We did not get to see the lulik objects.
We arrived two hours late, and were told that we would have to wait outside the sacred clearing in the jungle to receive permission to enter. When we finally entered, we were told that we violated many taboos by our presence, by an irritable bossy woman. Pants, shoes, shaking hands of men (who approached us first), being white… but nobody seemed to mind the fact that we had cameras and were shooting photos of the men hauling huge 2 ft x 2ft x 30ft logs of wood howling like dogs. The men were transporting the wood cut from the Ai Besi, the Iron Tree, to the site of the future sacred house.
The lulik, we were told, were resting in the newly constructed bamboo house later to serve as a guest house. There was a great debate behind the scenes as to whether we should be allowed to see the lulik in a private showing. (Later we learned that they were trying to protect us from being blinded by viewing the lulik objects.)
We sat in a bamboo structure, about 6m by 15m, elevated off the ground, which was one of about five such tent/structures. They had been built for the hundreds of people who had come to help build the sacred house. Each village in the surrounding area had their own. There were kitchens everywhere, and a spring below, near a large field which was where the big beams and logs were kept. The forest surrounding was dense for East Timor. Some trees had never been cut.
On the way up, it was clear that some children along the road had never seen white women before. We were told they thought we were dolls.
But the clearing in the forest also had long rows of coconut palms, evenly spaced. The best evidence of Portuguese control over the region, the forced cultivation of coconut.
People told us that the old sacred house had been target of the Timorese punishing forces brought in after the rebellion in 1959. The invaders from Viqueque and Ossu stole and burned everything. But they were ‘not able’ to burn the sacred house. As if it would not catch fire.
In the late 1970s, the Indonesian military succeeding in burning the house. But the people of the kingdom had already taken the lulik to a safe place in the town below. After some tough years in the jungle (persecuted by both Timorese and Indonesians) they returned to the town en masse, and became infamous collaborators. But they kept their lulik objects safe.
Nobody knew how to conduct the sacred house building ceremony. The last time this occurred was ‘a hundred years ago.’ Some old men were helping to add authentic elements, including the requirement that nobody call each other by their names, but by the name ‘asu’ (dog) in order to reduce their status in the presence of the sacred objects.
But there were already enormous compromises to the tradition, including the attendance of all of the ‘reino’ the common people, who would have never been allowed near the sacred house in traditional times. Just the family of the ruling kings and the priests.
After witnessing a chicken sliced to death by a victorious chicken with razor blade taped to its foot, and after declining a dinner of boiled buffalo and dry rice, we slept next to heaps of rice sacks. There was noise all night. The old people were taking advantage of the opportunity to teach the young people dances and songs. They danced and sang until sun-up. And somebody started beating on a snare drum a meter from our ears at about 4 in the morning.
The whole time I had the sensation that I was at a big rock-music festival like Lollapalooza or Woodstock or something. This huge encampment in the woods, with different activity stations (cock-fighting, drinking palm wine, eating, sleeping). There was this very happy communal energy. Stomachs were full of more protein than most of the year, care of the liurai, who agreed grudgingly to feed hundreds of people for the two hungry months before harvest for this event.