Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 15, May 2007

Tom Therik

Wehali, the Female Land:
Traditions of a Timorese Ritual Centre

Pandanus Books, Canberra: Department of Anthropology,
Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies,
Australian National University, 2004,
Foreword by James Fox, maps, figures, tables, photographs, genealogies, plates, index, glossary,
pp. xviii + 332, ISBN 1-74076-146-4

reviewed by Melissa Johnston

  1. Tom Therik's book, Wehali, the Female Land: Traditions of a Timorese Ritual Centre, provides a stunningly detailed description and analysis of the matrilineal societies in the south Tetun division of middle Timor. The geographic area known as Wehali encompasses hamlets in both Timor Leste and West Timor. Therik's ethnography, based on fieldwork conducted in 1992 and 1993, engages with oral tradition in order to show how Wehali is imagined as the ritual centre of South Tetun cosmology.
  2. The writing of Wehali required Therik to learn the elevated, ritual language of Wehali, lia na'in, which is composed of 'couplets of parallel lines' and 'dyadic words' (p. 39). Although Therik grew up sixty kilometres from the site of his fieldwork, he was considered a relative outsider of Wehali. Therik's 'endeavour to learn ritual language' facilitated his journey 'back' to Wehali to become an insider, an ema itak of Wehali (p. 3). As the Wehali consider their domain to be the origin of all humans, 'all outsiders are potentially returning insiders' (p. 3), and Therik's journey to the 'navel land,' 'the umbilical cord land' rai hussar/ / rai binan' was, in that sense, one of return, rather than discovery (p. 61).
  3. Therik's theoretical orientation focuses on the analysis of dual categories, such as centre/periphery and inside/outside, as revealed in the oral tradition of Wehali. Other studies of Eastern Indonesian societies have also used a dualistic mode as a tool of analysis. Therik found works by James Fox have that utilise dual categories to be useful.[1] In addition to works by FOx, Therik draws on reliable, earlier writings by Gerard Francillon.[2]
  4. Therik's book Wehali is a noteworthy addition to the field of academic enquiry concerning Eastern Indonesian societies and the specifically the island of Timor. Analysis of the southern Tetun allows Therik to trace historical implications that have remained relatively unexplored in earlier writings on Timor. Wehali is a sacred domain whose importance lies in its function as a ritual centre containing the female origin place and knowledge that must be protected. Therik's discussion of the central domain, Wehali, is organised into eight chapters, beginning with descriptions of setting, kinship and marriage then traversing thematically the cosmology of Wehali and the rituals by which Wehali society maintain their world. This includes delineating the role of the Maromak Oan, 'the small bright one, the luminous one,' (p. 292) who is a female entity but a male person and who is accorded the highest status in Wehali. The Maromak Oan is said to 'eat reclining and drink reclining' in a manner that shows the other domains of middle Timor feeding and protecting the Maromak Oan (p. 293). Chapter Two begins with a description of the 'ethnographic setting' of Wehali, which encompasses hamlets in both (present-day) East and West Timor (p. 19). The latter half of the chapter describes how the numerous domains of Timor were amalgamated during the colonial period. Therik explains that this colonial legacy of amalgamation resulted in the 'old empire of Wehali's' reduction to 'the limit of a small hamlet of Laran, the seat of its former supreme ruler' (p. 21).
  5. In, 'Two Perspectives of Wehali,' the third chapter, Therik shows how accounts of Wehali written in the colonial period, 'start from different paradigms' than those accounts revealed in the oral tradition of south Tetun (p. 65). His exploration of the oral tradition, as well as his use of written accounts, shows how these two perspectives 'articulate different forms of discourse' (p. 65). Therik outlines the content of the Portuguese and Dutch colonial histories, showing their usefulness while emphasising their omissions and oversights. The most ambiguous area of the colonial record is the 'hegemony' of Wehali (p. 47). In 1522, Antonio de Pigafetta, who accompanied Magellan on his fateful journey, wrote an account of the region, but it contains no mention of the empire of Wehali. In later colonial histories, Wehali is represented as a powerful, coercive empire that demanded tribute from other domains (p. 47). Although the extent of Wehali's hegemony 'cannot be established with certainty' from these conflicting colonial records, Therik's investigation into the oral tradition allows for a more complete analysis (p. 52).
  6. The written account is complemented by Therik's analysis of the oral tradition, in which Wehali is revealed as a central and superior domain. To ascertain the character of its hegemony, Therik looks firstly at the South Tetun origin myth. He relates that Wehali began as the first land to dry, smaller than a chicken's eye. Wehali was formed from the roots of a banyan tree and the umbilical cord of the first child, Ho'ar Na'i Haholek. Wehali, then, is the 'navel land,' or the 'umbilical cord land' the first land to exist, and thus the superior domain. Therik's retellings of this and other Wehali narratives are eloquent. He explains and translates with attention to detail enabling the reader to also explore the insider's elevated language and point of view. The superior status accorded to Wehali in the myth is concomitant with the other domains of middle Timor paying material tribute to Wehali. According to the oral account, Wehali's power did not derive from any coercive military power, rather, because of its status as the navel land, the female land, it required protection and material tributes from the other, peripheral, male domains.
  7. Wehali's position as the central, female domain is explored in detail in Chapter Four. Therik explains that Wehali's female 'superordination' and the surrounding male domains 'subordination' is a relation of 'ritual rights' rather than coercion (p. 81). This relationship is exemplified by the notion of fo baa or 'giving away' of the centre to the periphery. Therik recounts that after the land dried, Wehali's first sons were given away in marriage to the surrounding male domains. Wehali, then, is said to have 'given away the sword to retain the sheath,' that is, given away male power to retain female power. In the oral tradition, the sheath of the sword, knua, symbolises the mother, to whom the sword, or son, is obligated to surrender. In this system, peripheral, male domains are obliged to protect and pay tribute to Wehali.
  8. The notion of 'giving away the centre to the periphery' is explored in relation to marriage and alliances in Chapter Five. In practical terms in Wehali society, residence is uxorilocal (in the mother's house) after marriage. Therik shows how uxorilocal residence begins an alliance between two houses. After giving a son away, the husband-giving house hopes to be returned a daughter in the next generation. This is called, 'giving back a seed and returning a banana head,' (p. 115), a process that closely mirrors the plot of the origin myth. These kinship alliances in Wehali are commensurate with the origin myth because, in the beginning, Wehali gave away her sons in order to receive in return females and female power.
  9. The penultimate and final chapters of the book are of special interest to those working in the area of gender studies in Southeast Asia. In these latter chapters, Therik takes a thematic approach to examine the meanings created in the imagining of this matrilineal society. In Chapter Seven, Therik shows how the oral tradition is reflected spatially, particularly in the architecture of Wehali houses. These houses are structured around the inside/outside pairing. The inner parts of the house are female places, while the outer platforms are where the men reside (p. 169). The final chapter analyses Wehali ritual practice, through which they are able to maintain and promote life (p. 177). These rituals reflect the themes present in the Wehali oral tradition, such as the emphasis on elevated, ritual language, the interaction of inside/outside, male/female and centre/periphery. These latter chapters contain valuable insights into the ritual functioning of this matrilineal society.
  10. Therik's book is a comprehensive analysis of a matrilineal society in middle Timor that significantly contributes to the body of scholarship dealing with Eastern Indonesian societies—an often-overlooked field. Therik's sensitive 'insider' analysis of living and ritual in Wehali is an exemplary ethnography which scholars in the field of gender studies in the South-East Asian region would find interesting and insightful.


    [1] James J. Fox, 'Category and complement: binary ideologies and the organization of dualism in Eastern Indonesia,' in The Attraction of Opposites: Thought and Society in the Dualistic Mode, ed. David Maybury Lewis & Uri Almagor, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989, pp. 33–56.

    [2] Gerard Francillon, 'Some matriarchic aspects of the social structure of the Southern Tetun of Middle Timor,' unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1967.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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