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THE first dwellings in the region were probably adaptations of
natural caves for protection against the weather and animals in
a generally hostile environment. These establishments had
their drawbacks; for example, they gave no protection against
insects or humidity. So there was a move from the natural
shelter to the constructed shelter, the essential element of which
was and remains, in South-East Asia, the roof, giving protection from the sun and rain.
These structures not only had a practical aim, they reassured
their occupants. The space that the house delimits is the first
step towards an ordering of the universe. So gradually symbolism was incorporated into the structure which sought to put in
concrete form the arrangement that humans always try to introduce in a place where a house is established. So that the
house would be well placed in space, an attempt was made to
orient it according to the cardinal points. The different elements
of architecture express a cosmogony, albeit with numerous
variations. The same architectural technique could symbolize,
in the Minangkabau region, the horns of a buffalo, in the
Toraja, a boat and in Java, a goddess protecting rice. This
symbolism was only added slowly to the architecture and,
when the old techniques disappeared, only the forms which
they had produced were preserved and built with newer techniques. Simplifying in the extreme, one can say that the techniques of construction created forms which then gave birth to
symbolism but as the techniques evolved, the same designs were
deliberately kept even though the methods of construction did
not justify them, in order to keep the symbolic meaning.
The house expresses, on the one hand, the fantasy of its

Location of Places
Mentioned in the Text

1. Dian (Yunnan)
2. Mandalay
3. Pagan
4. North Vietnam
5. Dong Son
6. Mi Son
7. Nha Trang
8. Chiang Mai
9. Ban Chiang
10. Ban Keo and Kanchanaburi
11. U-Thong
12. Bangkok-Thonburi
13. Battambang
14. Angkor and Siem reap
15. Phnom Penh
16. Trengganu
17. Singapore
18. Aceh
19. Batak region
20. Minangkabau region
21. Jambi
22. Songsang
23. Upang
24. Palembang
25. Nias
26. Siberut (Mentawai)
27. Engano

28. Negros (Philippines)

29. Dayak region
30. Banjar region
31. Jakarta
32. Baduf region
33. Garut
34. Parakan
35. Yogyakarta
36. Kudus
37. Trawulan
38. Pasuruan
39. Minahasa
40. Toraja region
41. Bugis region
'B' shows places where Bugis houses
can also be found
42. Ujung Pandang
43. Bali
44. Lombok
45. Bima (Sumbawa)
46. Sangeang

47. Manggarai
48. Riangkamie

49. Savu
50. Ema region (Timor)



occupant; inside, he is the master and escapes from external

constraints. In its dimensions and its situation in the town or the
village, the dwelling indicates the social standing of its occupant. So the houses of village chiefs in the Nias Islands could
reach huge dimensions (the famous house ofBawomataluo is 10
by 30 metres); they are located either in the middle or at one
end of the conglomeration, but always in a privileged position.
It is not easy to resolve what was the origin of the house in
South-East Asia. Excavations of prehistoric sites have brought
to light insufficient architectural remains to attribute with
certainty the source of these dwellings. Nevertheless, on the
site of Ban Chiang, in North-east Thailand, which was occupied
for a very long time from the fourth century BC to the first
century AD, the positions of piles have been discovered. These
allow one to reconstitute a square plan for the dwelling, the
walls of which were probably made of split woven bamboo
with the gaps plugged with mud.
The remains of a more important house, similarly reduced
to the positioning of its piles, have been found in the Ratchaburi
region to the west of Bangkok. Materials discovered near this
dwelling allow it to be linked with the neolithic Ban Keo civilization (in the province of Kanchanaburi in Thailand) which
stretches, chronologically, from 1800 to 1300 BC. Archaeologists believe that the arrangement of the piles enables a dwelling to be reassembled that is similar to a Black Tai house, the
oldest of which is not more than 150 years. A dwelling of this
type has been reconstructed in the cou~tyard of the U-Thong
museum. It has a square plan with a semi-circular section at
each end; the roof covering of the square section is raised considerably above the rest, leaving a space at the top for two air
vents, and so giving the house its characteristic shape.
The Bronze Age civilization known as Dong Son, from the
site of this name located in North Vietnam where it was first
identified and which covered a large part of South-East Asia, is

characterized by the use of bronze drums. These are decorated

with designs sometimes incorporating architectural forms.
This is the case of a drum dating from approximately the third
century BC discovered on the island of Sangeang, near
Sumbawa. The houses shown are raised on piles (Figure 1(b))
and their roof curves down in the centre, under the weight of a
vertical beam forming part of the whole and keeping in position
the two slightly projecting gable ends. This form was maintained in Sumatra, Sulawesi and, for a long time, in Java.
In Yunnan, in the south of China, recent excavations have
established the existence of a civilization known as Dian, dating

5 cm

Figure 1. (a) Roof shown in relief on a bowl cover from Dian, Yunnan.
(b) House shown on the top of a bronze drum discovered at Sangeang.


from the centuries immediately preceding the Christian era.

This civilization is certainly related to Dong Son. Among the
magnificent bronzes which have been found is a container
dating from the second century BC, the cover of which is
decorated with a picture in relief of a house. The roof of this is
in three parts (Figure i(a)); the central section is prolonged at
each end by a narrower half-roof placed at a lower level. This
principle of tiered roofs in diminishing proportions, one below
the other, is still used today all over mainland South-East Asia. It
can be seen that, from the beginning of the first century AD,
architectural models were established for the construction of
houses in the region which lasted until the end of the nineteenth
century. They were to vary however considerably under two
influences: firstly, the increasing rarity of large straight tree
trunks, which caused often very elaborate techniques to be
abandoned, and secondly, the improvements over the course of
time in beamwork.
The evolution of this architecture cannot always be easily
followed. Architectural forms which decorate the reliefs of the
great monuments of Java and Angkor, or the frescos of Pagan
and in Thailand, give some indications. So in Borobudur (ninth
century) the small construction shown in a relief on the lower
level of the northern side of the first gallery (Figure 2(a)) probably shows a granary and still has all the structural characteristics of houses of the Dong Son civilization. This is not the case
of the house shown on the relief of the upper level of the eastern
side of the first gallery (Figure 2(b)), which includes some
changes in the roof and the piles which are linked near the base
by a horizontal beam, which is a technique still employed in
Sumatra by the Bataks. The space between the piles shown on
the relief is filled with matting walls. This type of construction
is half-way between completely obvious piles and another, an
example of which is also found at Borobudur, where the piles
are only decorative, on a masonry base. This is the case of the





building shown on a relief of the first gallery on the upper level

of the western side (Figure 3), which shows a house where the
future Buddha had withdrawn with his wife after his marriage.
On the reliefs at Prambanan (ninth century), the domestic
architecture shown remains faithful to the Dong Son model.
However, a modification can be seen which has come down to
our time; the addition, all around the main roof, of another
roof with a different slope, to lead the rain water off so that it

Figure 3. A building shown on the carvings on the first gallery of Borobudur, west side.

Figure 4. A building shown on the carvings on the balustrade of Candi Siva

at Prambanan.



flows beyond the foot of the wall (Figure 4, the relief located
in the inside of the balustrade of the temple of Siva, showing
the dwelling of Rawana being burnt by Hanuman).
In Angkor, the model of houses illustrated probably owes its
origin to dwellings similar to those which can be established
from the remains found at Ban Chiang. They are rectangular
constructions on piles, covered with a system of roofs similar to

those appearing on the Yunnan bronzes. Sometimes the plan is

cruciform, as in the relief found at the Bayon, thirteenth century, on the inside gallery, southern side (Figure 5), giving a
roof with four valleys, still sometimes used not only in
Cambodia and in Thailand but also in North Sumatra in the
Batak region.
The frescos decorating the monuments of Pagan are rich in
architectural illustrations. In the enormous Sulamani shrine,
dating from the thirteenth century, in a fresco located on the
southern wall, near the south-east corner, there is a building
shown with only the roof clearly discernible (Figure 6(a)). This
consists of parts of multiple-tiered roofs, as on the Yunnanese
model. This type of architecture is no longer built in Burma
but it continued at least until the eighteenth century. It can also
be seen illustrated in the frescos decorating the sanctuary of the
Ananda Okkaung monastery on the upper level on the west
wall (Figure 6(b)), but the wooden building is joined to a
masonry structure. On the same frescos, on the upper level on
the east wall (Plate 1), is a large dwelling on piles, painted with
much care and detail, with only the stairways in masonry. The
roof planes are at two different angles, like the building shown
at Prambanan (Figure 4) and the central part of the roof forms a
spire. In its main lines, it is the model of contemporary Burmese
domestic architecture at its richest and most detailed.
In South-East Asia, from the very beginning, technical
progress in beamwork until the beginning of the thirteenth
century was unremarkable, but after this date this is not the
case. This can be proven with the reliefs on monuments in
East Java from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, where
buildings appear with the roof resting on a single pillar, as at
Candi Surowono, on the east side, near the north-west corner
(Figure 7(a)), which implies that radiating beamwork was
known. This is a very ancient technique in India; it is illustrated, for example, in the Mahabalipuram rock buildings

Figure 5. A building shown on the reliefs on the inside gallery of the Bayon
at Angkor.





20 cm
20 cm

Figure 6. Buildings illustrated on frescos in Pagan. (a) Sulamani shrine,

south wall. (b) Ananda Okkaung monastery, west wall.


Figure 7. Buildings illustrated on temples in East Java. (a) Candi Surowono.

(b) Candi Teguwangi.



dating from the eighth century, but it was above all used from
the thirteenth century in Java and then later in Bali, with a lot
of invention in details and using different methods giving rise
to new forms, above all on a square plan. It is also in this period
that the use of terracotta tiles was introduced; they were
sometimes shaped like scales, as in the previous example, but
more often were rectangular, as in the southern relief on the
platform of Candi Teguwangi (Figure 7(b)); on this relief can
be seen on the same plan and in the same group a brick and a
wooden structure, as is the case in Burma.
The temples of Thailand are often decorated with frescos
which have many illustrations of buildings. Those in the
Temple of the Emerald Buddha in the grounds of the Royal
Palace, illustrating the Ramayana, were restored in a somewhat
brutal fashion in 1932, but the restoration nevertheless followed in the main the original designs painted in the reign of King
Rama III (1824-1851). The buildings shown give many
examples of tiered rooflines, as in the fresco on the northern
wall (Plate 2). The construction was in masonry, resting on a
high moulded foundation which is substituted for piles. In the
temple of Wat Thong Thammachat, in Thonburi, built during
the reign of King Rama IV ( 1851-1868) frescos were painted
on a panel on the south side with the main scene showing the
cutting of the hair of the future Buddha. At the bottom of the
fresco is a building showing a house on piles (Figure 8, southern
wall, middle panel); the frames of the doorways are already
raised and the partitions to form the walls and the dividers are
slotted into grooves.
These few elements, even if they do not allow one to reconstruct a history of domestic architecture, howsoever summary, are nevertheless sufficient to show the great homogeneity
of models, varying a lot in detail but still for the most part
remaining close to their originals. In this way, the roof with air
vents, which can be re-established from the neolithic house at


Figure 8. A building i11ustrated in a fresco in Wat Thong Thammachat,


Ban Keo, is found as far away as the houses on the island of

Savu, to the east of Sumba. There is little real structural difference between the house engraved on the bronze drum of
Sangeang and a Batak house of the nineteenth century, nor
between the tiered roofs of a Bronze Age dwelling in Yunnan
and those found in contemporary Thai architecture.