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Another 100 Years: Timor’s Last Indigenous Religious Community

Barefoot, long-haired people dressed in ikat sarongs and ornate beads tend their gardens.

The sunshine is strong, but the cool air balances it out. There is no electricity or any motorised vehicles in sight. They have wooden prayer altars, peculiar musical instruments, and eating utensils made of coconut shells.

Being here makes me wonder what year it is- it might as well be 100 years ago.

Boti is a thriving petty kingdom tucked in the isolated mountains of South Central Timor. Best known as a village where indigenous customs are alive today on a different level from that of other parts of Indonesia, Boti seems untouched by modern technology, mainstream education, Indonesian language, and Abrahamic or Dharmic religions.

Men were socialising in the garden when we arrived. Seeing my translator, Hesry, they cordially greeted him like a long lost brother, before extending their welcome to my cousin and me. Hesry introduced one of them as the Raja. He was working in the gardens alongside the other men, but underneath his modest friendliness there was an air of distinction about him.

Raja Namah Benu, who ruled since his father’s death in 2005, invited us to his place and offered areca nuts and betel leaves. I’ve heard about the Raja being a strict guardian of the Boti civilisation from external influences, so being welcomed by him was a humbling experience.

Life in Boti revolves around the religion Halaika, which worships Uis Pah (Mother Earth) and Uis Neno (Heavenly Father). Not much is known about the history of Halaika, or how old Boti’s current civilization is.

“As human beings, we live on the ground, so the earth raises us like a mother raises her children”, said the Raja. “We lift our prayers to Uis Pah on earth, and she intercedes on our behalf, lifting them to Uis Neno in heaven.”

Halaika comes with its own agricultural calendar, whose weeks are nine days long, but there are no known studies on it by outsiders. The calendar regulates three seasons—tilling, planting, and harvest—all marked with ceremonies in a sacred forest believed to be the final resting place of the human soul.

“We don’t believe human souls go to heaven. Rather, they stay here on earth”, said the Raja. “We see them at night in our dreams, giving us guidance, and that’s the only way we meet them.”

“If a newborn doesn’t stop crying, it’s because a deceased relative visits him or her”, added the Raja. “Then when the parents dream of that deceased relative, the baby is to be named after him or her, and then the baby will stop crying. The spirit is now at peace, knowing that he or she will be remembered through the new life.”

In Boti, babies are born in the umek bubu, a round straw house for storing maize, with a perpetually lit fireplace in the centre. After spending four nights in the umek bubu, the newborn is ritually brought out into the daylight for the first time.

Four months later, beads are draped on the infant, signifying that he or she will need clothes from now on. When the baby is weaned, another ceremony takes place where the baby’s hair is cut and given to the mother for keepsake. Hair is believed to be a sacred inheritance from the ancestors.

Further milestones may include the option of attending Indonesian school, learning the agricultural traditions, and marriage. There is no wedding ceremony, but there are dances associated with weddings.

When a man and a woman fall in love, the man sends a gift of rice and chickens to the woman’s parents, and the couple is formally recognised as husband and wife. In Boti, marriages are monogamous and for life. Once a person marries, the hair may no longer be cut, but must be pulled back into a bun. If a married person gets a haircut, it usually means that he or she has converted to Christianity, and would result in alienation from the Boti community.

In a country where adherence to a state-recognised religion (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism) is a public matter, for most Indonesians marching to the beat of their own religious drum is hardly an option. For the people of Boti, however, devotion to Halaika is a no-brainer, even if it means resisting Christianity, the dominant religion in Timor.

“We see Christians pray a lot, but when you visit the prisons in Timor, the inmates’ names are Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, and they’re there because they’ve stolen something,” said the Raja. “We may be pagans, but you won’t find a person from Boti in prison for theft, corruption, or terrorism.”

Crime is nearly nonexistent in Boti because of the community’s traditional welfare system. If a man steals a chicken, the community would presume that the thief is in desperate need of a chicken, and the Raja would drive members of the community to donate a chicken to this person out of pity. The thief would then feel remorseful of his or her crime, and, in repentance, no longer steal. Likewise, the community would not let anyone in Boti—whether a native or a visitor—be homeless.

“We may not worship ‘God’ as most Indonesians understand. But we see God in our fellow human beings, and honour him or her accordingly”, concluded the Raja.

On the way out, I told my cousin how special it was to witness Timor’s last indigenous religious community thriving in 2013. “It is special”, he said, “but their world stops there in Boti and that’s all they know. Their life remains so simple and narrow, while the rest of the world moves on.”

Fortunately, not everyone thinks so.

In a world where indigenous peoples and their homelands are rapidly forced to disappear through “development” and assimilation with “mainstream” modern society, Boti remains unusually steadfast in its traditions. According to Nusa Tenggara Timur’s Lieutenant Governor Benny Litelnoni, there are currently no perceived external threats to Boti such as the exploitation of natural resources or commercial tourism.

“Boti is a socio-cultural strength for NTT. The people of Boti would not leave their traditional ways for modern development, so we support them in preserving their heritage with positive values, and that heritage makes for an invaluable asset”, said Litelnoni, who was, until recently, the Deputy Regent of South Central Timor.

Asked whether in another 100 years, life in Boti could remain as it is today, Litelnoni said, “Who knows? That would depend on the people. We cannot predict what the future holds. But so far, the people of Boti haven’t given in to the pressures of globalisation and other influences that don’t conform to their values.”

Pullout quote: “We may be pagans, but you won’t find a person from Boti in prison for theft, corruption, or terrorism.”

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