Many Palms Australia volunteers find themselves living among deeply religious communities. Especially in countries with a traumatic history, we find our partners often witness to how a deep personal and communal faith sustained them through the most extreme difficulties. It is a great privilege to share in a community’s own religious expression and rituals, as volunteers Esther and Paul find when joining the Tatamailau Pilgrimage in Timor Leste.
Mount Ramelau, the highest mountain range in Timor-Leste has one of the most prominent peaks across the Indonesian archipelago. The summit of Mount Ramelau is known as Tatamailau (meaning grandfather of all), and has figured prominently in early ancestral myths within the interior of the country. The deep cultural and religious significance that Tatamailau harbours for the Timorese was heightened when Catholicism became the dominant faith in Timor-Leste.
When Indonesia occupied Timor-Leste between 1975 and 1999, the use of Portuguese was banned and Bahasa Indonesia was declared the country’s sole official language. In recognising the people’s aspirations and significantly adopting Tetun as its liturgical language, the Catholic Church became a focus for cultural and national identity, and the Timorese flocked in droves to where safe refuge was found for their heritage. After five centuries of Portuguese colonisation, Catholics constituted only 30% of the Timorese population; but within a few years after the church adopted Tetun as its liturgical language, that number shot up dramatically. Today, over 90% of the population are Catholic.
In 1997, while still under Indonesian occupation, Tatamailau was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. A white alabaster statue from Italy of the Holy Mother was erected on the summit of Mt. Ramelau. Annual pilgrimages commemorating the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary are made to the statue in March and October each year; further deepening the significance of Mt. Ramelau.
Esther and I had been under the impression that the pilgrimage trail from Hatobuilico to the summit was the only one that existed. Our curiosity was piqued when Fr. Norberto invited us to join him in the October pilgrimage to Tatamalau from Atabae.
Were there other trails? We had to find out for ourselves…
Our pilgrimage started with a night’s stay in Atsabe, followed by an early lunch the next day, before setting off in a 4-wheeler for a half-hour drive to Airae-Paramin – to the east of Atsabe. This supposedly reduced walking time by at least 2 hours.
Even then, the walk lasted an arduous 5 hours or more within the country’s interior – the deep and long valley between the northern and southern coastal mountain ranges of the country; we were taking a hike along the back of Grandfather Crocodile (Lafaek); legend has it that the mountains and hills of Timor are actually the ridged back and scales of Grandfather Crocodile – the crocodile who became the land of Timor to repay a debt of kindness to the boy who saved him.
We were joined by more and more pilgrims along the way; tributaries of humanity flowing in from different parts of Timor’s interior; merging till a river of humanity coursed its way towards Tatamailau. We learned that there are, in fact, numerous pilgrims’ trails within the country’s interior; the trails ranges from an easy stroll of a few hours to arduous journeys lasting twelve hours or more. For many of the pilgrims, this pilgrimage has become an annual ritual – an act of faith to be performed yearly.
And all rivers flow into the sea. Our sea was the plateau just below Tatamailau. We arrived just before nightfall, in time for evening mass.
On the eastern end of the campground stands an Uma Lulik – traditional sacred house – with rows of rough wooden pews facing its entrance. An altar has been set up at the entrance of the Uma Lulik for the masses and night of devotions before the final procession up to the summit of Mt. Ramalau the next morning.
It was a clear night, which also made it a very, very cold night that we came unprepared for – the night temperature was in the single digit. But we were fortunate in that the Bishop of Maliana invited us to spend the night in the main room of the Uma Lulik, where a fire was kept burning. The pilgrimage to Tatamailau holds a special place in the heart of the Bishop of Maliana; he erected the statue in 1997 when he was a young priest serving in the Diocese of Dili. He had been invited repeatedly after that to celebrate masses during pilgrimages, and he seldom refused.
Rosaries were prayed, hymns sung, with devotions and adorations proffered under a starry sky throughout the night. As we looked up from the Uma Lulik, we saw the entire hillside dotted with campfires. Around each fire, silhouettes of some of the estimated 4000 pilgrims in attendance were huddled, soaking up much needed heat to get them through this night.
When daybreak came, a light fog enveloped the entire range. As the cold of the previous night gradually left us, the Bishop celebrated mass before leading the procession for the final climb to Tatamailau, where the Holy Mother awaits.
The morning fog lifted to a clear sunny day during our ascent, and the surrounding countryside gradually rolled out in every direction, revealing a patchwork of lush greenery and lesser mountains. We were finally met at the peak by the placid, alabaster gaze of the Virgin Mary, and we felt we were treated to one of Timor-Leste’s most striking spectacles.
It has been said that one can view the entire nation from this single vantage point; we found the claim to be no exaggeration that day…