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Centuries ago, ships from all over the world visited Timor in search of spices and sandalwood. The ancient Chinese travel chronicle Hsing Cha Sheng Can mentions that from the 6th to the 9th AD many ships from the Chinese mainland came here to barter ceramics, yarns, and silks for sandalwood. Can Yu Kua wrote in the Chu Fan Shih in 1225, that Timor Island had links with Java as far as the trade of sandalwood was concerned. The evidence of those old trade links with Java is found in Lendo Maja Dance, in Sabu. The evidence of early trading with China provide by the antique Chinese ceramics found in this area.

Pilliot Lamster believes that China had engaged in the sandalwood trade since the early period of Christian era. O. W. Walters similarly believe that China had connections with Timor in the first century of the Christian era. The merchant from India also come to these island to buy sandalwood, bringing horses which they bought in Arabia to be sold to Sumba people. That is ostensibly the reason why there are so many horses in Sumba The Europeans came to East Nusa Tenggara and bought sandalwood oil to treat wound.

Sandalwood was once an important trade commodity of the Lesser Sunda Island, East Java, Madura and the Moluccas. Nowadays, it survives only in Timor, on stony slopes, which undergo severe dryness in the long dry spell. Timorese farmers interviewed stated that sandalwood was once found everywhere on the island. Now substantial standing stocks are limited to the Soe district of South Central Timor (SCT) regency. The sharp decrease in stock has been caused by over exploitation, illegal cutting, and damage by the fires of slash and burn cultivation.

Regeneration of the tree relies solely one mergence of root suckers and stump suckers, and their growth is slow, requiring about sixty years for the fragrant heartwood to reach exploitable size. Accelerated cutting naturally leads to the decrease of stocks. The fired a mage occurs because sandalwood trees mostly stand in �ladang� fields (dry fields in contrary to rice fields which is normally wet). In the Dutch time, people were forced to take care of the natural shoots, and they were fined if they cut the shoots or young trees when preparing their ladang.

Presently, sandalwood is still comparatively abundant in remote areas. In areas where adat law is still strong, and in areas receiving the easterly rain (hujan timur). These areas include Mollo district, Kokoi village of South Amanatun district, SCT regency, Tanini Village of Fatuleu district, and Apraen, Kupang regency.  In regard to the adat, people believe that their ancestor took an oath that the sandalwood of Timor will live forever (houmei noni monin batnen, batnes nainkun, batnes nabalah). They also believe that those who cut the tree illegally will not have a peaceful life.

While sandalwood is economically and culturally important to the province of East Nusa Tenggara (ENT), people do not customarily plant the tree. Even today they rely on natural regeneration, even though the Dutch government in the 1920s started artificial plantation. Local rulers, who were also landlords, formerly owned the natural trees and because of this, sandalwood was called Kayu Raja or �king�s wood.�

Since independence, the role of the local rulers has been taken over by the provincial government of ENT. The farmers are simply protectors and collectors who gain little profits of sandalwood trade. This situation has discouraged people from planting sandalwood on their lands. They would prefer to have no sandalwood on their lands because their share of the profit from the harvest is small, and they face jail or an adat fine for damaging an established tree. The Forest Service on behalf of the provincial government manages sandalwood.

Sandalwood has three major uses. For carvings, oil and incense. Wood of the best quality is employed for carvings, while the rest is utilized for incense and oil. The main use (70%) is for oil. The products of sandalwood are consumed domestically and exported to Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, France and USA.

In particular, sandalwood has played an important role in religious rituals for praying to God or making offerings to ancestors, as follows:

  • Kepala Cendana (a stump of sandalwood) has been used as a substitute head of an enemy taken in a headhunting raid, which is poled in around the songgo (a sacred place for praying to God or making offering to ancestors) of the clan (haumonef) to gain the spirit from the dead body. This practice can also be traced in Sumba island (andung pole).
  • The tree is believed to be sacred and is called fait nai naimnuke or baha bodon (�princess and prince�), implying that it is invaluable and must be considered like a royal descendant that is to be protected. Because the tree is believed to be sacred. A ritual ceremony is held before felling the tree. This ritual function and belief may derive from the main belief that sandalwood is the one of the two sacred trees (the other is �beringin�, Ficus benyamina) that emerged in the process of creation of the world by God. Due to these beliefs, sandalwood can be used as an offering to God or ancestors in religious rituals. In the more traditional regions where the role of adat is still strong, such as the Mollo district, the traditional belief associated with the tree is still acknowledged, even though the traditional significance and role of the tree will disappear as traditional society changes.

By Heru Bagus PULUNGGONO *
(Graduate student, The Division of Tropical Agriculture, Faculty of Agriculture, Kyoto University)


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