The land of Atoni

The sun was setting down and the temperature was dropping slightly. It was a different feeling to see the sun setting here at this mountainous range compared to seeing the sunset at Kupang bay.

We were camping at Lelogama, a village about three hour drive from Kupang city. Kupang is the capital of Nusa Tenggara Timur Province, located in the southwest tip of Timor island, an island shared by both Indonesia and Timor Leste.

The silence was deafening. We could barely hear anything. Our ears had gotten used to all the city sounds, the roaring motorcycles, neighbour kids’ crying, street vegetable vendors blowing their horns and, recently, more frequent ambulance sound passing by as COVID cases worsening. None of these noises was there for us to hear.

I couldn’t help but missing winter in Australia. The sight, smell, cold temperature and the similar terrain did remind me of Australia. Lelogama was once a difficult place to reach. Government officials from Kupang had to travel for a week to get to this place because of poor road access.

Despite some parts destroyed by the recent flooding brought by the Seroja cyclone, the road to Lelogama is relatively smooth. The most challenging part for us to reach this place would be the winding and ascending road going up the mountain.

Maxi, our mixed golden retriever was busy checking around the tents trying to see if the cattle that he chased away earlier came back.

“I better put him on a lead before he decides to chase on the cattle again. It’s getting darker and I don’t want to run around chasing him and falling off the slope”

Located only about 400 nautical miles from Australia, the land in Timor does resemble Australia. It is a rugged, arid island with only a few limited areas suitable for agriculture. Timor is dry and the people of Timor are known as ” Atoni Pah Meto or The People of Dry Land.

If we’re lucky we get a good rainfall for a full four months from around December to March. While it’s very dry during dry season, the rainy season could cause Timor dry rivers to flood heavily making erosion as one of the biggest problems throughout the island.

Growing up in this island, what I like the most is the local legend that says the long narrow shape of the island was formed by the body of a crocodile. The island does look like a crocodile. In fact, in many places people of Timor (Atoni) place crocodiles highly in their traditions. We could see crocodiles featured in the woven cloths (tenun) or other cultural artifacts. You could also find many folklores in different areas were about crocodiles and how they intertwined with people’s lives.

I put Maxi on a lead and had him sitting beside me. We both were looking at the beautiful valley draped with the afternoon sunlight. It’s getting colder but there was no wind at all. I couldn’t help but think about the long history of Timor.

Despite its dry climate, Timor was once endowed with Sandalwood (Santalum Album) that attracted traders from foreign countries for centuries. One of the earliest reference was a record of a Chinese trader in early 1225 who noted that the island was rich of sandalwood, a fragrance wood, that can retain its scent for many many years. The trading of sandalwood with foreign visitors occurred for centuries. Just like spices for Moluccas, sandalwood was a blessing and a curse that attracted foreign occupation in Timor.

Europeans arrived starting with Portuguese ship Victoria at the north coast of the island, the last surviving ship of Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet in 1522.

By 1561, the Portuguese started to settle in Solor island, north of Timor. In 1613, Dutch arrived and began settling in at Kupang bay or what’s known now as Kupang city.

To illustrate the abundance of sandalwood on this island, other early Chinese records claim that the mountains of Timor were so covered by sandalwood trees that they were cut for firewood. Sadly this is no longer the case. Sandalwood forest has long gone. The valley that Maxi and I were looking at must have been covered with sandalwood forest in the past.

Centuries of exploitation and trading without regeneration contribute to the disappearance of sandalwood from the island. It’s a pity because it takes between 20-30 years for the trees to mature before it can be extracted for its oil.

I heard the fire crackling at the background. My friend Julius had already started the fire. It was getting colder. I checked on the temperature on the phone, it was around 16 degrees Celsius but it could drop to 14 degrees by dawn. My mind continued to wander off.

It wasn’t until recently that I realise many of the things that I believe as “facts” are actually debatable. I believe in those “facts” because they were taught to us at schools and we took them for granted.

First is the Majapahit kingdom, the mighty kingdom of Kediri in Java, that reigned over most of Indonesian archipelago and parts of Malaysia in the 14th century, or so it claimed. I realise this was actually debatable by historians. It could be just one of the rhetoric that the nationalist movement used to advance its political agenda to gain independence from the Dutch, and even later, this was used by the Suharto’s regime to justify the ‘invasion’ to the Portuguese controlled East Timor.

I seriously doubt that Majapahit’s kingdom did extend until Timor. Until now, it is still challenging to travel by land throughout Timor, unless you have a four wheel drive car to conquer Timor terrains. What more was it during the time of Majapahit in the 14th century? How many months of sea voyage, and how many months of riding on horses to reach remote corners of the land to conquer the kingdoms? Imagine the logistical difficulties and costs of such occupation.

Negarakertagama, a poem written during Majapahit’s golden era by Prapanca that records Majapahit’s kingdom did mention Timor but it could have meant one of the countries that Majapahit was trading with back then. There was still no record found to date that indicated Timorese Kings became subject to Majapahit authority.

Second is the ‘fact’ about the period of Dutch occupation in Indonesia. You could ask any Indonesian. I bet they would say the period of Dutch occupation was for 350 years. Yet, this is not entirely accurate for all Indonesian territory. Records show that it wasn’t until early 19th century that Dutch Government could take full control over Timor. Again, this time period was used by both the Dutch government and Indonesian nationalists for their political agenda. Dutch used it to justify its efforts in retaining its control over Indonesia but, ironically, it was also used by the Indonesian nationalist movement to magnify the suffering of the colonialization.

Maxi was suddenly on alert and Kayla started barking. An old man was walking past our tents. He smiled at us. All his teeth were red of chewing beetle nut. He was trying to communicate in a mix Timorese and broken Bahasa Indonesia. We gave him a loaf of bread to bring home. He said he was on his way home from collecting firewood. I wish I could speak his language, the native language of Timor.

Who are the natives of West Timor anyway?

Majority are called Atoni. They live in areas throughout West Timor. The next major ethnic group is Tetun who dwell in the central part of the island living along both areas of the border between Indonesia’s controlled Belu region and Timor Leste.

Parts of the group include Marae and Kemak (Bunak). Although they speak different languages, the three groups are often lumped together as Tetun. Yes, I use the term “language”, not dialect, because in linguistics, the term language is used instead of dialect when the speakers of different groups, like Tetun, Kemak and Marae, are no longer mutually intelligible.

The last main ethnic group of the people in West Timor is Helon. They live mostly in southwestern part of the island, or now mostly, known as Kupang. The rest would be immigrants from Solor, Rote and Savu brought about by trading or forced migration by the Dutch government. My ancestor from my mother’s side were both from Solor and Savu and they could be part of these migrations in early 19th century.

Europe has kings and kingdoms. Java and Sumatera also do have kings and kingdoms and I’m proud to say that Timor also has Kings and Kingdoms. In fact, a strong influence of kings and princedom in people’s lives brought challenges to Dutch to gain a full control of the island. Many of kingdoms in Timor originated from Waiwiku-Wehale, an area in the southern part of Belu. Due to its fertile land, the kingdom became wealthy and powerful. It extended its power to all areas from east to west of the island. The most powerful leader was named Maromak Oan (or Child of God). He was very powerful but couldn’t be bothered with the administration of the kingdom. For that he had representatives called Liurais, or Kings. Two liurais ruled over what currently known as Timor Leste. One liurai resided over Wehale, and another one was Liurai Sonbai, the king of the people of Atoni in West Timor region.

I couldn’t help but laughed, romanticizing the life of Kings and kingdoms in Timor but I know that it’s not all beautiful and rosy pictures. Warfare, famine and diseases were also painted in Timor history.

I will leave you with this record from one of the Chinese documenters that I found amusing, who had intriguing remarks after visiting Timor,

‘The women are shameless. The chiefs of the tribes are gluttonous and fond of wine and lechery’

I laughed because I remember from my field works and visits to villages talking to the people, I used to hear women sharing in numerous focused group discussions complaining about their husbands’ drinking problem.

Some things just never change I suppose.

It was already dark and the stars started to come out. They were so much more brighter than what we used to see from Kupang. I added more firewood. It was getting colder. The people of Atoni once used sandalwood as firewood. I smiled.


Farram, S. G. Doctoral Thesis. From ‘Timor Koepang to Timor NTT: A Political History of West Timor, 1901-1967′. CDU University

Fox, J.J. 1977. Harvest of the palm: Ecological change in eastern Indonesia, Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England

Nordholdt, H.G.S. 1966. The Political Anatomy of the Atoni of Timor. Springer-Science+Business Media, B.Y.

One Reply to “The land of Atoni”

  1. Great shots! I envy your trip (but silently scowled).
    It’s a really nice writing. It’s so descriptive. Again, I’m so very envy of being able to travel to this kind of place. Sincerely, me who is still stuck with ambulance sirens and polluted air.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: