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Sumatran architecture
The house with the head and the tail

The building styles of the traditional houses on Sumatra are of imposing and architectural diversity impressive. The way of building of the Toba, karo and Simalungun are clearly distinguishable, while the houses of Mandailing Batak in the south are again very different in some ways. The traditional houses of the Minangkabau in western Sumatra are unique as well, and famous because of their decorative flower motives and arched roofs.

The Gayo people north of Danau Toba used to live in big community houses, with a front gallery for the men and a back gallery for the women. Along th northern coast of the island are traditional Acehnese houses. They are fresh and well-ventilated, with big windows with hatches with good woodcarvings. But the most nice architecture can be found on the island of Nias. The houses are queued along paved, straight streets, which are overruled by the house of the local village head, built on heavy iron-wooden pawls.

Many of these houses - mainly those of the Batak and Monangkabau - seem to be built in the same style, but not only to each other, but also to the houses of other Indonesian populations, like the Toraja on Sulawesi. The most remarkable communal brands are the fundations of pawls, the protruding edges of roofs and richly decorated walls.
The earliest known images of similar houses on pawls and roofs are made into bronze drums from the Dongson area in the current Northern Vietnam. The culture which goes with the drums dates back to about 500 BC t0 500 AD. Dongson drums are traded as prestigious objects in the archipelago.

Earlier theories about Dongson 'migration waves' to Indonesia are not taken seriously anymore, it's very unlikely that an architectural style only spread because of images on drums. It is far more likely that the style already existed when the drums were made, and that the images are just the earliest images that have survived the times.

Austronesian influences

Probably these unique, ancestral architecture is developed by Austronesian speaking migrants. The Austronesians, the ancestors of most Indonesians, originated from an area somewhere in Southern China and their migrations through the Indonesian archipelago from Taiwan and the Philipines started at least 6000 year ago.

Their colonisation later spread over the islands in the Indian Ocean, to Madagascar (400 AD), and everywhere they introduced their remarkable way of construction. This way of construction is also found in Micronesia, the are that was colonized by Austronesians after 2000 BC. Saddle-roofs are also a brand of the houses for men on New Guinea.

The survival of these old style of construction seems to be based more on aesthetically and symbolic powers than of the choice for a way of construction. The Minangkabau-, and Batak-houses, for example, have pointed roofs, but they have a different style of construction.

In the Toba batak house, the living space is decided by the roof that is supported by very low walls. The roofs bend towards the outside, and are made by diagonal construction. The walls of the Minangkabau house are much higher. The roof is above that space, supported by a construction under the roof, and is build into the highest point by small pieces of wood.

Symbolic houses in Aceh

In Aceh the houses are possessed by the females. When they can pay it, the parents take care for the house for the daughter when she gets married, otherwise they give their own house, and the parents will live in the kitchen. A days, the house is the domain of the women. The men will spend most of their time in public places, or they just walk around (merantu) to earn some money with trading, and they only go home rarely.

Acehnese houses are richly decorated with cosmic and symbolic signs. The front gallery usually is the most public and official part. Here are the men. The back, where the kitchen and the women's entrance can be found, is private. Man and woman are united symbolically in the central room of the house, which has the highest floor-level and where the two most important pawls of the house are - the 'prince' and 'princess' where the bride and the groom sit against on their wedding day.

This is also the bedroom of the just married couple. In the top of the house, just under the top of the roof, is a platform where precious goods of the family are kept. Outside, at floor level, a heavily decorated skirting board surrounds the house. The wall between the front gallery and the rest of the house can also be decorated with woodcarvings.

Monumental villages on Nias

In the 19th century, South-Nias was ruled by an aristocratic rule, which did not go out of the way of war, and which enriched themselves by attacking far-away districts to recruit slaves. The royals gave parties to improve their status. Whoever gave the biggest party, got the highest status in the village, and also got the right to build an enormous house (omo sebua).

A magnificent example of this can be found in the village o Bawomataluo, on Southern Nias, it's built in 1863. The 22.7 metre high house is richly decorated inside, and had expensive wooden walls. These carry images of thrones of ancestors, mane and female ornaments, animals, birds and even a Dutch steamboat with cannons.
The villages on Nias are extraordinary big, sometimes up to 6,000 inhabitants, this because smaller communities could not cope with head-hunting and slave hunting. Most villages have a single paved main street, sometimes crossed at the end, so a big 'T' is formed. Some villages can only be reached by big stairs. In front of the houses of the royals are stone megaliths, stone monuments to remember festivities and burials.

A typical brand of these houses are the very big diagonal wooden pillars on which the foundation is built. The diagonal pillars give some extra stability to the structure of the house in this area, which can be hard hit by earthquakes. The flexibility of the houses when a tremor occurs is enlarged because the pillars are supported by stones, a thing that can be found elsewhere in the archipelago.

The ancestors of the communities on Southern Nias originated from Central Nias. The houses there are built in a more older and easy style, without the many decorations and a simple roof. For a visit to this remote area a guide can't be missed. Also keep a close watch at the weather; in the wet season roads are in a very bad condition.

The houses on Northern Nias have an oval-shaped floor, which is unusual. They are less monumental of size, but they have certain familiar features, like the use of diagonal pillars and the use of special holes in the roof, which can serve as windows. The graves, which are nowadays more Christian, are still located besides the houses, the traditional style that is.

Batak houses

On the rural areas around Danau Toba, many traditional Toba, Karo and Simalungun villages with strange concrete structures can be found. These modern grave monuments which have the shape of a house are build with a big ceremony and a lot of money to house the passed-away family members.

This traditional care of the death is still very important to the Toba, and is intermixed with the Christian rituals as well. The tugu (monuments) are usually decorated with local as well as Christian symbols. On the island of Samosir in Danau Toba, there are more and even older stone ones.

Toba houses are built with a foundation of pawls, reinforced with horizontal pawls, which creates a room under the house which was used for holding buffalo's. The walls are covered with decorations, lines are drawn to secure the people in the house. Sometimes, three dimensional animals are carved out at the corners and at the top to give extra protection.

On the north-eastern banks of the lake is Pematang Purba, a wooden palace of the earlier raja's of the Simalungun Batak which is now used as a museum. The impressive long-house has a realistic formed buffalo head at the front, and a tail made of sugar-cane fibres at the back. Inside is the private part of the raja, and ten separate houses, which belonged to the women. A city council in the neighbourhood has a wood-carved pillar which was used by the ruler whenever he sentenced someone.

The Karo people, which live north of the lake, developed a variation on the form of the roof and some differences with decorational walls, decorated with buffalo's to protect the people from the evil. Some nice examples have been saved in the villages around Berastagi. The houses are traditionally used by four to eight closely related families, everyone has their own house. An important piece is a small replica of the house, called geriten, or 'head-house', in which the skulls of the ancestors are kept.

The Minangkabau house

The Minangkabau are known for their female relational family system. This means that the houses, as well as the rice fields, are given to the daughter from the mother of the family. A typical Minangkabau court consists of one traditional house surrounded by others, built whenever a female member of the family got married.

The imposing, arched roofs are appearing everywhere. The tops of the roofs are a remembrance of the legendary victorious buffalo, (menang kerbau) which also gave them their name. Near greater buildings the roof has been doubled or even qua-tripled to form four or six points, most of the times with an extra point above the entrance, which is placed in the building in a straight corner.

The big rumah gadang, or long-houses could house up to one hundred people which were related to each other by a single ancestral mother. Inside is a big gallery which gave access to numerous sleeping rooms. In the mountain village of Sulitair, close to Danau Singkarak, is such a traditional long-house which has been preserved. It has a total length of 64 metres.

Minangkabau rice sheds and city courts (balairung and balai adat) seem to have about the same style as the houses. The ancestral village of Pariangan in the Tanahdater Valley has some original ones, as well as the neighbouring Pagarruyung where the former palace of the raja's (kings) of Minangkabau can be found. The original palace was lost due to fire in 1976, but it was rebuilt, and is in use as a museum nowadays.

Last revised on September 02, 2011
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