In Focus

Shrine figure of a deity (Baku-Mau)

Formerly known as Kambing or Goat Island, Atauro is a small island dominated by several extinct volcanoes that are surrounded by a mostly dry and rugged landscape. The island is less than sixteen miles from Dili and the Timor mainland. In the 1970s, carved images of deities and ancestors that were associated with both outdoor and indoor shrines, or placed in and around cemetaries or within a family's dwelling, could still be seen in a few villages. Traditionally, before the region's general conversion to Christianity, a divine couple, Baku-Mau and his female consort Lebu Hmoru, were worshipped there as important fertility deities.

The Ataurorans supplicated these gods with offerings and sacrifices, imploring them to regulate the rain and enrich the earth for their crops. The couple's combined beneficence ensured the fecundity of both domestic and wild animals, guaranteed a plentiful supply of fish from the sea, and was integral to the success of any important undertaking. Baku-Mau and Lebu-Hmoru (who in local myths is capable of sporting some fifty nipples) not only promoted the fertility of all things but also looked after the male islander's virility as well. Their maintenance was considered synonymous with good health and prosperity.

The most memorable in situ photograph of a set of clan found­ers, or more likely of Baku-Mau and Lebu-Hmoru, was taken at an outdoor shrine near Mount Manu-Koko. The couple’s likenesses were carved on a pair of posts. Placed in a cairn of rocks facing each other at an angle, the figures poetically recall the stern and prow of a ship. In describing similar sculptures, Father Jorge Duarte, a Catholic priest who lived on Atauro for fifteen years, noted that Lebu-Hmoru wore a larger carved comb in the shape of an occipital trident. Her ears were often more elongated and pronounced than those of the male figure, and suspended from them was a fine pair of earrings. These figures also generally wore tiered headdresses. In some old photographs, their crowns are spiked with offerings of pierced coconuts.

Duarte also wrote that Lebu-Hmoru was depicted wearing strands of highly prized antique trade beads (mutisala). In eastern Indonesia, these deep-orange-colored beads, said to be of Indian origin, were and sometimes still are used as a ritual currency and were associated with wealth and status. Baku-Mau’s bulkier choker chains of mutisala with their extended strands were longer than those worn by Lebu-Hmoru, and suspended from his necklaces was often a distinctive circular or ovoid medallion. These same features are found on the male figure belonging to the Dallas Museum of Art, and on its former mate, which is now in the collection of the Indiana University Museum at Bloomington.

The sym­bolic identity of these deities is further affirmed by the positioning of the children attached to each figure. The children nursing at Lebu-Hmoru’s breasts are looking inward, creating an overall pose considered to be nurturing and quintessentially female. Those attached to Baku-Mau’s torso are reversed to face the outside world in a statement that projects masculinity.

This pair of statues is said to come from a sanctuary house (ruma-lululi) in the village of Makili on the island’s southeastern coast.

Adapted from

Steven G. Alpert, "Shrine figure of a deity (Baku-Mau)," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 266-267.