Friday, December 16, 2016

Houses in the Jungles

                                               by Jim Goodman

Akha village above the Mae Suai plain
       The monsoon has finished and the weather is cool and dry in the hills of Northern Thailand.  This is the building season for anyone who needs a new house, before the work activity shifts in late winter to preparing the fields for planting.  In recent times many of the mountain people have improved their lot enough to afford lumber or cement brought in from the plains.  Traditionally, though, they obtained all they needed for a house from the jungles that surrounded them.
       Except for the Karen, who began settling in Northern Thailand from the 18th century, coming out of Myanmar, ethnic minorities only began migrating into the area in the 20th century, particularly the last decades.  As the plains were already occupied, and as they had lived in the hills in their original homelands, bands of migrants picked a location deep within the forest with a reliable water source and cleared an area to establish a village.
Lahu village, Mae Kachan district
       The slash-and-burn type of agriculture the people pursued involved clearing a patch of forest to make fields.  But because the soil in the hills is not very rich, after two years they had to abandon the fields and clear another patch.  The monsoon regenerates the abandoned fields, though, and after several years farmers return to clear and utilize the same fields again. 
       These fields lie a little distant from the village, past the thick swathe of forest on all sides of the settlement.  Besides keeping them fairly isolated from the affairs of the cities, plains and governments, the forest location has other advantages conducive to a goal of relative self-sufficiency.  In addition to being a source of building materials, the jungle provides them with food like birds and wild game, plus edible plants and fungi, as well as medicinal herbs.
Akha house leaning against a slope
       Now men go into the forest and, wielding simple machetes, cut and shape hardwoods for use as house posts, chop study bamboo poles for the framework and split others for floors and wall planks.  After laying out the wood and bamboo to dry, they prepare cords of bark strips or rattan to lash the poles, beams and planks.  Meanwhile the women gather thick imperata grass near their fields and bind stalks of it together on bamboo sticks to make roofing sections.  
       The type of house built varies by ethnic group.  While they might live high up in the hills, the Hmong, Yao and Lisu tend to put their houses on relatively level areas in the section of the forest they have cleared.  These sit directly on the ground, though some may be raised on stilts, especially if they live nearer to the plains and Thai influence.
Karen village,Mae Sariang province
       Traditional houses among the Akha, Lahu, Karen and Palong are usually stilted.   Some lie angled on slopes, so that the stilts only hold up the lower end.  They also attach an open-air balcony on one side, used for drying laundry, dyed cloth, herbs and vegetables, or for just sitting in the sun, as opposed to the somewhat dark interiors. 
       All of them use the same building materials, but the architecture may differ a little.  Lahu and Palong houses tend to be longer than those of the Karen and Akha.  Usually staircases of wooden planks are at the entrances, but to get into a Lahu house one uses a notched log leaning against the balcony next to the front door.  Akha houses also have a pair of ‘horns’ over the apex of each end of the roof, rather like the traditional northern Thai houses in the plains.
Palong village, Doi Ang Khang
       Usually a few related families get together for the construction.  When all the materials are dried and ready the men, advised by the village’s most experienced architect, erect the framework, lay down the floor beams and end beams, then put up  the central support post..
       Before going any further, the house owner makes a ceremonial offering to the underground spirits, lest the disturbance of having a house built over them anger them to the troublemaking point.  Among the Akha, this is a small dish containing an egg, some rice grains and silver shavings.  The owner pours these into a crevice at the foot of the central support post.  Following this rite, construction resumes.
construction materials laid out to dry
       Men climb up the framework and fasten the roof poles together with rattan strips.  Then they lay out the sections of roof thatch the women have made, overlapping them so that they won’t leak in the rain.  On Akha houses the two poles at each end of the roof cross to form a V above the top of the roof.  Usually these are plain extensions of the poles.  But sometimes they are wooden additions, with curved ends like cattle, and with three to five serrated wooden swords suspended vertically below the apex.
       Making the frame is but a day’s task, but the rest of the work, inside and outside, requires more time.  They have to put up the already prepared walls, made of latticed split bamboo, lay out and bind together the floor strips, install shelves, make a couple windows and shutters and make one or two hearths.  Outside they have the balcony and its railing to construct, the granary to erect, the staircases to make for the entrances and the fences for the gardens and animal pens.
putting up the frame
Lahu man splitting bamboo
     One feature of Akha house interiors that distinguishes them from those of other hill people is the partition wall, running through about three-fourths of the center, that divides it into two sections.  One side is the women and children’s sleeping quarters and the other side is for men and guests.  Both side have a hearth, for traditionally men cooked the meat and tea and women cooked the rice and vegetables, as well as the animal feed, usually at a separate hearth by the door to the women’s entrance.  If the house is small it may have only one hearth, but with two cooking stands.
Palong girl making roofing
       According to Akha mythology, when only men lived on earth an Akha man was lonely and so the Creator God Apoemiyeh instructed him how to find a spirit wife.  When the man reached the appointed place and called out three times, a creature part tiger and part spirit appeared.  She was furry and naked, had long, sharp fangs, sickle-shaped fingernails and hoe-shaped toenails.  The man cut the bottom of a rice sack for her to wear (the prototype Akha miniskirt), slipped his shoulder bag over her head and took her home.  But that night the wife killed and devoured him.
       Then she desired a new husband and proposed to the first Akha man she met.  He deemed her too frightening to wed.  So she bade him to strike off her fangs and nails and build a wall inside the house, promising to stay on her side of the partition at night.  Reassured enough, he agreed, she kept her promise and eventually turned into an ordinary human Akha woman.  And the partition has persisted in Akha houses until today, even when they build a Thai-style house or become Christian.
Akha women making thatch roof sections
       The wall also plays a social role.  Women and children tend to retire early and wake up early, as do the animals.  The wall separates them at night from the men socializing on the other side, for they tend to stay up later.  The men’s side may also be ornamented with the jawbone of a boar or deer as a symbol of men’s hunting prowess.
       On the women’s side, as though recognizing that women bear the children who continue the ancestral line, are all the paraphernalia associated with ancestral rites.  The sacred bamboo section is fastened to the pole next to the central support post.  At harvest time the household will insert the first five panicles of cropped rice as an offering to the ancestors.  The ancestral basket stands beneath it, beside a small altar tray where the family leaves offerings during festival rites.
       The hearth, with Akha as well as other mountain people, is square, with logs or sticks for fuel laid at angles pointing to a common center.  The fire is left to smolder when not aflame.  A three-legged, circular, iron cooking stand straddles the fire.  Suspended over the hearth, a large square plank of plaited split bamboo holds several cups, bowls, plates, chopsticks, etc, made of bamboo and several large gourds, which will later be used as water containers.  The smoke wafting up from the fire gives these items a dark patina over time, hardens the surfaces and keeps insects from boring into them.
decorated Akha balcony and house 'horns'
Lahu house, Doi Ang Khang
       Usually household members sleep on raised beds along the back walls or else thick mattresses on bamboo mats.  They sit on round stools, about 12 cm high, with buffalo hide seats.  They dine at round or square tables of woven split bamboo and when not using them suspend then upside down above the hearth to get the same smoke treatment as the utensils and gourds.  Often the stools are stacked in a corner until mealtime and people simply squat or sit on the floor.
       Large woven bamboo hampers by the beds contain most of the clothing.  Bigger items might be hung from hooks on the back walls.   The shelves along the wall behind the hearth are filled with more gourds, water jugs, pots and pans, ladles, chopstick containers, flasks, traps, scales, farm tools, fishing gear, tobacco boxes, bamboo chili mortars, small baskets and assorted odds and ends.  Hunting equipment, like long-barreled rifles and crossbows, they place on the highest shelves to keep them out of the reach of children.
Akha woman pounding rice beneath the house
       Because of the overhanging roofs and few, if any, windows, which are more useful for letting out the smoke than letting in the light, the house interiors are dark.  Most hill tribe villages only received electricity in the 1990s.  Until then the only illumination they had inside, besides the fire, came from tiny oil lamps.  (But people could still run a television off a car battery.)
       As a result, work that requires good lighting, like embroidery, as well as much of the socializing, takes place around the porch by the door or on the adjoining balcony.  Its floor, like the one inside the house, is made of split bamboo, lashed across bamboo poles, rendering it a little springy and making it creak whenever anyone walks across it.  Bamboo railing lines the sides, the poles used for hanging laundry or dyed cloth.  A portion of the floor may be used for drying grains.  Children play here and sometimes the family chooses a warm and balmy evening to dine out on the balcony.
       Standing in the yard a little way from the house is the granary.  Except for what it will need for the day, the family keeps its rice and other crops in this elevated shed as a precaution.  If a fire should burn down the house, at least their food supply will survive.  A modest fence surrounds the yard, which may also have chicken coops and pigpens on the grounds and a small vegetable garden occupying one part.
Akha man plaiting split bamboo
       Often the pigs, like the dogs, roam freely all day, but always return to be fed.  They sleep under the house and the noises they make at night are part of everyday sounds for the residents and unlikely to wake them up as a consequence.  They also keep the mortar and pestle for pounding rice, operated by foot, underneath the house, since it is too big to put inside.
       Hill tribe houses are quite sturdy and can last generations.  They do require some periodic renovation, though.  After three years the thatched roof starts leaking and must be replaced.  Making new roof sections is thus a common early winter village activity, even when no new houses are being built.  Individual strips on the floors might also need replacement. 
       As for the attached balcony, that also needs periodic renovation and the Akha have a festival activity to determine whether it is necessary.  In the late summer, during Ka-ye-ye, en event staged to chase out lingering evil spirits in the village, children wield painted wooden swords and race through the village slashing away at invisible spirits.  They run up the women’s entrance into the house, then out the other side to jump up and down on the balcony.  If it starts to break, that signals the owners it’s time to change it.  So sometimes people try to stop; the kids from jumping on the balcony because they don’t want to have to change it just now.
       When construction is completed, or at least that much of it that requires outside assistance, the house owner holds a feast for all involved.  The host will slaughter a pig or a couple chickens, urge everyone to eat as much as they can hold and ply them with rice liquor to enhance the conviviality.  And they’ll be ready to join the work crew whenever any of their guests are ready to build their own new house.

Akha village houses and granaries, Chiang Rai province
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