Culturally speaking, one of the most remarkable
facts about the Timorese is their ethno-cultural heterogeneity.
This is evident in the various languages and dialects as well
as differences in material goods, most notably in regional
architecture. The Timorese people have a rich oral tradition
in which mythology and legend play an important role in passing
on knowledge about the pre-colonial period and the later evolution
of the kingdoms. There is also a long tradition of animist
spiritualism in Timor which remains highly influential today,
despite exposure to major powerful religions and the Timorese
people’s growing allegiance to the Catholic Church.
When the Portuguese first disembarked
in Timor, the inhabitants were identified as animists. In
1522, Pigafetta referred to the Timorese as “gentiles”, and
wrote that “when they go cut sandalwood, it was told to us
that the demon appears in various forms and tells them to
ask for something that they need”. Later, in 1559 the priest
Baltazar Dias states in a letter that the Timorese “are the
beastliest people that exist in these parts. Nothing do they
adore, neither have [they] idols. Everything what the Portuguese
tell them, they do it.”. This indicates that the expansion
of the Islamic religion from Malaysia in the 15th century
hadn't reached Timor (although it is said that the Sultan
of Ternate, Cachil Aeiro, should have subjected the island).
While the Malays, Chinese, Japanese and
others frequented Timor and surrounding islands before the
arrival of the Portuguese, colonisation and religious conversion
(eg to Islam) was not their purpose nor was it permitted by
the local Chiefs (Liurais). For instance, just like the early
years of Portuguese contact, the Muslims appeared to have
lived on the island only for the short period of time needed
to cut and load the highly prized sandalwood trees. In the
words of the captain of Malacca in 1518 to King D. Manuel,
the Timorese also “had natural aversion to the Muslims”.
Animist religion in Timor-Leste revolves
around the spirits of the dead who are both feared and worshipped.
These spirits are materialized through stones, animals, wells,
streams or objects endowed with mysterious magical powers
that can be either good or evil. In Timor these are called
‘Luliks’, which means sacred and intangible.
Efforts to promote spiritual conversion
to Christian Catholicism were introduced into Timor through
Portuguese colonisation. However, the influence of the Catholic
Church really took hold and began to strengthen only after
the Indonesian invasion. This is partly because the Church,
particularly the Diocese of Dili, gained the respect and prestige
of the people during this period because they often came to
the defense of Timorese lives. Today more than 90% of Timorese
identify Catholicism as their religion. Nevertheless, animist
beliefs remain strong in Timor-Leste and only a minority of
local Christians (serani in Tetum) can be considered as having
no animist beliefs. For a few Timorese, animism remains their
main spiritual religion which informs their cultural practices
and outlook on life.