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History and Architecture of the Longhouse

MALAYSIA CURRENTLY LIKES TO BUILD TALL, sending the Twin Towers skywards to claim the spot of world’s tallest building from 1998 to 2004, and Kuching is catching the trend, constructing condominiums and giant office towers of ever increasing height across its urban landscape. But the original Borneo megastructure was, of course, the longhouse. Entire communities of hundreds of families could commonly live under a common roof, sharing space in a manner in complete contrast to their urban counterparts who might not even know their closest neighbours. At one time, any journey up any Sarawak river would have been punctuated with raucous nights of legendary longhouse hospitality as guests from town unloaded canned goods, salt, crackers and, with any luck, bottles of whisky up the terrifying longhouse log steps to be plied in return with tuak and the copious contents of multiple kitchens full of jungle produce.

The rumah panjang is the romanticized mark of rural Borneo life, common to multiple indigenous communities across Sarawak from the Baram right down to Lundu. The variety is endless. Built of belian, bamboo, nibong, apong and now increasingly bricks and mortar, stretching from a very short four doors to the rambling structure of Annah Rais, a tourist favourite thanks to its proximity to Kuching, this type of building has been the preferred choice of communities across Sarawak since time immemorial. And a choice they are. As world famous anthropologist Peter Metcalf remarks: “no simple feature of ecology or geography requires this peculiar mode of residence.”

Of course, not all Borneo communities live in longhouses and not all longhouses are housed in Borneo, but commentators and academics have expended reams of writings on their existence here and the preference for them. Spencer St. John in 1851 describes ‘Longusin’, a complex of longhouses in the upper Baram housing up to 500 families, as ‘built on lofty poles on hills of various heights, yet appearing to be clustered together, while nearby were numerous little rice stores, neatly whitewashed. I never saw a prettierlooking place.’ Charles Hose, on a visit to a vast longhouse on the Tinjar river, was equally ‘struck by it.’ Housing up to 700 families, in Hose’s estimation, he described it as ‘a quarter of a mile long and supported on magnificent big wooden piles with strong plank floors. Massive piles of ironwood supported the roof at a height of some thirty feet from the ground, and the floor was supported by the same piles at a level seven or eight feet below the cross beams of the roof.’ These were indeed impressive megastructures.

Any variety notwithstanding, they share a common theme that marks out the longhouse from the ubiquitous, low-cost terrace house that populates the world – the use of communal space. St. John writes of ‘a broad covered verandah, as a public room and a sleeping place for the bachelors, while off it were separate apartments for the married people, the young girls and children.’ As architectural historian John Ting puts it: ‘Longhouses are generally sited parallel to rivers and streams. Generally speaking, longhouses are made up of a series of individual raised pile houses (or ‘apartments’) constructed together in a row. A covered gallery for the use of the whole longhouse runs parallel to the row of apartments, and is of the same total length. A gabled roof over the gallery and apartments runs along the whole building, and the attic space within is also used. In some cases (with Iban and Bidayuh longhouses) a wide, unroofed balcony runs beside the covered gallery. The ground level is not inhabited and left as storage and shelter for domestic animals, while the longhouse group inhabits the first floor level, as well as the attic in some cases.

Together, it is this unusual configuration of space that reflects longhouse life, or perhaps longhouse life has been shaped by it. Using Iban terms, it is the ruai that makes the longhouse. Running the whole length alongside the tempuan (the open passageway that runs between the ruai and each bilek), this space belongs to all. It is a gathering spot for evening randau, communitywide conversations at the end of the day. It is for funerals and festivities. It is for the welcoming of guests and the provision of hospitality. Each family might enjoy its own place; the open air tanju is for individual farming purposes – the drying of pepper, the winnowing of padi, the mending of nets and occasionally for family rituals such as Ngangau ke Petara (roughly translating to ‘Calling the Heavens); and the covered bilek, also individual to each family, would be for sleeping and cooking.

But in reality, the lines between adjoining families are blurred. Mornings would see the tanju full of conversation as people passed on their way to the river, as if around the kampung watercooler, and bilek were incredibly porous as neighbouring family members would cut holes in walls for easy access from one kitchen to the next. Notoriously, the attic space would be a late-night passageway for intrepid young men to negotiate on their way to ‘ngayap’ or visit young ladies that had caught their fancy. Births would take place in the bilek but with the entire community in attendance, the expectant mother’s only claim to privacy being flimsy tikar bemban (woven mats) hung to hide her from eyes if not from every exclamation on her progress.

For many cultures across the world, this level of community involvement would be unthinkable but, as Metcalf puts it: ‘if you were to ask the longhouse residents, they would simply say there is no other civilized way to live.’ The longhouse created connection – for work, for play, for worship and even for warfare – that saw each community operating almost as a single, combined unit. It reflected their cosmology. John Ting, referencing Roxana Waterson, says: this placed humans within a greater universe that also contained the spiritual and animal worlds, and the longhouse was a microcosm of that cosmos. Humans occupied the middle level, the animals occupying the separate ground level, and the spirit world occupying the attic spaces. In other words, they saw themselves as being separate to nature and the spirit world, and with nature being able to be heavily influenced by the spirit world.’

In fact, it might well be the loss of this cosmology to the conversion to Christianity that has overseen the changes in longhouse life. Despite the descriptions of their impressive size and stature, the longhouse of old was rarely meant to last. As communities grew or divided, cultivation fell or in the terrible case of a longhouse fire, the time would come for a dramatic and difficult new phase of construction, often in a new location, leaving tembawai or old longhouses derelict across the landscape. But this would require an understanding of mali (bad omens) and later a mimpi (dream) to direct the community to pastures new. As the twentieth century drew in, the practice of pindah (migration) ground to a halt and communities became increasingly rooted to one spot. While longhouses remain in many communities, they are often surrounded on all sides by outlying houses and the longhouse expands no longer. New longhouses are being constructed in more permanent concrete and breezeblock and many families are retreating to their bilek as the connection to the TV or the Internet grows ever stronger.

The love of the longhouse might remain, both for locals and visitors alike, but its life is being eclipsed by migration of a different kind as rural residents seek work in urban centres or even offshore. However, the lessons of the longhouse still permeate Sarawak culture – community, hospitality, tolerance and unity. Perhaps Sarawak as a whole is now the ultimate longhouse that might, this time, last forever.

Karen Shepherd fondly remembers river trips in the early eighties up the Baram and Skrang when the longhouses were full of life and, despite her own selfish need for privacy, firmly believes them to be the source of all that makes Sarawak special – community, connection, hospitality and tolerance. Long may they live!

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