Vernacular architecture of Assam

by Nabajit Deka | 2018 | 96,996 words

This study deals with the architecture of Assam (Northeastern India, Easter Himalayas), with special reference to Brahmaputra Valley. The Vernacular Architecture of Assam enjoys a variety of richness in tradition, made possible by the numerous communities and traditional cultures....

Garo Vernacular Architecture

The Garo is one of the tribes living in Assam who are mostly found in the districts of Goalpara, Kamrup, Darrang, Udalguri etc. However, the major Garo settlement and population is found in the Garo Hills District of Meghalaya. The Garos call themselves as the Achik / Mande or as Achikmanda (Achik= Hill & Manda= Man) while they believe that their original homeland was the Tibet (Barkataki:1972). It can be said that like the other tribes of Assam, the Garos also migrated from the upper part of China and Tibet or from the plains of the Howang-ho and Yang-Tee-Kiang. Their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group of language. The Garo culture is compound different sub-cultures namely- Abeng, Matshi, Garogansing, Atong, Ruga, Chichak, and Ave (Mazumdar:1974).

Garo tribe is scattered both in the hills and plains areas. And the traditional culture as well as the housing culture of the tribe living in hills and plains exhibits certain variations. Therefore, both the stilt and earth-fast varieties of residential architecture are prevalent amongst the Garos. Thus, while the Garos living in the hills construct their architectures primarily on platform, those living in the plains construct the houses on platform as well as on ground. Thus in the plains, the built environment and architectures are identical to dominant earth-fast Assamese style. Thus, they construct separate structures for residence, kitchen, cowshed, and a granary on platform around a courtyard like an Assamese homestead. The houses are traditionally thatch roofed and mud plastered.

However, the Garos living in the hills construct two varieties of residential houses. In the words of Playfair:

Almost every Garo possesses two houses, one in the village and one in his field. During the cultivating season he lives in the latter to remain near his crops, to weed them and protect them from the ravages of wild animals. When the crop have been gathered and stored, he returns to the village, and resides there until the next cultivating season. (Playfair:1975:37)

These field houses are tree-houses called borang, often constructed high up in the trees. For the construction of such a house:

The branches of a tree looped off 20 or 30 ft. from the ground, a platform is laid over the stumps and a small house built upon it of bamboo and thatching grass. A bamboo ladder gives access to the boring as the tree-house is called. (ibid: 38) As the Garos practice shifting cultivation, these field houses need rebuilding in every two years.

1) Built Environment of Garo Village:

The Garo villages of the plains are similar to the villages of other tribes. However, the Garo villages of the hills present a different scenario and built environment. Playfair has given a fair description of the built environment of the Garo villages of the hills. Thus, the Garos establish their villages on flat ground, “in valleys or in depressions on the hillside, close to running water” and “sites chosen for the houses are nevertheless generally steep”. He wrote that along the establishment of a village, trees are planted and “the entrances to nearly all old villages are through groves of jack trees”. The earlier villages used to made protective measure through “sowing the approaches with sharp-pointed bamboo stakes called wamisi in Garo, but better known as panjis’. Houses of the hills are constructed around “an irregularly shaped open space called atela or sara’, which forms a hamlet or village. This common open area is used for arranging religious ceremonies where dead are also cremated. And the houses around this courtyard are constructed closely on stilt. In the centre or at one end of the courtyard, there establishes the youth dormitory nokpante. However, the houses in the plain area are not exclusively constructed on platform; rather they are mostly constructed on ground.

The Garos construct the barns collectively in a separate place, little away from the residential houses. Thus:

In one corner of the village, or if it is a very large one, in two or three places outside the ring of living-houses, there is always a collection of smaller huts, which, from their size and appearance, are clearly not intended for human habitation. These are the village granaries, of which each family possesses one or more (Playfair:1975:39).

Such arrangement of burn is primarily for the safety of the grains. They carve the top of barn posts in the shape of a mushroom, a traditional measure to protect the crop from rats and vermin. They store the paddy in large bamboo baskets, kept inside the barn.

2) Architecture:

The Garo people living in the hills construct their residential house in a particular way. The traditional Garo houses are very much peculiar in layout and construction. As stated earlier, the stilted houses in the hills are constructed around a common courtyard, which virtually forms one of the hamlets of a village. Such traditional houses are “very long, and for their length rather narrow” (Playfair:1975). Thus, the length of the house extends up to some forty cubits while the breadth of such stilt house is around ten cubits. The houses have three principal parts and possess doors on front and back. The houses do not possess any window.

Their houses are constructed on the slopes of the hills and the platform, starting from the ground of the slopes reaches the height of around 8 /9 cubits to the other side. The height of the roof from the platform of the house is around 6 cubits, for which the houses looks little dwarf. But the lower heights of the houses make them safe and protected during the strong wind. The Garo houses are very strong and sturdy in its construction. They use huge wooden logs for the posts and the bamboo made walls are multi layered.

Traditionally, they do the roofing with thatch. Thus:

A Garo house is a two roofed one, one part of the house leaning on the slope of a hill and the other part supported by wood or bamboo posts. Almost one-fourth or one-third of the entire length of the house is kept free and open; this part of the house is used as an open portico of the house. The remaining part of the house is enclosed with walls woven with bamboo planks. Only one door is kept for entrance and exit. The entire house is built on a bamboo machang... The same house is used for all purposes of the family living within it. Fowls are also housed in one corner of the house while pigs are kept below the bamboo machang. But then small sheds on high bamboo posts are sometimes built for fowls while pig stays are also differently built. Very often a wide bamboo machang would again be seen extending from the middle part of the house, this machang is used to sun paddy and rice and other things. (Choudhury:1969:11-12)

However, the description of the Garo architecture by Major Playfair differs slightly from the above description. Playfair’s account, published in 1909, is based on his study carried out in the Garo Hills during the British rule.

Playfair wrote:

Garos always build their architecture on piles, and if possible on a steep inclines. Some of the piles are therefore longer than others. The supports at one end are rarely more than 3 or 4 ft. high, but as the house generally run out from the face of the slope, those at the other end must be of much greater length in order to keep the floor level. The piles appear to be put in with very little regard for regularity. On the top of the floor posts cross-beams are placed, over these a layer of whole bamboos, and lastly, a covering of rough bamboo matting. The walls are made of the same matting, and the roof is a substantial covering of thatching grass. Where this is not procurable, bamboo leaves or the leaves of a species of cane are used. (Playfair:1975:35)

He further states that the Garo houses are built on the same plan which have three principal parts and possess doors on its front and back.

The Garo house has a door in the middle of the facade of the house. But the platform of the house stars after a distance of 4 / 5 cubits behind the door. The first enclosed place inside the house is a room with earthen floor, not on platform like the rest of the house. They construct two platforms on two sides of this space to keep the cows. The middle portion of this space is utilized for husking of rice in the mortar during the rainy days. This area of the house is known as the “nokhra”.

After the nokhra, there is another door in the house, which is the main door of the house in reality. After entering through this door, one reaches the principal room of the house known as the dongrama or nokganchi, which takes up quite two-thirds of the whole building. This room, which is the public living room of the family, is comparable to the Assamese chora-ghar. This room stands on the main platform of the house, few steps above the earthen floor of the nokhra. The room is divided into well-defined area, though without partitions.

Playfair stated:

At the foot of the centre post, nearest the door, is the abode of spirits, where sacrifice is offered on such occasions as require the ceremony to be performed within doors. This place is called maljuri. At the next post in the centre of the house is the chusimra, or the place where the indispensible pot of liquor is kept, and where fresh brews are made. Further on is the hearth, which consist of a layer of earth about 4 ft. square and 3 ins. deep within a wooden frame.... Over the fireplace is the ongal, a platform of bamboo matting supported by four posts, on which are kept the cooking-pots and other household utensils: (ibid: 36).

The room has a post in the middle and the hearth of the house is established behind this post. For the construction of the hearth, portion of the platform is mud plastered, on which it is established. When a rice beer party is arranged, the rice beer known as “chu” pitcher is kept behind this post.

The open space beyond the hearth is used as the dinning space as well as sleeping area for the girls. Part of this room is portioned off on the marriage of a girl to accommodate her and her husband. On the other hand, the last room of the house, known as nokdring or doon, is the sleeping room for the main couple of the house. This room is regarded as very special and no other people are allowed to enter the room. A small veranda is attached beyond this room where the latrine is constructed at one side.

On the other hand, a passage of about 2-cubit breadth from the dongrama, to the opposite of the doon, leads to the last section of the platform, known as “khaldik’. This portion of the platform is sparsely woven, which is used to piss. In some instances, there construct another attached platform without roofs and enclosing walls on one of the sides which is approached through a door from the dongrama. This open platform is known as the “Aaleng’, which is used for sitting, gossiping and for sleeping during the summer (Mazumdar:1974). On the other hand, it is the custom to erect the memorial post or kimas in front of the nokhra, under the eaves of the house.

3) House Variant in Assam:

The Garo population of Assam also used to live in the platform house or buranok but gradually they started adopting ground architecture, which they call hani-nok. The Garos traditionally construct a main house to live, which is known as the mandi dong-saka-nok / thuwani-nok / thuram-nok (sleeping house). They construct a separate house for kitchen (mi-chung chaka-nok / misongani-nok) which is slightly away from the residence. The house possesses a main door to the east or south cardinal direction. Apart from these two houses, a Garo homestead usually possesses a barn (jam-nok / mizam) to the east of the main house, a cowshed (matchu-nok / gonghali) to the south of the main house, a shade for firewood (ambol-nok), are constructed.

Traditionally, as mentioned above, the Garo houses were primarily constructed on platform of 3 / 4 feet height. The house ideally used to face the east direction. A ladder (jangkhi) in the facade of the house leads one to an initial open platform known as baloom. The baloom is like a veranda, which is used as sitting area and where the guests were entertained. From baloom, a door leads one to the inner space of the house which forms a single room. This space, known as the syuram, is the sleeping area of the house. Outside the syuram, there is a rear open platform or veranda called jalura, attached with the second ladder.

Layout of Garo House (Bura-Nok)There construct another structure alongside the residential house. This house is the kitchen mi-chung chaka-nok. The kitchen possesses the fireplace that contains the swanthi or the hearth. Inside the kitchen, there construct different shelves for varied purpose. Thus, like other tribes, they construct a shelf above the fireplace. This shelf is known as onggari, which may be up to four tiered. Another shelf is constructed on niche in a kitchen wall that protrudes to the eaves of the house. This shelf, known as chiyandra is used to store rice, water etc.

4) Visual Embellishment of House:

The Garo people express their aesthetic sensibility and artistic skills through the traditional carvings done in their vernacular architectures. Though the youth dormitory, Nokpante often has different wood-carvings, the house of Nokma (the village headman) also contains carving as depicted by Marak (2012) and she wrote:

The Nokma’s house of Sadolbra village has a panel of woodcarving across the front wall above the door containing images of the sun, the moon and stars, and the mythical figures of the ancestress of prawns and of other living creatures like eels, centipedes, and snakes. The wooden panels inside the house have carved figures of a centipede, tortoise, and elephant, and a man riding a horse. (Marak:2012:8)

5) Beliefs and Traditions Associated with House:

The traditional Garo culture possesses many rituals that centre around the house. Thus, rituals are arranged on construction and house warming of the house that accompanies chants and songs.

Playfair mentioned:

Several dedication songs exist which are sung on such occasions... The assembled guests sit in two rows in the principal room of the new house, and each of the men in turn gets up and dances between the rows while singing the song. At certain intervals the spectators join in with a chorus, which seems to consist mainly of the repetition of the words ka or kai. The meaning of the words is tie or bind, and they are exhortation to the spirits to bind firmly the component parts of the house and consolidate the work of the builder. (Playfair:1975:38)

The Garos of Ukiam area of Kamrup (R) arrange house-warming ceremony called Nokdonga. Other rituals like traditions associated with the burial of death also display significant association of house. The Garos traditionally cremate the dead either in the courtyard or just near the house. After cremation, the bone remains are buried in the place of cremation and plant a stone slab within a bamboo enclosure. The enclosure is called delang, a temporary shelter for the spirit . Simultaneously, four long bamboo posts are planted in place of the pyres and hangs bunches of ears of paddy at the top of the posts. There also hang a basket that contains the necessary articles such as rice, beer, cloth, lamp, utensils etc. Oblations of rice, liquor, curry are offered daily before the delang, which is set on fire in a ceremony called Mangona.

There is another tradition associated with death rites. It is the erection of kima, which is a memorial statue, carved in a wooden post of about 1.3 meters height. This wooden post is erected in the yard in memory of a deceased person on the day a person dies. The likeness of the head of the deceased up to the neck is carved on this post and lower part of the post is left untouched. The carved head is delineated with the basic features and there is an effort on lively rendering of the eyes, by putting glass or polished tin for eyes. The face is then dappled with dots using pigment made through mixing of chicken blood with charcoal. In fashioning and colouring of the kima, there is the influence of a A”chik myth which says that a snail first carved a kima at a funeral for which the back of the kima resembles a snail while the dotting of the face also resembles the tiny marking on the head of a snail (Marak:2012).

The kima is provided with the items of daily use such as a gourd-shell to drink water, pots, sheaf of paddy, maize etc. and put an open umbrella over (Marak:2012). Then the kima is wrapped with deceased’s cloth and ornaments. Then the statue called kima is erected near the cremation ground, as soon as the cremation is over. Sometimes, the kimas, dressed in traditional Garo attire are placed below the eaves of the house of the deceased (Choudhury:1969).

The Garos of Shantipur (Kamrup), the special system of site selection, known as Jumang-niya, wherein about a 3 feet bamboo is planted in the proposed site, and then the person goes into slumber after bath and the dreams are analyzed to determine the favourability. During the celebration of the Wangala, which is a major Garo festival, the assembled people dip their hand on pounded rice powder mixed water and make white handprints on the posts and walls of house, to sanctify the house. The Garos believe that if a cock crows in the evening on the roof then it is regarded as the warning of the death of the owner of the house. On the other hand, entry of a pig into dwelling house considered as unlucky.

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