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....

Mising Vernacular Architecture

The Misings, the second largest plain scheduled tribe of Assam, belong to Tibeto-Burman family of the Mongoloid or Indo-Chinese group. They were originally a hill tribe of the erstwhile NEFA or present Arunachal Pradesh, who came down to the plains before the reign of the Ahom kings (Thakur:1972). Presently, Mising population is mainly concentrated in the districts of Lakimpur, Dibrugarh, Sibsagar, Jorhat and Sonitpur.

The Misings are stilt dweller and the size and elevation of the house depend on necessity. Traditionally, the thatch roofed and bamboo walled house is constructed gable front which does not have any internal compartment. The house is constructed preferably facing eastern cardinal direction while western direction is taboo. The Misings construct one residential house for a family and it is elongated when necessity arises. The space below the platform (kritrig) is used for storing of firewood or to establish the loom. The granary (koomsoong) is constructed at a distance from the residence. Apart from the residential house, cage for fowl (poutrir), a pigsty (yougwm), cowshed are constructed in the homestead. Misings also construct seasonal architecture of tangi- ghar (payeb) and puyub, the one constructed over the anthill, in their paddy fields.

The Misings have the tradition to extend community help and labour in the construction of house. Thus, through the traditional institution called rubbaw / rwigbaw, help is extended for the construction or repairing of a house by people, especially the youths. They are entertained with wine and feast in return. The institution has great importance not for its cooperative undertone but as an active agent in the continuation of the tradition.

1) Built Environment:

The houses of a Mising village looks scattered haphazardly, sometime without a proper approach road and properly demarcated campus. It is because; the Misings do not consider the inhabited land as their individual property. Rather, they regard them as the property of the community. Therefore, the tradition of permanent individual campus, demarcation, or fencing is not noticed among the Misings. Similarly, the tradition of fencing their agricultural cultivation or rearing of pig in an enclosed cage (piggery) was also not prevalent among the Misings.

2) Site Selection and Foundation Ceremony:

Like other communities, the Misings first select a suitable place for the construction of house through ritual called ‘Panam’ (Sarma:2000) or “tagir- kanam’. The traditional priest Mibo, who examines the supernatural favourability of the place through two traditional methods, conducts the ritual. In first method, Mibo carries out the process through yakchaa (a sword) and dognou (a precious gem) (Medak:2015). In the second method, the suitability is tested through burying of rice. Thus, in the evening hours of an auspicious day, there pack a certain number of rice (usually five / five pairs / or equal of family members) in a torapat and bury them in the four corners of the proposed plot by the Mibo or some elderly person. During the moment of burying the bundles, the clan God, Doyi-Polo, Sedi Mel are recalled and chanting the name of the forefathers, utters ‘Tat mai nalo, gumin chaying auppinge, chide akum kumdasem kateika’ meaning “Oh ancestors and forefathers and God of house, please check the suitability of the place of this house” (Pegu:1970:250).

Next day, the bundles are inspected and if the things are found in situ, then the plot is recommended for the construction while any disturbance in the material is regarded as an ill omen. Thus, if any insect is detected inside the bundle then the site is not recommended for construction. It is believed that if a house is constructed even after such a signal, then the family members will suffer from (skin) diseases or may encounter attack of ghosts. Moreover, if the grains are found scattered or separated from each other, then there is the probability of quarrels among the family members. On the other hand, missing of any rice from the bundle is believed as a signal of death of family member and hence such plot is abandoned (Dole:2008).

On the occasion, the owner chants the following mantra:

Tala-taya nulu. Tat-long-ka oag-akum bertee,
dekpe omna medang oyadek praman chil,
lengkan-hangks ommna petam peki dung

Meaning, “oh ancestors! I intend to build a house on this land. Show me the signs of your approval. Swearing in the name of ancestors, I declare that I expect the sign of your approval.” (Sarma:2000:176).

In Disangmukh area, the site is selected through three processes called kharikamangal, puthi-mangal and chaul-mangal. In the first process, site is selected through tying of rope between posts, in the second process almanac is consulted while in the last process, site is selected through rice. After arrival at the auspiciousness of the plot, cleaning and purification of the plot is carried out. The process starts with through weeding of the plot that follows by tilling of the plot to search for any animal bones. It follows the sowing of mustard seed in the plot believing that mustard seed eliminates evil spirits from the site.

Then the construction starts with planting of the main post on an auspicious day. The Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and days on which parents have died is considered auspicious for the purpose. In the pit of the first post, they preferably offer a copper coin to ceremonially purchase the plot from Basumati. It is believed that the lighting does not fall on a plot purchased with a copper coin. Some people sprinkle rice on this occasion (Medak:2015).

3) Architecture:

Though the Mising houses do not have any compartment, it is symbolically and deliberately divided into different identical spaces. The house starts with an initial open area on ground known as aoulang or lotta, in front of the platform and under the protruding roof. This space is comparable to courtyard where mortar called ki- per is kept for the husking of rice. Simultaneously, the area is also used for threshing or to arrange a meeting where loom is occasionally the established. From this area of the house, a notched wood or bamboo ladder (kobang / kawbang) with odd numbers of steps attached with a supporting bamboo handle (lokgun / lagjun / pijun) leads to platform. The initial area platform is an un-walled porch that is called tung-goung / tungon. The rear side also possess a similar porch known as yapkur or turpak. The tungon is used for meeting a guest or for sleeping by the unmarried boys of the house. From the tungon, a door called tung-gong ke yapong or yapgaw leads to the interior of the house.

Floor Layout of Mising HouseThe inner space of the platform (mesaw) is symbolically separated usually by the main middle post or sometimes through a bamboo (sapan) used to keep cloth or sometimes with a sparsely woven bamboo wall (satum-bare). The fireplace called mairam / meram or melung is established in the middle of the platform that divides the platform to four areas of distinct name and use. The initial area prior to the meram is called soyer, used by the main or eldest couple of the house for sleeping. The area to the right of the fireplace (from the front) is called koktog, while the opposite area is called riching or risong. The male family members or respected guests sit in the risong area, while females occupy the koktog part of the platform, which is regarded as the sacred area of the house. While sleeping, the head remains to the side of risong, while feet towards koktog. Conversely, a son-in-laws sits in the western side, below the ridge of the house. The area after the meram is again known as soyer. From this area, a backdoor (eyapo-kuroku / turpak-yapgou) leads to the yapkur which possess another ladder. Sometime two additional open platforms are annexed, one to yapkur or tungon called karou to sun paddy while other called kokdang, is used as scullery.

Though a house usually possess one meram that may increase as per need in a big house (Dugdar Akum) occupied by a joint family. The meram may of two kinds-one called ramdoong that rest on the platform itself while the other called ramtog / yourongs rests on a specially constructed platform on four posts. The rectangular or square frame (gulung) of the meram is constructed with wood, which is then filled with soil above which the hearth (kire) is established.

A three-tiered hanging shelf above the fireplace is a typical feature of the Mising house. The lowest shelf is known as the pourab / perab / ramre, the middle one is rabbong / perab / raptaw and the topmost shelf (loft) is known as the kumbang / rubbo. The lowest shelf is used to smoke and season foodstuff, especially fish. In the middle shelf, wine pitchers are kept upside down to dry and make them ready for next cycle of wine fermentation. On the other hand, the top shelf, constructed above the beam, is used for the storing and seasoning of firewood. Apart from storing and seasoning jobs, these shelves prevent sparks of fire to reach the thatch roof and are a practical and useful protection mechanism.

4) Construction Technique:

The traditional Mising house is ten-tired, of which five tires remain below the platform, while the superstructure is also constructed of five tires. The ten-tired Mising house is known as “Taleng Akum’ where Taleng means “upper” and Akum means “house” (Pegu:1970:249). The ten layers of a Mising house from bottom to top are as follows:

nr. Superstructure (bottom to top) Platform or “Pich Soyer’ (bottom to top)
1 Bangkung–tie-beam Ertok–beam
2 Ladang / Dugying–purlin Japong / Chatoum–length-wise bamboo placed above the Ertog
3 Nipir–principal rafter Bener or Bonor–next breadth-wise bamboo over Japong / Chatoum
4 Chaying–lengthwise round bamboo below the roof Parpiam–split bamboo placed over the Bonor,
5 Tache-chelap–the thatched roof Pichaw-chachali (platform of sparsely tied bamboo lath) Or Mechaw- (platform of closely placed bamboo split)

The “Doley” and “Pegu” clans follow a characteristic custom in house construction that indicates their clan. It is the tradition of fixing the beam (banku) in the aoula (eave) portion of the house. In the houses of Doley clan, the bottom side of the beam is kept to the western cardinal direction while the top side remains to east. On the other hand, the Pegus fix the member in opposite manner, i.e. they keep the bottom to the east and top towards west. It is said that the fashion of fixing this member hints about the migration of these two clans, which signals that the Doley clan returned from the west to the east while the Pegus are approaching towards west (Dole:2008).

Construction house starts with planting of the side rows of roof bearing posts (palir khuta), followed by the middle row (mudhar khuta). Then plants the platform bearing posts (lenger) in rows and constructs the platform first. After planting the lenger, a wooden or bamboo beam (ertok / ortog / dik / jopong) is placed over them in breadth-wise direction or tied to the roof bearing posts. The beams support lengthwise bamboo (japong / chatoum / baner / kein chotem) which in turn support split bamboo (bener / bonor / porpum) added in breadth-wise direction. Then another layer of split bamboo (porpum / porpium / tarte) is added lengthwise over the previous member, which is held in the place through konkila. Then the topmost member of the floor i.e. mechaw or pichaw is added in breadth-wise direction.

After the completion of the platform, the construction of the superstructure starts with fixing of the beams (banku / bankung) in breadth-wise direction, which holds the posts in place. Then above the three lines of roof bearing posts, lengthwise purlin (Ladang / Dugying / dugir) are attached. It supports the principal rafter (papir / nipir / kenchi / matarua). Above this, lengthwise bamboo (talen-chatem / chatem / chaying) are attached, over which the hedali type roof (tarte / tache chelap) is attached directly or after another breadth-wise member of bamboo splinter (nipihr). Then the thatching of the roof is carried out in similar technique used by other tribes.

Apart from the residential house, the Mising people sometimes construct a separate barn (koomsoong) on platform to store their food grains. The barn is constructed little away from the residential house. The area below the platform is sometimes used as cowshed. The form and technique of barn is similar with the other communities.

5) Beliefs and Customs Associated with House:

The Misings believe that the upper five layers of their ten-tired houses safeguards them from rain, thunder, storm, and lighting while the bottom five layers protects from different insects, snake, animals and harmful gases of soil. The Misings believe that their heaven is to the north direction, from where they have descended through golden ladder while their God Doyi (Sun God) rises from the east. Hence, they keep the head towards risong, or to the north or east while sleeping. They never keep their head to the west, as departed are cremated in this way.

The ladder of the Mising house is an important element and there prevalent different customs associated with it. Ideally, a relative makes it from poma (Indian redwood) or from single seed tree. It is obligatory to make a new kobang on marriage to be ascended by the bride, or else the existing one is used after washing and cleaning. This ladder is prepared by the maternal uncle or by a person whose wife is alive. After preparation of the ladder, it is wrapped with tarapat and nobody is allowed to ascend it prior to the bride (Medak:2015).

The meram is a revered place, which is believed as the residing place of the house-protecting spirits as well as ancestor spirits (urom- pachum). So, it is never touched with feet or keeps the plate to take food. The owner offers some amount of rice beer (apong) at meram before drinking or serving to guests. It is believed that keeping of any red coloured item on the meram brings misfortune to the family. One who kicks the meram needs the expiation.

6) House Warming Ceremony:

After completion of construction, the house warming ceremony is arranged where sacrifice is offered to the house spirit called Dangaria / Ghar-Dangaria / or Ghar-Deo. There is the saying ‘Ghar-Deo pon hole Bhaj-Deo pon hobo, Bhaj-Deo pon hole khaino kon!’ which means that if the Ghar-Deo or the God of House becomes contented, then the other minor gods will also be pleased and if all becomes contented, the home will be become full of abundance (Pamegam:1970:248).

The Mising people arrange the Dangaria Puja on the eve of entering a new house through which house and housing materials are simultaneously sanctified. They believe that sitting of a crow, vulture, or owl on housing materials make them impure and such materials may bring misfortune to the occupants. Hence, through this puja, they sanctify such impure materials that eventually used in the construction. This is an elaborate ritual that requires chai-mad (para-upong) variety of rice beer. First, they make a funnel with the tarapat and using this funnel, the betel nut and rice beer are poured on the main posts of the house from the platform. Wine is offered thrice in this way in each post. Then in same manner, they offer wine once each on the three legs of the hearth, first on the eastern leg followed by the western and southern leg .

In this ritual, three Divinities Dangariya, Laksmi and Ta-Tekala are propitiated through sacrifice of fowl. There need a mature red cock, and another pair of hen and cock for the Dangariya, one white hen for the Laksmi, and another chicken is needed for the Ta-Tekala which is the evil spirit. The main priest Aattola (Medhi / Bhakat) and his two assistants give blessings and during that time, the fowls are killed by strangulation. Then the sacrificed chickens are cut up and meat of each chicken is separately tied, passing a bamboo strand through the flesh. Then two girls, who have not attained their puberty, prepare the meats. Then the people are entertained with that meat. However, the meat of the white chicken, sacrificed to Goddess Laksmi, is served only to the clan members. Sometime, a feast is also arranged where the villagers and relatives are entertained with pork. The guests also bring apong (rice beer), fish, meat, and vegetables for the feast known as ‘Akum Gisa’ (Sarma:2000), (Pegu:1970).

7) Rituals Associated with Barn:

In Mising society, the barn is regarded as a sacred and revered place and abode of spirits of the barn (Dangaria) and Goddess Laksmi. To propitiate the spirits, they arrange a special ritual known as Bharalar Puja / Bharal Dangaria Puja in the month of Aghon. For the ritual, a white cock for the Goddess, and red one for the Dangaria, white rice-beer (nagouwn upong), betel nut and leaves, rice powder, earthen lamp are required. The ritual is conducted in the courtyard, for which a square earthen altar is constructed. The family members kneel before the altar and the traditional priest Aattola chants the mantra. Simultaneously, another person kills the fowls through strangling. After this, a woman who is not in her cycle prepares the fowls. After preparation, it is first offered to the Divinities and then people present take it.

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