The national motto of Indonesia is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika: 'Unity in Diversity'. This can best be used on provinces east of Bali: Nusa Tenggara Barat, Nusa Tenggara Timur and Timor Timur. In the beginning the diversity is much more obvious than the unity, since about 50 languages are spoken, of which many know numerous dialects. Most however, are closely related. They belong to the linguistic subgroups of the Austronesian family.
The Sasaklanguage of Lombok and the language which is spoken on West-Sumbawa, are closely related with the neighboring languages of West-Indonesia: Balinese and Jawanese. The language which is spoken on Bima is clearly different. This belongs to the lingual group which concludes the languages on Sumba, Savu, Ndao and West-Flores. The east of Nusa Tenggara - East-Flores, Timor and Roti - have languages which are more related with those of Maluku.
The Bajau live scattered over settlements in the coastal areas of a big number of islands. They live from fishery, speak a Samal language and originate from the Philipines. The Bajau settled in the area in the last three centuries. But also sea-exploring traders from Sulawesi - Buginese, Makasarese and Butonese - have settled in Nusa Tenggara.
Several non-Austronesian languages are spoken as well, they are related with the languages od New Guinee. These 'papua' languages are spoken in the eastern tip of Timor, in a part of Central Timor and on the islands of Alos and Pantar.
This diversity makes clear that several separate migrations have taken place over the years, starting in around 3,000 BC. The non-Austronesians don't seem to represent a 'remained' (not a pre-Austronesian) population, but a later wave of immigrants which settled in Austronesian area. Ghe Bajau and other populations from Sulawesi form the youngest in these migrations.
Malay has been used for centuries in trade and communication, and nowadays Bahasa Indonesia is the language of the government and education. In the old cities of Kupand and Larantuka they still use separate dialects of Malay besides Bahasa Indonesia.
Islands on the border
The islands east of Bali were mainly along the border of big historic developments which have took place in Indonesia. Big principalties influenced by India like Sriwijaya on Sumatera (8th until the 13th century) and Majapahit in East-Jawa (14th and 15th century) have never developed here. The later process of islamisation reached several of the eastern islands like Solor, but was limited to the most western islands Lombok and Sumbawa.
Several times, parts of Nusa Tenggara were claimed by powerfull neighboring principalties, especially Majapahit and the sultanate Gowa in Makasar, the current Ujung Pandang on Sulawesi. These claims were usually worthless since a real occupation of the islands was very difficult, also because there was no centralised rule.
Even in the 17th century, when the Portuguese and Dutch spread their colonial power over the islands, it was impossible for the Europeans to have absolute power. Instead they tried to secure their trade and they maintained the political mess. At the end of the colonial period the local autonomy was maintained on a big scale.
Trade in Sandelwood
The big attraction for the colonial powers what the white sandal wood on Timor, a product that has attracted traders to Nusa Tenggara for centuries. The island with it's expensife wood was loved by the Europeans, but not as much as the spice islands of Tidore, Ternate, Ambon and the Banda Islands with their nutmeg and clove.
Already in 1700 BC sandalwood was used by the Egyptians, which used it in perfumes and anoints. (Even now sandalwood is important in combination with slort-living odours like jasmin.) The Brahman in India used sandalwood powder in mixing paint they used for making signs. Since sandalwood is a local product in India and Sri Lanka, China became the most important market for Timor.
It's unclear when the product was traded for the first time in Timor. In the 14th century there actually was trade, maybe already in the 12th century. Traders sols porcelain, beads, silk, mirrors and iron tools in trade of the wood. Sandalwood was an unmissable part in different rituals, especially funerals; it was burnedto perfume the air. The relatively soft, nicely flamed wood can also be used for woodcarvings, and Chinese traders were specialised in creating small boxes, which contained their soft odour for years.
The first traders came from Jawa and Malacca. They were followed by traders from China and other countries. The traders had to deal with the rulers of Timor, which watched the chopping of the trees directly. When the ship of the Portuguese Magellan moored along the northcoast of Timor in 1522 (without Magellan, because he was killed on the Philipines a year earlier), the first thing they saw was a small ship from Luzon (Philipines). Later, when the Portuguese built a fortress on Solor (1566) in an effort to control the sandalwood-trade, they had to compete with islamic looters from Jawa and Makassar.
The battle over the sandalwood continued for centuries. Portuguese speaking traders with mixed blood, which were attracted by the Portuguese fortress of Solor and the settlements around it, formed a separate group in the population which were known as the 'Black Portuguese'. When the VOC reached the area in 1613, the Dutch forced them out to Larantuka (East-Flores). Before that time, the Black Portuguese had succeeded in founding settlements in Lifao, the later enclave Oecussi along the northwestern coast of Timor. From there they pressed more and more on the sandalwood trade in Central-Timor.
In 1642 the Portuguese aristocrat lead a small armed force on Timor to conquer two principalties on the island. To stop the Portuguese influence, the Dutch built a fortress in Kupang in 1653. To reinforce their position, they agreed upon trade contracts with islamic residents which resisted against the catholic Portuguese on Solor, and the local rulers on the western tip of Timor and on Roti, Savu and the northcoast of Sumba.
Similar contracts were signed in Makasar in the north and Bima in the west. The sultan of Bima, ally of the ruler of Makasar, demanded rule over a big area in Western Flores and the biggest part of Sumba. Every year, ships of the VOC sailed from Batavia (currently Jakarta) to Kupang, with a stop in it's post Bima, mainly for supplying and reinforcing the fortresses.
Scatter and Rule
Many islands in Nusa Tenggara know scattered political power. The small island of Roti used to be devided into 17 small principalties, in fact 'holy domains', ruled by locals. The much smaller Savu had five. By signing treaties the Dutch supported the exsistance of these small states and domains. Timor for example, was built up from a big number of independent areas, which were sometimes loyal to the Dutch and the Portuguese. Sumbawa was already devided among two: the sultan of Bima ruled the east and the one from Sumbawa the east. In the 19th and beginning of the 20th century the colonial powers acknowledged the domains on Flores and Sumba.
During the entire 19th century the Dutch maintained limited colonial rule through several small souvereign principalties. In this period, migration really started, a development which the Dutch used to reinforce their rule. To end the conflict of power on Roti, they replaced the loyal residents to Timor to start the pacification of that island.
The Dutch also supported the islamic traders from Ende and Flores in an effort to develop the good export of horses on Sumba. The booming trade stimulated the existance of rivalising domains on Sumba, which got at war with eachother. The Dutch ended the war with the help of loyal local troops from Ende and Savu, which later settles in the coastal area of Sumba.
In the middle of the 19th century the Dutch and Portuguese tried to border their area. The Portuguese sold areas in East- and Central Flores to the Dutch and later, in 1915, both colonial powers drew their borders on Timor. The Portuguese lost the biggest part of the original area of the Black Portuguese in West-Timor in trade of full power over East-Timor. Due to these agreements the Europeans continued their pacification over the other islands, which they said to control already.
The colonial game of power, developped in the middle of the 17th century has contributed to the population pattern of Nusa Tenggara until today. By signing treaties and contracts with changing local rulers, the Dutch ensures the exsistance of many traditional political and social groups. Nowadays the biggest part of the population still relates back to a domain or ritual community, an identification which is expressed in language, clothing and habits (adat).
The earier domains usually had a ritual center, an aspect of the structure of power which caused specific problem to the colonial powers. The western civil servants dealt with the exact borders of the domains. The local population was more interested in raising the prestige of their 'holy center'. They thought that the influence of the domain would equally grow with the prestige.
In most domains this center, the source or origin, associated with the person of the ruler or ritual leader. This was part of the holy complex and often had a lot of forbidden things. Most domains knew two important symbols: the ritual leader and a leader which used it's power in his name.
The colonial servants made it very hard for themselves by not recognising the dual leadership. Often they recognised the practising leader of a domain, but forgot about the spiritual leader, which in fact was the most powerfull person. In other cases they signed treaties with the spiritual leader, without knowing that he didn't have anything to say about the daily life things like trade.
The Dutch said that they had an union with the ruler of Tetun, which they named the 'emperor' of Timor, based on a treaty signed in 1756. Among the Tetun, he was known as Nai Bot or 'Big Ruler'. He was the ritual character which represented the religious powers from the earth in the center of the principalty.
The Nai Bot practiced his power though a leader which is known as Luirai. When the Dutch tried to contact the Big Ruler 150 years later (1906), they had to deliver several battles before they could enter the center of the principalty. Eventually they met the Nai Bot, but he refused to speak to them directly, only through a representativer. All domains on Roti knew a separation between the 'Ruler of the Earth' and the 'Male Ruler' and on Savu between the 'Lord of the Earth' and the 'Descendant of the Sun'. On both islands the power of the ritual leader was declining, associated with the earth, dramatically during the colonial period, while the other got the task to do the leadership of a local raja by the Dutch.
Nowadays the entire region has given up the complec political structures for the modern bureaucratic government. What keeps on exsisting is a respect for the former glory and an everlasting obedience to the many traditions of the domains.
Ritual and Social 'Houses'
Most (former) domains consist of three different groups, clans; everyone belongs to one clan by birth, adoption or marriage. These clans are separated in 'houses' or are named 'houses' themselves. In some domains the clans and houses know a class-system; some consist of aristocrats only, others only have civilians. Where this isn't the case there often is a row of clans, based on ritual priorities.
'Houses' are very important in the ritual and social life of the community. A house united a lot of families, and these 'housegroups' don't do the rituals in their own home, but in a 'house of origin', which has been at the base of the group. Marriages are not arranges between individuals, but following rules between housegroups or families but on rules between housegroups. They are often celebrated in 'the house of origin', where burials also take place. The gravesa are close to the 'house of origin'; that's the place where the spirits of the ancestors are.
On Sumba, Savu and those parts of Flores where most settlements are, the order of ' houses of origin' - usually on hills around a central square - as a blueprint of the relations with the different groups. On Bima and Sumbawa the mausoleums of the former sultans, built in the shape of houses, are the center of special honoer.
On Timor and in parts of Flores where the settlements are scattered, the arrangement of 'houses or origin' has been partially replaced by the use of the cult-house. Cult centers, with special houses, are (or were) often located on some distance from other settlements. Several groups could have one cult-house, which was not permanently used.
In some cases a special cult-house was built for a special ceremony; it was abandoned after the ceremony. Still, these houses are seen as socially very important. Individual people are allowed to live in a ramshacke house, but the cult-house shoud be maintained and renewed constantly.
The complicated architectire and the location of the ritual houses are strictly decided by tradition. The house on Savu imagins a boat, with the bow to the west, and the back to the east. Fromn the inside the house is divided in two parts; the bow is seen as 'masculin', and the back side as 'feminin'. In all domains the rituals are held on compliance with the structure of the house. On Savu the activities of the men are held in the masculin side, and the women are in the back side.
Poetic Vision on Life
At the base of the large diversity of uses in the different principalties are communal habits and common rules. Among almost all populations, the ritual knowledge of their specific origin is very important. This is the base on which is decided where you are placed by personal and social identity and forms the base of the cultural life. The ceremonial transfer of this knowledge, which concludes the reading of genealogies and the migrations of parents, is an important element in the rites of the community.
During this transfer, they use a special ritual language, which demand the coupling of centences and expressions. Even simple ceremonies show a very poetic view of life, in which even very normal things or objects are acknowledges, reinforces and transforms. In Kodi (West-Sumba) the drum, used to guide ceremonial speech, is described as following:
You are the bird we made sing
You are the butterfly we made fly
So let us go down the same path together
So let us ride the same horse together
The same metaforic comparences happen in all aspects of life. On Roti, for example, young unmarried girls are usually compared with 'birds and green parrots wich sing with soft voices and sing lovely songs'. About boys is said that they 'hunt with a bow and blowpipe on these birds and green parrots and chase them'.
People all over the area believe in a cohesion of all forms of life. Most rituals are meant as life giving; they see human activity in harmony with the pattern which is in agreement with life on the whole.
The metafores which express these believes are complex, but an accepted association is that of the hhuman life with the structure of the liofe of flowers. On Roti for example, the traditional marriage ceremony is done by splitting a coconut, and give each haft to one of them. The structure of the coconut then serves as a metafore for a succeeded engagement:
This coconut has five layers.
the top concludes the peel.
The peel concludes the flesh.
The flesh concludes the milk.
The milk concludes the germ.
Let it be this way for this young man and woman.
Let them hug eachother.
Let the one grab the other.
So the germ of the coconut can grow,
and the germ of the arecanut can spring.
So they can give birth to nine times nine children.
And she will give birth to eight times eight children.
Cycles of Life and Death
The marriage is not an unimportant event. It's the way to show how the community helps the flow of life. Nusa Tenggara is known for it's difficult system of rules concerning marriages. The target of that is to direct the flow of life, so there is at least one group of the community which is 'giving' and at least one group which is 'receiving'. The different groups are catched in the same way, a network of giving and receiving relations.
Death also is a part of the same cycle. This caused that the population of the islands spend a lot of attention to the burial ceremonies. Except among stricts islamics, this is not a single event, but a string of events meant to guide the soul of the deceased to the world of the spirits. The communication with the world of the spirits should be maintained, because the spirits are the source of life on earth and the blessings of life which emerge from that.
Ritual Calender for Agriculture
The cycle of life and death is also mirrored in the fixed rhythm of the rituals which belong to the yearly agricultural cycle. The islands of Nusa Tenggara are exposed to a long dry period, followed by short monsoon rains. For life-support, people depend on the growth of so-called dry crops more than elsewhere in the country. On places with enough water, rice is planted, but in most areas the harvest doesn't yield enough for daily consumption. Therefore rice is a special ingredient, especially for ceremonial festivities.
When the seeds are planted, the social life becomes less important. On Sumba this period is named 'hard period', the time of silence. Drums are not uses and no big public ceremonies are held. This period is also the time when the food is running out of stock; the population has to be carefull with the remaining stocks. There are dozens of ritual rules the people have to obey. During the harvest time, these bans are lifted againl the ceremonial silence is broken and the rituals of a new year can begin.
On Lombok, Sumba and Savu, the start of the new life is branded with the gathering of a special kind of seaworm (Eunice viridis), locally known as nali or nyale. This animal attaches permanently to the bottom side of reefs and gets rid of it's back part during a fixed rhytm of tides. The floating segments raise to the surface and change the water along the coast in something that moost looks like green spagetti. It's an orgastic expression of the arrival of new life; the people collect much of it for food.
Travellers which want to see more of the rich ceremonial lives on the islands can best plan their trip in the 'lively' period of the year. This starts somewhere in February and lasts until the end of October. From November to Januari there are ony a few ceremonies and the wet monsoon makes travelling harder. Travellers should realize that the most simple looking activity doesn't have to be what it looks like. It will take a while before you understand life on Nusa Tenggara.
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