Cultures & Traditions
Architecture and Village Layout on Nias
Nias can be subdivided into three general regions based on cultural differences in language, mythology, political organization, village layout, house architecture, art, and social rules (called böwö here, but otherwise known as adat throughout Indonesia). North Nias is larger than Central Nias, which in turn is more than twice as large as South Nias.
Impressive stone monuments and residential dwellings on powerful wooden pylons characterized the traditional villages. Today, many old houses have unfortunately disappeared. Torn down because of their dilapidation, they have been replaced by simpler—primarily cheaper—“modern” types of houses. Only in villages where additional income has been earned through tourism do the Ono Niha living there attempt to preserve their old buildings. The obstacles they face in trying to do so arise not only from lack of money but also from the increasing difficulty in obtaining the gigantic tree trunks necessary for the reconstruction of the traditional houses.
Visitors to Nias immediately notice regional differences in the layouts of villages and the styles of houses. In the past, the villages located in the south were each like an impregnable fortress, strategically positioned on plateaus at the summit of a ridge or a pronounced hill. The villages were surrounded by ramparts and secured by stone gates. They could be approached only by two staircases at the upper and lower ends, which might include many steep steps depending on the location. A paved village square was flanked on both sides by residential buildings, whose narrow sides with their transparent verandas opened onto the square. Only the narrowest space remained between the residences, suggesting the appearance of a row of townhouses. A public path, slightly sunken and covered with stone slabs, ran through the middle of the village street. The areas between the houses and this path were the private property of each respective family. They were used as drying areas for laundry and rice, as well as for other work. Windows and openly designed front walls ensured that the residents could observe and participate in the village’s daily social activities.
In contrast, the houses in Central Nias tended to be separated from one another, their frontal façades facing the village street. Structurally these houses were halfway between those of the south and the oval dwellings of the north, where the natural terrain affected their design. No special type of fortification seems to have been used in the north.
No closed villages were found in the north. The northern village was not an independent, largely self-governing political unit; instead it was always part of a territorial confederation (öri), which encompassed several villages that were allied to one another. In the past, the leadership of such a village confederation always fell to the ruler of the oldest village, which had founded the others over the course of time. A uniformly structured village layout was unknown in the north. Here, there tended to be small, scattered settlements, loosely grouped around the house of the village leader and adapted to the natural spatial conditions. This meant that settlements could also exist at different levels. In contrast to the other two regions, the inhabitants of northern Nias gave their residential dwellings a basic oval shape that is quite unusual in Indonesia. Their longer sides faced the village street, while their entrances were located in one of the two rounded narrow sides. The communal room of a house was also aligned toward the village street, and, just as in the south, an open, “windowed front” facilitated participation in village life.
The use of immense tree trunks as house posts, which supported the living quarters, and sometimes also a high slanted roof, was common to all three architectural styles. The spaces underneath these raised houses served as holding pens for the ubiquitous pigs and chickens. Their massive diagonal pillars, which were placed in front of the regular vertical posts in the south and behind them in the central and northern regions, were unique to Nias. They were intended to better distribute the weight of the house and to increase its stability in case of earthquakes. The largest houses of all (omo sebua) were built by village leaders in the south as magnificent physical manifestations of their claim to power.
Stone monuments were constructed and consecrated in the context of celebrations dedicated to the achievement of higher rank or status for a family member. Often very complex and diverse, they stood directly before the residential dwellings. The goal of every noble and free adult male was to rise in rank above his peers. At these celebrations (owasa), not only were many pigs slaughtered and served among the guests, but new gold jewelry also had to be made for both the host and his wife, and then publicly shown to the guests. The right to bear certain honorary titles was contingent on the hosting of such celebrations. Thus the stones in front of a house symbolized the conspicuous power, wealth, and rank of a house’s owner. New stones were placed next to those of the preceding generations, and consequently the number of stone monuments in front of a house also documented a family’s history.
Achim Sibeth, "The Art of the Ono Niha," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, Reimar Schefold, ed. in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 43-47.