20120513-Traditional_Sasak_Village_Sade_women_cooking Lombok.JPG
cooking in Lombok, Indonesia
Nusa Tenggara is a string of islands extends to the east of Bali and continues in a southeast curve towards Australia. The main islands are (from west to east) Lombok, Sumbawa, Komodo, Flores, Sumba, and Timor. Also known as the lesser Sundas, Nusa Tengarra is the driest part of Indonesia. Parts of the islands have been denuded by slash and burn agriculture and brush fires. The 300-meter-deep channel that runs between Bali and Lombok extends northwards and divides Kalimantan and Sulawesi and marks the Wallace Line, with different species of animals living on each side.

The largest islands in Nusa Tengarra are Sumba, Flores and Timor. Bali and Nus Tenggara account for 4.6 percent of Indonesia’s land and 5.3 percent of its population. The region is poorer than other parts of Indonesia. Corn and taro are grown in the dryer areas rather than rice. Many ethic groups live in the region, particularly on Flores and Alor. Many of the people are Christians. As one travels eastwards the climate get drier and drier and some land areas are covered by open savannah.

The Ndaonese live on the islands of Ndao and Nuse off the west coast or Roti. Little grows on their islands. They men have traditionally been silversmiths and goldsmiths and traded their jewelry with other peoples, particularly the Timorese. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Tetum live in south central Timor. Also known as the Belu. Teto and Tetun, they speak the Tetum language but other very diverse and fall into a number of different groups. They are primarily slash and burn agriculturalist with those in the highlands growing rice and breeding buffalo and those in the coastal plains growing corn and breeding pigs. They supplement their diet with some hunting and fishing and also make mats, iron tools, textiles and containers. Surplus food and goods are sold in markets. ~

Traditionally there have been four classes: royalty, aristocrats, commoners and slaves. Political organization was formed around princedoms and kingdoms. Most are Catholics although traditional religions remain, Marriage customs include a bride price, bride-service, marriage to form alliances and concubinage. Clans are dispersed among different villages. There are an estimated 300,000 Tetum speakers. ~


The Sasak are the dominant group living on Lombok. They were Hindus before they converted to Islam beginning in the 16th century. Feuding between Sasak princedoms allowed the Balinese to dominate the island and reduce the Sasak to vassals and servants until the Dutch drove the Balinese out in 1894 and the Balinese ruling family committed ritual suicide. The Sasak language is similar to Balinese and Javanese. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Sasak are divided into two groups: 1) the Wetu Telu, the more traditionalist Sasak, and the 2) Waktu Lima, the more conservatively Islamic and market-oriented Sasak. There has traditionally been some friction between the two groups over their beliefs and power. The Waktu Lima held higher positions under the Dutch and some have accused the Wetu Tela of being infidels. ~

The Wetu Tela regard themselves as Muslims but have many radical beliefs. They do not build mosques, pray five times, go on pilgrimages to Mecca and have no objection to eating pork. In the Sasak language Wetu means “result” and telu means “three.” The number “three” looms large in their belief system. They fast for only three days during Ramadan and recognize the trilogy of the sun, moon and stars and the head, body and limbs The Wetu Tela have been declining in numbers and now mostly persist in remote areas. Their number are believed to be less than 30,000. ~

Traditional Sasak beliefs embrace ancestor cults, life-crisis ceremonies, beliefs in local spirits and local holy places. Some traditional animist and Hindu beliefs have been incorporated into their version of Islam even though they regard themselves as devoutly Islamic. Some Balinese-Hindu concepts of caste also remain in the existence of two classes of nobles and one of commoners. Nobles and commoners often live in separate neighborhoods and high rank men are allowed to marry lower rank women but high rank women are allowed to marry lower rank men. ~

Sasak Life

Sasak villages range in size from several hundred people to more than 10,000. They are often set up around a mosque or mosques, or along a road. Traditional houses are barn-like structures with bamboo frames, and thatched roofs, and are built on platforms of packed earth. These have largely been replaced by concrete or wood houses with metal roofs. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Sasak are primarily farmers who raise wet rice with water-buffalo-pulled plows in fields outside their villages. A lot of work is put into maintaining irrigation systems and their dikes and canals. Other crops are also produced. Men have traditionally done the plowing, field clearing and dike repair while women pounded the rice, fetched water and took care of the households. Sasaks sometimes eat ferns. ~

Many marriages have traditionally taken place through elopement, which the Sasak refer to as “bride capture.” Marriages between cousins are common and often preferred. Within the limitations of caste there is considerable freedom in choosing spouses. ~

Sasak arts include shadow puppet plays, dances, dramas, Islamic songs and gamelan-style music. Traditionally large wooden horses were made to carry celebrants during festivals. Sasak men value physical strength. “Pereseban” is a form of recreational fighting in which combatants use rattan staves and small rectangular shields. “Lanca”, a form of combat that originated in Sumbawa, and features men who strike each other with their knees, is also practiced. ~


The Alorese live on the island of Alor, which lies in East Nusa Tengarra, north of Timor and east of Bali and Flores. Also known as the Aloreezen, they embrace a wide range of groups that speak different languages—a number of them mutually unintelligible—and have different defining characteristics that at least are partly attributable to Alor’s rugged mountainous terrain. Most Alorese are Christians. Many of the those that live the mountains are Papuan. Most of the Muslims live on the coast and many of these are immigrants from elsewhere in Indonesia. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Alor (east of Flores, 30 kilometers north of Timor) is an island that lies east of Bali and Flores in East Nusa Tengarra. Home to the Alorse, it is 2,884.5 square miles in area and is very mountainous, with limited coastal lowlands. It was a Portuguese holding until 1854 when it was handed over to the Dutch. Alor is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse places. On the island there are 140,000 people divided among 50 tribes, each of which speaks a distinct languages or dialects that fall into seven distinct language groups. Some groups practiced head headhunting up until the 1950s. They used arrows tipped with chicken bones that splintered inside the body, producing a very nasty wound. Occasionally, it tribal warfare still breaks out between different groups.

The mountain Alorese have traditionally lived in mutually hostile highland villages that remained largely untouched by the outside world until Indonesia became independent in 1949. The coastal Alorese have had more contact with the outside world. The Alorese languages resemble those spoken elsewhere in Indonesia, particularly on Timor, although some have a strong Papuan influence. Traditionally there has been little organization beyond the village level. ~

Alorese Religion

Traditional beliefs endure. One group believes that every individual has two souls and after death one goes to the “village above” if a death is natural and the other goes to the “village below” if the death is violent. Unappeased souls, it is believed, can cause trouble. Funerals often incorporate rituals that are intended to send souls away peacefully. Beliefs in lineages and village guardian spirits remain strong and are often represented with crocodile-like carvings. Many believe that disease is caused when a malevolent spirits urinates on them or enters their body and eats their liver. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Import ceremonies include death feasts, rites associated with good harvests and sacrifices for guardian spirits. There are not many religious practitioners. They are involved more with healing than with religious ceremonies. Funerals feasts are often expensive, elaborate affairs wrapped up in settling debts and fulfilling financial obligations and often involve the transfer of “mokos” (bronze drums), gongs and pigs. Sometimes there are several feasts with the last one held at the time soul is expected to leave the earth for good. ~

Alorese Marriage and Family

Men have traditionally done the heavy work while women have worked in the fields. The ownership of fields is handed over to children when they are 10 to 13. Young children often fend for themselves or are in the care of older siblings as women are often working in the fields. Family life often revolves around male houses, which are linked to patrilineage lines and associated with a number or rituals and mutual obligations pertaining to marriage, death and finances. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Although polygamy was practiced in the past, monogamy is the rule. Marriages have traditionally been love matches rather that arranged unions. Marriage are often sealed by an exchange of gifts, often involving mokos (bronze drums) but also includes gongs, pigs and grain. Couples tend live with the farther’s parents and divorce is common. It is not unusual to find Alorese that have been divorced several times. ~

Alorese Life

The mountain Alorese have traditionally lived in mountain-top villages with no more than 150 residents. The houses, with thatch conical roofs and a wood and bamboo construction, are organized around central dance places, with fields planted behind the houses. Feasts have traditionally been held in large carefully-built lineage houses. Many villages have a church and an elementary school. Some traditional houses have been replaced by cement ones with metal roofs. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Most Alorese are subsistence farmers who raise maize, rice, beats, millet and cassava, often in slash-and-burn fields, and raises pigs, goats and chickens. Crafts include wood carving, basket making, pottery and “ikat” weaving. In the past, mokos, gongs and pigs were important trade items. Although most Alorese today live in the cash economy, wealth is still measured by some by how many gongs one possesses and they often obtained through clever manipulation of the Alorese credit system and are used as payments for marriages, funerals and construction of lineage houses. ~

Mokos are about 50 centimeters high and 33 centimeters in diameter. They have four ear-shaped handles and a sightly hourglass shape. They have a bronze rather than leather skin but sound like bongos when struck. Some of the designs resemble those found in Java in the 15th century. Other are like cymbals found in Southeast Asia before 500 B.C.. Mokos today are among the most valued objects owned by Alorese. ~

Disputes have traditionally been settled by “fines through challenge,” in which a victim of an offense publically challenges the perpetrator of the offense by an inflated price for a pig or gong. Being unable to pay the price is a “shameful admission of financial defeat.” Headhunting raids used to be used to settle conflicts. They were suppressed in the 1920s and appear to have not been very common anyway. ~


The Atoni live in the central mountainous part of western Timor and East Timorese (former Portuguese) enclave of Oe-cussi, . Also known as the Atoin Pah Meto, Atoin Meto, Timorese, Orange Timor Asli (in Indonesian), they are largest ethic group in western Timor, with around 750,000 members. Atoni means “man person’ and is short for “Atoin Pah Meto. Europeans called them Timorese. They number around 840,000, with 761,000 in West Timor and 80,000 in East Timor. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~, Wikipedia]

Their language is Uab Meto is an Austronesian language. It had no written form until a Dutch linguist romanticized the script before World War II. Christianity is predominant religion. Some are Muslims. Folk beliefs are still alive. Traditional Atoni religion revolved around beliefs in ancestral rewards and punishments. Deities and spirits included Lords of the Sky and Warth, ghosts and spirits of places and things. The Atoni belief in the power of spirits and ancestors and their ability to meet out justice remains. Traditional life-cycle rituals have been incorporated into Christian rituals. Traditional healers are called upon to deal with sorcery, curses and illness and to communicate with spirits and the Lords of the Sky and Earth. ~

The Atoni are also primarily slash and burn agriculturalist who grow maize rice, raise chickens, pigs and cattle and collect forest products such as palm sugar and honey. The nuclear family is the primary farming unit, working its own plot with some help from other relatives. The rights to Atoni slash-and burn agricultural land has traditionally been controlled by clans and territorial groups. Orchards are held by families. As a rule land has traditionally not been treated as commodity.

Valued property among the Atoni includes orchards, livestock, money, gold and silver jewelry and family heirlooms. The Atoni have traditionally made fine woven cloth, baskets and ropes but didn’t work metal and thus imported tools that they needed and the gold and silver jewelry they prized. Woodworking was once an important skill but is no longer widely practiced.

Atoni Marriage and Funerals

Among the Atoni marriage is equated with the attainment of adulthood and is viewed as a means of forming alliances between local lineages. Marriages have traditionally been arranged to continues old alliances or establish a new alliance and revolved around wife taking and wife giving that ideally worked out on an equal basis. A bride price is paid over time from the groom’s family to the bride’s family. The terms of the agreement are based on wealth and status and vary widely from region to region and even family to family. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Atoni newlyweds usually live with the groom’s parents family although they may reside for a while with the bride’s family. Divorce is not all that common and often entails the repayment of the bride price.

Atoni funerals are intended to make sure the spirit of the deceased and those of his or her ancestors don’t wander the earth bothering the living. Lineage alliances play a major role in the funerals. Processions to the burial grounds have traditionally been led by the wife-giving relatives of the deceased. They also carry the front part of the coffin. There is also a fair degree of present exchanging and other rituals involved with lineage alliances. Many of the rituals and liturgies are Christian. ~

Atoni Families

Nuclear families among the Atoni form the basic household unit and is sometimes augmented by “borrowed children” from other families or widows or widowers. Widowed or divorced people often live alone or with a child or grandchild in separate domestic units usually close by. Mothers and the mother’s brother (the primary wife giver) are involved in raising children. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Atoni groups are organized along patrilineal descent lines, which may be large in size and widely distributed over a large area. The basic clan units are localized lineages of a name group. Sometimes several of these groups will cooperate in marriages and rituals and economic activities. Among the Atoni great importance is placed on lineage alliances based on wife giver and wife taker relationships among families over several generations. Goods are exchanged between alliance partners during life cycle events such as marriages, births and funerals. Property deemed to belong to a lineage is normally inherited by sons while property obtained through marriage can be inherited by the spouse and/or male and female children. ~

Atoni men and women have traditionally done planting, harvesting and other agricultural chores together. They can both be seen in markets selling a variety of goods. Men usually do the heavy and dangerous work such tending cattle, hunting and repairing fences. Women tend small animals, gather plants and take care of children. Atoni children have traditionally been socialized through verbal and public affection by both parents. Corporal punishment is regarded as an acceptable punishment of children by parents, older children and of women by men. Children are taught to have respect for elders. Initiation rites and, among boys, warfare, were regarded as part of the growing up process but that is no longer the case. ~

Atoni Society

Traditionally the Atoni have been divided into three classes: aristocrats, commoners and slaves. Political organization was formed around princedom and kingdoms. Slavery was abolished by the Dutch and the princedoms remained powerful until they were eliminated by the Indonesian government in the 1970s. Society is now organized among more egalitarian lines. Headmen are elected. Many villages have two headmen: one who serves as a liaison with the national government and another who presides over local legal and customary matters. Clan elders sometimes take on leadership responsibilities. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Atoni society revolves around calm membership and lineage alliances (See Family and Marriage). Many leaders still have noble blood and leadership positions are passed down along patrilineal lines. Church functions as a social organization but is not that involved in political and community activities. Among the Atoni birth is natural and assisted by knowledgeable women rather than specialists.

Conflicts arise over inheritance, marriage and possession of orchards and animals. In most cases the matters are worked out on the villages level with the oversight of headmen and village elders. The settlements often involve the payment of fines. Moral transgressions are often believed to be settled by the spirits and God. ~

Atoni Villages and Homes

The Atoni have traditionally lived small dispersed settlements with 40 to 60 people in 20 to 40 houses set up in mountainous areas or along roads. Most settlements do not have a central common area or plaza or any public buildings. Some have modest wooden churches. Each village is surrounded with stone fence or shrubs, with fields and cattle cages on the periphery. The houses usually form a circular cluster, or follow a road. Traditional Atoni homes have a beehive shape, with the roof nearly touching the ground and are made of forest products. Many now live in rectangular houses made from wood or concrete, with windows. They are particularly numerous near roads and markets. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

According to ethnographer Clarke Cunningham, Atoni culture is notable for its spatial symbolism, associated with a gender dichotomy. Male-female principle is important, as with the duality of sun-earth, light-dark, open-close, dry season-wet season, outer-inner, central-periphery, secular-sacral, right-left, and so on. This in turn affects the spatial configuration of an Atoni house. The right side of the house (facing the door) is always male, whereas the left is female. The center of the house (and the attic) is male, while the periphery of the house is female. The interior of the house is female, the terrace is male. The house is female and the yard is male. This principle conceived the Atoni house as a microcosmos. The house also expresses social order. [Source: Wikipedia +]

A more elaborate house is called Ume Atoni (Atoni means "male"). The house is dominantly male in quality. The Atoni entertains their guest in a communal house called Lopo. A Lopo is always located in front of a house and is oriented to the road. Furthermore, each cardinal direction is associated with a gender, as are different parts of a house. Sex and gender do not always line up, as an important lord is called a "female-man," and is accordingly always a man, but performs stereotypically female duties. +


The Kedang live on the island of Lembata, which is east of Flores and north of Timor. Also known as the Edang, they are primarily slash and burn farmers who do a small amount of coastal fishing and raise a few animals. Most are Roman Catholics. Some are Muslims. A few retain their traditional beliefs. They are culturally similar to the Lamaholot who live to the west. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Kedang have traditionally lived in bamboo houses with grass and palm leaf roofs oriented according to traditional religious beliefs. Maize and dry rice are the primary staple crops. Copra, tamarind and candlenuts are raised as cash crops. Many men leave their home island in search of work. ~

Marriages involve an elaborate series of exchanges set by social class seen as alliance builders. In the old days there was no marriage ceremony. Those today are in line with the customs of the Catholic or Islamic faiths. Gifts traditionally included elephant tusks, gongs and fine ikat cloth. Divorce is common among non-Catholics. In the old days children had their teeth blackened and filed as part of coming of age rituals. ~

The incorporation of traditional religion into Catholicism and Islam is reflected in the names for God: Moon-Sun, Great Sun, White Sun, Morning Star-Sun and Great Morning Star. Traditionally, the sun has been viewed as male and the Pleiades and the morning star is associated with divinity. In their belief system there are also guardian spirits, free spirits and witches.

In addition to Catholic and Muslim rituals, the Kedang also conduct special village purifying and agricultural ceremonies. Feasts are held at funerals and marriage presentations. On occasion rain-making ceremonies are held. After death, the Kedang believe, people go through a process of death and rebirth through levels of the universe and are briefly a fish before ascending to their place with God.


The Rotinese live on Roti, off southwestern Timor, the southernmost Indonesian island. Also known as the Atahori Rote, Hataholi Lote, they tend be small are and known for their characteristic sombrero-like hats and have a long traditional of education and working as civil servants. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The traditional Rotinese house is the focus of Rotinese life. It is divided into male and female halves and traditionally has had a thatched roof with gabled ends. The house is raised off the ground on posts that extend over a ground floor area with resting platforms, where guests are received. Because of a lack of wood on the island many of these have been replaced by cement or stone structures. ~

The staple of the Rotinese diet is syrup tapped from the lontar palm. It is mixed with water for everyday consumption and also processed into thin cakes and fermented into a dark beer, which in turn may be distilled to a sweet gin. Maize, millet, sorghum and a variety of tubers, fruits and vegetables are eaten. Rice is regarded as a luxury. Fishing is primarily a dry season activity and is done with offshore stone weirs. ~

Rotinese Customs

Rotinese society is organized around domains which are made up if several clans and are led by a pair of male and female lords and their court, with everyone else being regarded as commoners. In the old days there was some warfare between domains and into the 1990s occasionally there were still some cross border raids. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Rotinese marriages are defined by the amount of bride wealth given, the amount of feasting that goes along with the wedding and the length of the bride service performed. Bride-wealth is usually paid in gold, old silver coins, water buffalo, sheep or goats. Polygyny is practiced by the wealthy. Divorces are easy to obtain. ~

Most Rotinese are Catholics but some traditional beliefs in ancestral spirits and their malevolent counterparts exists and you can still find some lontar-leaf representations of ancestors in some houses. Ceremonies are held to mark events like marriages and funerals. They are also held whenever human blood is shed and to mark ritual hair cuttings, baptisms and the seventh month of the first pregnancy. Ancestral clans hold an annual “feast of origin.” Funerals are elaborate affairs that are marked by feasts on the third, seventh, ninth and 40th day after death. They sometimes accompanied by dog sacrifices. ~

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Last updated June 2015

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