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Spiritual Landscapes of Life and Death in the Central Highlands of East Timor

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In the 1990s, the inhabitants of the East Timorese highland village of Funar returned to their ancestral land after having been forcibly dislocated by the Indonesian military. This paper explores how recent historical events, war, forced resettlement and conversion to Catholicism have affected the villagers' relationship with the spiritual landscape. Have these historical developments, as they have done elsewhere in Southeast Asia, led to the purification of the landscape through which the material world is separated from the spiritual realm? I argue that, rather than purifying the landscape, the returning villagers are keen to 're-inspirit' the material environment, restoring reciprocal relations with the spiritual realm and thus ensuring the economic and social benefits flowing from this. Catholicism is not considered to be opposed to the spiritual potency of the landscape; rather, Catholic symbols and practices are creatively appropriated as they are considered to be evidence of the landscape's existing potency. However, the return migration involved not only the re-enchantment of the landscape but also an attempt to distance the dangerous spirits that inhabited the abandoned lands. Hence, I conclude, the returning villagers of Funar are involved in a twofold process aimed at achieving the right balance in their relationship with the spiritual landscape: attempting to restore and revitalise their reciprocal relations with it whilst also establishing a safe distance by detaching themselves from its threatening aspects.
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Keywords: Catholicism; East Timor; Landscape; Re-settlement; Semiotic Ideology

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 November 2009

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