Traditional Houses



In Indonesia, the construction of the house symbolizes the division of the macrocosm into three regions: the upper world, the seat of deities and ancestors. The typical way of buildings in Southeast Asia is to build on stilts, an architectural form usually combined with a saddle roof. Another characteristic of Southeast Asian houses is the forked horn on the roof, which is considered to be a symbol of the buffalo, regarded throughout the region as a link between Heaven and this world. The most famous stilt houses of Indonesia are those of the Dayak in Borneo, the Minangkabau and Batak on Sumatra, and the Toraja on Sulawesi.



The Long Houses of the Dayak:

The Dayak, some of the original inhabitants of Borneo, build long houses on stilts, using ironwood for the structure and tree bark for the walls; the floor are simple planks of wood placed side by side. The length of these houses was for the last century of 110 meters (over 360 feet) and today they generally range from 10 to 70 meters (33 to 230 feet).

On Borneo the long house forms a center for both social life and for rituals. Here people meet to talk after work, and its here the central ceremonies and rituals of the group are performed.

In each long house is a central stilt or main post which is the first to be placed in position when the house is built. This post is associated with the ancestor who founded the house has a sacred signifiance; it stands in the center of the house and its looked on as the link between the underworld and the upper world. The long houses were often decorated with representations of water snakes and rhinoceros birds. They were connected with the group's central creation myth, for water snake is associated with the underworld and the rhinoceros bird with the upper world of the good spirits.

Long House - before 1920, Tumbang Malahui, Central Borneo.


The Houses of the Minangkabau:

The Minangkabau are the Malaysian people who lives in the Padang highlands of Sumatra (west of Sumatra). Typical of the houses of the Minangkabau are the distinctive roofs, which look like buffalo horns. The word "Minangkabau" can actually be interpreted as a compound of the words menang (win) and kerbau (buffalo). This derives from a local legends that people relates that a buffalo fight was arranged by the locals and the people of the influential kingdom of Majapahit (eastern Java). The loacls'buffalo was the winner and since that time they have called themselves the "buffalo winners", Minangkabau, as a proud testament to their strength and courage. The houses are called rumah gadang (large house) and are not inhabited by differents families, but by three or four generations who come from one ancestor and thus a rumah gadang is also a family unit, and each of the Minangkabau identifies completely with his or her own rumah gadang.

The rumah gadang has three main areas: immediately after the entrance comes a middle ares (rumah tongah), where there is normally a central post; adjoining this the anjuang, and the bedrooms (biliak). Opposite the anjuang is the kitchen and in front of that a large space (pangkalan), where visitors are received. While the long house is a meeting place for all, the rumah gadang is essentially a women's area; none of the men spends much time in the house with his mother or his wife, and the biliak (bedrooms) are seen as room of the house reflects a woman's life cycle, and forms a journey from the central post to the anjuang, then the biliak, and lastly to the kitchen.

Rice store - Minangkabau architecture, Pagaruyung near Bukit Tinggi, Sumatra.


The Houses of the Batak:

The Batak, who live in north Sumatra, are divided into six ethnic groups. Two Bataks races, the Mandailing and the Angkola Batak, became Muslim in the middle of the 19th century, and Toba Batak were converted to Christianity in 1864 by the German Rheinisch Missionary Society. The others kept their native religion, though there have been converts to Islam and Christianity more recently.

"The houses of the Toba and Karo are recognizable by their massive style of building construction, which is suited to the way the inhabitants settled more and less permanently. The stilt house is an eminently pratical form of architecture for life in the tropics. Unfortunately, the Toba Batak houses are no longer being built. Earlier, rice stores (sopo) were a part of the traditional house, the rumah adat. The sopo were very important as status symbols.

The ornaments put onto the external walls of the house are meant to drive away evil influences. These ornaments consist of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic representations, carved decorative ornaments, and wall paintings. The colors used are natural colors, the most iportant being red (from red clay), white (from chalk), and black (from charcoal), which respectively represent the three spheres of the cosmos: the human world, the world of good spirits above, and the underworld.

Batak house - Rumah adat, Lake Toba on the Island of Samosir.


The Houses of the Toraja:

The ethnic groups in the mountain regions of southwest and central Sulawesi (Celebes) are known by the name of Toraja, which has come to mean "those who live upstream" or "those who live in the mountains". Their name is in fact derived from Raja, which in Sanskrit means "king". The society is hierarchically structured: the noblemen are called rengnge, the ordinary people to makaka, and the slaves to kaunan; birth determines which rank a person will occupy.

The distinctive features of the traditional houses (tongkonan) of the Toraja are the "buffalo horns", the roof design and the rich decoration on the walls. The buffalo is a symbol of status, courage, strength and fighting spirit.

Designed as a representation of the universe, the tongkonan is constructed in three parts: the upper world (the roof), the world of humans (the middle of the building), and the underworld (the space under the floor). The highly distinctive roofs constructed by the Toraja have given rise to various ingenious interpretations. Certainly the roof is something of deep significance for the Toraja, and even today they build "modern" (in other words houses built with cement) houses with such roofs.

A tongkonan - Toraja area, Sulawesi (Celebes).