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....

Oral Literature and Vernacular Architecture of Assam

Oral Literature is the body of literary material that traditionally and orally continues within a folk group. The body of the Oral Literature consists of the Oral Narrative, Folk Songs, and Folk Sayings such as proverb, riddle, aphorisms, chants, blessings etc. In different genres of Oral Literature of the state, there are references of architecture that draw connection.

1) Oral Narrative Associated with Vernacular Architecture:

Myth, legend, and folktales are the primary genres of Oral narrative. The oral narrative such as myth, legend, or folktale specifically on the topic of vernacular architecture is scanty but not without instances. Thus, there is a Singpho folktale, which depicts how “Kindru-Lalim and Kincha Lali-Dam decided to build a house for themselves” and “how the first men were taught by various animals to build their houses” and subsequently collected different information. Subsequently, they gathered necessary knowledge and technique on the art of construction of house from different animals (Elwin:1961). Another kind of material, current among certain groups that technically can be regarded as oral narrative. These are the accounts of migration and settlement current among different communities. These narratives, sometimes with some historic validity as in the case of the Tai-Khamtis of the Bar-Khamti village of Lakhimpur, provide important clues regarding their origin place and can provide information about their prior habitat, housing culture, vernacular architecture, or evolutionary changes in their vernacular architecture.

2) Proverb Associated with Vernacular Architecture:

If not all the forms of Verbal Art centres round the vernacular architecture of Assam, but a host of proverbs, riddle, chants and charms, blessings and curses, songs are very much related and centres around vernacular architecture. Some representative samples of such Oral Literature will highlight the nexus of folklore and vernacular architecture.

The prevalence of proverb is widespread among the tribal and non-tribal communities on the topic of architecture. The most prevalent proverbs on the topic are the traditional body of material known as the Dakar Bachan. These proverbs, attributed to Dak, incorporate traditional prescription on aspects like built environment, site selection, axial dispositions, or orientation of the units.

It is customary in Assamese culture, as corroborated by various literary references, to construct a number of structures in homestead. Thus, legendary Dak or medieval Vaishnava literature prescribes to construct number of small architectures instead of large one, which is traditionally followed by different groups. It seems an ancient tradition, as substantiate by the mention in the proverb attributed to Dak (Dakar Bachan), which is continuing in the vernacular architecture tradition of Assam.

Thus, one Dakar Bachan says:

Saru sarukoi bandhiba ghar |
Eta nalage dahota kar ||

Here it tells to construct small house, and if necessary not one but construct ten. The tradition perhaps developed due to functional requirement as well as for convenience of construction or cyclic repairing of the house.

The typical campus and built environment, other than the assembly of houses, is the characteristic feature of an Assamese homestead. This is accomplished through characteristic development of campus and through planting of different trees in the campus.

This is well depicted in the following Dakar Bachan:

Dakhine bhui, uttare bari | Aatia diba tini shari ||
Bhaluka ruiba dui kani |Madhyat diba tamol jani ||
Chai hate tamol, tatei pan |Aahar mahat nuruiba aan ||
Aam-kathal kasat ruiba| Bet-souka kasat diba||


paddy field to the south, orchard to the north / raise three rows of embankment //
plant bhaluka on two flanks / betel nut in the middle //
betel nut at six cubit distance, betel leaves there itself / do not plant any tree in Aahar month” //
plant Mango and Jackfruit on the periphery / canes on the sides.

Dakar Bachan, as mentioned earlier emphasizes the disposition and cardinal orientation of different components of a homestead and presents a visual layout of an ideal Assamese household.

Similarly, the following maxim speaks about the measurement and orientation of the houses:

Rua loba jatek tatek |
Marali laba tini tatek ||
Puba paschimakoi sajiba ghar |
Akal mrittuk nahike dar ||


“Take purlin three times larger than the (measurement) of the rafter. There is no fear of untimely death if the house construct is constructed in east-west direction”.

Similarly, the ideal direction and orientation of the house is told in the following proverb:

Dakhin duari gharar raja |
Pub-duari tar praja ||
Paschim-duarir mukhat chai |
Uttar-duarir kasoloi nejai ||

Which means that:—

The south facing house is the king of house |
East facing is the subject of that ||
Ash in the face of western facing house |
Never go near to the north facing one ||

Similarly, the proverbs such as:

Pube pukhuri, pachime khet |
uttare bah dakhine bet ||


Pube bah pachime bet |
uttare tamol dakhine khet ||


Pube hah pachime bah |
uttare gua dakhine dhuwa ||

Also highlights similar aspects.

Simultaneously, the selection of site for the house through cardinal and astrological consideration also finds mention in the Dakar Bachan:

Dhawzar uttar gajar pub |
Simhar pachim ati subha ||
Brisar dakhin pai jebe |
Sarba siddhi karawe tebe ||

Thus, the proverbs of Dak contain different necessary information and instructions concerning the construction of different kind of architectures for various functional purposes. Similarly, it also contains instruction on planting and position different kinds of trees in the campus. The folk people normally follow the views highlighted in such proverbs.

3) Folk Songs with reference of Architecture:

Different types of Folk songs form one major segment of Oral Literature. Thus, there are songs of different genre with mention of house or vernacular architectures. The most noteworthy specimen of folksong centred around architecture is the “Terang Kekim” (Song of the Construction of the Dormitory), prevalent among the Karbis (Kalita:1994:334-338). The song describes in minute detail the successive steps of construction of the Karbi youth dormitory, which is a prime and indispensible institution of Karbi vernacular architecture.

Similarly, there are numerous references of architecture in the folk songs associated with the tale of Sati Beula and worship of serpent Goddess Bishahari. Thus, the songs called Merghar Kamani depict the construction of the Mer-Ghar. The songs have mentions of different construction materials such as rua, kami, marali and of thatching material of ulu grass (Rabha:1987). The Islamic devotional songs of Jikir also contain reference of house and architecture (Ahmed:2015:82).

On the other hand, the Tai-Phake community possess some folk songs known as “Khamnon Chan”. These songs are sung in the rear open platform of the house called “chan”, which is simultaneously the scullery and a place of gathering for the women folk (Gohain:2009).

4) Ballads with Reference of Architecture:

Though very remotely related with architecture, there are extant specimens of Ballads that have mention of architecture. Thus, the short historical ballad that depicts the murder of Lieutenant Holcombe by the Wancho Nagas in 1857, where there is the mention of Naga Chang (Goswami: 1982?:100). The word “chang” refers to a stilt house, thus speaks of the traditional architecture of the Naga tribe. Similarly, the ballad of “Haidor Gazir Git” has numerous mentions of aspects of a traditional homestead or architecture such as courtyard, prayer house, as well as betel nut, castor-oil tree in the campus (Das:1996). It is interesting to note that the ballad mentions that Haidor, the Muslim hero, enters the Gohaighar i.e. the domestic prayer house and bows down before the family deity. It hints that the existence of the prayer house in Assamese homesteads long-ago was more a traditional business than sectarian affair.

5) Play Song with Reference of Architecture:

There are play songs in Assamese folklore that are sung during the process of playing. Thus, when kids or an elder while playing with a kid sings Sar Gharar Mekuri Bar Gharaloi jai or Bar-gharar Mekuri Saru Gharaloi jai and then tickle someone. This play song thus has reference of architecture of Sar or Saru Ghar (minor house) and Bar Ghar (the main house)

6) Bihu and allied Songs with Reference of Architecture:

The Bihu songs have most numerous references of house and architecture. B.K. Barua mentions that there are numerous references of technique, material, furniture, and other traditions associated with the architecture in the Bihu songs (Barua:1975).

Thus, the following lines of the Bihu song depict the built environment and an ideal Assamese homestead:

Augphal suwani kakini tamol oi, pach phal suwani pan
Bar-ghar suwani gabharu soali, uliai dibaloi tan
, (Chetia:2013)

Similarly, the Bihu song biya karam buli Bar-ghar sajilo, Garu bandha Gohali hol (Bordoloi N:2017:155), mentions the importance and necessity of the construction of the Bar-ghar which also mentions the byre in symbolic mode.

Similarly, these verses of a Husari song na-ghar oi purani kami, husari gabaloi ahiso ami, say that the house is new, but the bamboo splinters (kami) are old, which hints about the renovation process of the house. The periodic renovation or repairing of house usually involve change of the thatch and during the re-thatching of the house the chal, especially the shitali chal variety, is seldom changed. It simultaneously hints at the prevailing practice of selling of old roofs, which someone purchases for the construction of a new house.

Simultaneously, different tribal communities of Assam also possess similar folklore materials that similarly mention different aspects of traditional architecture.

Thus, the Sonowal Kachari people have the “Baremantra” in their Husari song, which speaks different aspects and traditions of the architecture of the community.

One such specimen runs as:

Sukamani koutal, Dhari nidhari,
Bali mati subarna, Mritakar jai jai,
Pube bharal, pachime garal,
Uttare bhatar charu, Dakhine gohalit garu, (Chaliha:2010:171).

There is another occasion in the construction of house where too, there is association of song among the Sonowal Kacharis. This occasion is associated with the roofing of the house or specifically with the act of naikata. It takes place after the thatching of the Bar-ghar and is an important episode of the construction. Thus, after completion of the roofing of the mudhach, one remains at the rooftop who is provided with a lota full of water, else rice beer, which he subsequently pours on the mudhach. In some areas, there sing Lou lou shimalu chalou lai, jamukar khutae disang thai, along with the pouring of the water.

The spilled water pouring below the northern post is collected in a utensil and sings subsequently:

Ujani kuchia, namani kuchia,
Bhimar ansha, kashyapar gotra,
Ghototkasar putra Hirimba aai,
Eia (speaking the name of the own clan),
Lou lou simalu solou lai,
Jamukar khutate disang thai (Chaliha:2010:172).

Likewise, Bodo Baishakhu songs have frequent mention of house.

Thus, the following folk songs not only mention different forms of traditional architecture, but also express the significance of these architectures in the society:

Daokha habnai noawlai,
Sila habnai noawlai,
Angkhow dabilai apha gochai,
Angkhow dabilai apha gochai (Narzi:2001:28)

Here, the girl prays her father not to wed her to a household where crow and falcon can access into the house.

Similarly, in the following lines of the song, the girl asks her father to wed her to a household where the barn and byre are visible:

Mai bakhri nunaiyao,
Mowusow (moukhow) goli nunaiyo,
Angkhow bilai har afa gosai,
Angkhow bilai har afa gosai

Likewise, the following verses of Rabha Bagejari song instructs and warns a girl to sweep the courtyard (chotal) at the first crowing of cock.

Thereby, it reiterates the necessity of sweeping and cleaning of the courtyard at cockcrow:

O aapi janibi, O aapi sunibi,
Pahil sarer dakate, chotal saribi” (Mazumdar:1989:66)

The courtyard or the chotal, which is the centre of a host of daily chores and activities, is an important component of the Assamese homestead. And the prevalent beliefs demand the sweeping and cleaning of the chotal early in morning, before the males or the head of the family walks through which decreases their longevity.

7) Chants with reference of Architecture:

There is a tradition prevalent in some parts of the state in which a learned or religious person writes a magical chant on a Nahar leaf with a special ink and inserts it under the rafters of the roof on the first day of the Bohag month. It is believed that this protects the house from fire and lightning.

The magical chant runs as:

Deva Deva Mahadeva Birupaksha Trilochana |
Batabristiharang Deva Mahadeva Namastutate ||
Joiminishya Sumandansha Baishampayanamebach |
Pulasthi Pulahshoibo panchoite Bajrabaranang ||
Munikalyanmitrashya Jaimineshanukirtanat |
Bidyddagni bhayang nasti nikhitaishya grihodare ||
(Dev Goswami:2005:125)

During the foundation ceremony, prevalent among the Rabha community, the following chants are uttered along the sacrifice of a fowl:

He svirgini risi, Nango bati soy mane,
Nago ardia, ching jate name tonga mana,
Okobana nake nango ardita,
Jate ching sana mana,
Neme Tonga mana,
Okobana nango ardita, he svirgini risi,
Nango to mangsa rakhaita (Goswami:1984:174)


“O God Risi, we are propitiating you, with the sacrifice of the tender fowl, to get your blessings. Bless us, so that in this new house we can have peace and prosperity. Forgive us, if we have done something wrong to displease you”.

Similar practice of chanting is also prevalent among the Misings, uttered during the planting of the post. Thus, during the fixing of the post, the owner recites:

Tala-taya nulu, tat-long-ka oag-akum bartee,
dekpe omna medang oyadek praman chil,
lemgkan-nangks ommna, petam peki dung


“Oh ancestor! I intend to build a house on this land, show me the signs of your approval. Swearing in the name of ancestor, I declare that I expect the sign of your approval”. (Sarma:2000:175).

8) Riddles on Architecture:

Riddle is a vital genre of Oral literature current in a culture. There is the prevalence of numerous riddle centred around architecture like one quoted below from

The Orunodoi, the first magazine in Assamese language:

Sari phale sari ban,
Duphale dookhan kan,
Gote gote manuh gile,
Teo nejai pran (Brown:1851).

Praphulladatta Goswami cites the following specimens of Phakara from the unpublished manuscript attributed to Dvija Raghudev and says “The solution, unless there is anything esoteric, is: the house” (Goswami:2015:86-87):

It has no head, no hand, nor any bone,
Still it feeds on men.


Flies buzz in the belly of the elephant

Similar kind of materials around architecture is current in other societies also. As an example, there is a riddle centring the Chamadi of the Tiwas, which runs as: “chapach tongo margee hangya, pega inda?” (Meaning, there is breast but not female, what is that?), and the answer is Chamadi (Das:2015:102).

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