The Role of Traditional Houses in Timor-Leste: Safeguarding ICH Elements

The formation of traditional houses in the Atu-Aben Clan, Bobonaro Municipality, Timor-Leste. Site abandoned by the local community. ⓒ Abraão Mendonça, Timor-Leste National Commission for UNESCO

Traditional houses (uma-lulik in the local language) are considered cultural centers and roots for Timorese people and a symbol of national identity that defines who we are. These houses are also considered sacred by the local community and places for generations of families to gather and communicate with their ancestors. Ritual ceremonies, which consist of ICH elements, are associated with uma-lulik. The traditional houses are known as a main pillar in regard to social interaction, with each individual integrated into the sacred houses since birth.

Timor-Leste’s traditional houses play an important role that embraces various ICH elements, for instance sau-batar (corn harvesting, a ritual celebration usually conducted every six months) and finadu (soul day, a ritual celebrating death, which is usually held on 2 November every year). Two perspectives can be used to describe aspects of the uma-lulik: first, as a material construction, usually recognized as tangible heritage. If we are specifically looking into a piece of material/tangible heritage itself, it’s the same as other traditional houses around the world—that is to say, the overall physical shaping with local materials such as timber, bamboo, rope, and grasses. However, from another perspective, if we look into the intangible cultural elements associated with uma-lulik, then we can see that the traditional houses of Timor-Leste are totally different from others. Usually, constructing a uma-lulik takes a long time due to the various ritual ceremonies that are conducted at every stage of the build.

Causes of Uma-Lulik Endangerment

The existence of traditional houses has been endangered due to conflict and the negative effects of globalization and human interference. The current economic expansion and infrastructure development displace local communities, who maintain cultural value. As a new country in Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste is currently facing huge challenges, and most traditional houses have been destroyed and abandoned by local communities.

The long process of conflict has had effects on the cultural heritage value, specifically of traditional houses themselves. Many uma-lulik were destroyed and abandoned during the Indonesian occupation (1975–1999). The existence of the uma-lulik was dramatically reduced due to most people being classed as suspect and ritual ceremonies being prohibited by the Indonesian military. In 1999, many traditional houses were destroyed during the final period of Indonesian occupation. The long-running background of conflict also includes the Japanese attacks between 1942 and 1945 and the Portuguese colonialism period for almost five centuries (1512–1975). The overall stages of occupation and turmoil has put Timor-Leste’s traditional houses at risk.

Safeguarding Local Knowledge

Transmitting local knowledge (the construction technique) should be considered a priority and must be safeguarded before it is lost (the Lia-Na’in are the oldest community leading ritual ceremonies). Local knowledge is a crucial indicator, meaning that people are vital resources and significant actors. The Lia-Na’in have high competence related to cultural decision making, including the overall house construction process.

It is important for the main ICH elements and concepts to be transmitted for future generations to safeguard traditional houses will have a positive impact in maintaining other ICH elements such as sau-batar and finadu. This could be achieved through networking cooperation to enhance advocacy, documentation, and research.