands of years, first by Austro-Melanesians and in the period of 3000 to 1000 BC by Austronesians from Taiwan, who brought with them emblematic practices such as animist beliefs, headhunting, tattooing, the use of barkcloth, agriculture and domestication of animals – mainly pigs and dogs, both of which were on the menu.
Highland dwellers – Whereas on most islands in the Indonesian archipelago the population is concentrated in coast towns and villages, remarkably, most of the Timorese, especially those of the dominant Atoni stock, prefer the highlands of the interior. Villages were traditionally small to very small, most Timorese preferring to live well away from others who might compete for land use. Many hamlets were built on precarious, hardly accessible locations, that offered protection from slave traders and other enemies.
Shortly before and after the influx of the Austronesians the island appears to have received waves of Papuan speaking groups. In the period between 1500 and 100 BC There may also have been cultural influences from the Lapita culture of Melanesia and Western Polynesia. A millennium later, between 500 and 100 BC, the North Vietnamese Dong-Son bronze making culture dominated large swaths of the Indonesian archipelago, bringing social stratification, rice cultivation and handicrafts.
Many authors mention weaving with the backstrap loom as a Dong-Son legacy, but it is well established by now that weaving came to the Indonesian archipelago thousands of years before. Though the Dongsong culture left many traces on nearby Alor, including finely decorated bronze kettle drums or moko, it is likely to have influenced Timorese only to a limited extent, due to both its peripheral position and its climate, with its long dry period, which allows only one rice and corn crop per year. In the first seven centuries AD the Indianized Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms on Sumatra and Java must have made a cultural impact, though again, only to a limited extent due to Timor’s remote position.
The same applies to the Islamic influences exerted from the 13th C. onwards by the sultanates of the nearby Moluccas, which were attenuated not just by geography, but from 1520 onwards also by the Portuguese and Dutch colonial masters who fought over the island for centuries, but agreed on one thing: they preferred their subjects Christian, and encouraged migration to Timor of converted peoples whom they considered loyal subjects.
These included so-called Topasses, people of mixed Portuguese and Asian blood, many from Eastern Flores. The Dutch, who took control of the western portion of Timor in 1613, also shipped over Rotinese, from the small island just west of the western tip of Timor, and Savunese from a tiny island in the Savu Sea further west.
The Rotinese and Savunese had been Christianized by the Dutch early in the 17th C., and due to competition between the local nobles as to who could build the better schools, received a solid education that made them ideal civil servants. For several centuries they were the de facto shapers of Timorese society.
Timor has long been on the trading map, originally because of its fabled sandalwood (which diminished sharply in the 1920s due to over-harvesting) and beeswax [let’s not forget slaves], later also because of its indigo which the Dutch forced the islanders to cultivate for export to India and other Asian lands. As a result, the ports of Kupang in West Timor and Dili in East Timor have always received an influx of foreign traders, such as Arabs, Chinese, Buginese and Macassans, who further enriched the cultural mix that is Timor.
There is also a strong Papuan influence, especially in East Timor. Most of Timorese still speak their local language, but are also fluent in Bahasa Indonesia (in the West) or Portuguese (in the East). Due to the cultural diversity and the rough terrain which has always limited communication, there has never existed a ‘Timorese’ identity [note from Julie – ‘I would argue this’].
Most Timorese still identify themselves by historical origin: the old kingdom they hail from, and their clan background – which even today are immediately identifiable by the textiles they wear. Unfortunately, a lot of ikat made on Timor today relies heavily on the chemical and factory spun cotton industry. Traders who scour the island for ‘full asli’ ikat, nagging the old people to surrender their last remaining adat pieces, report coming up dry on most of their trips and soon give up.  Adapted from https://ikat.us/ikat_timor.php © Julie Emery / Timor Treasures 2022