Sumba Island - Sumbanese Traditional Houses
Aerial Photograph

The Sumbanese traditional house, also known as Uma Mbatangu or “peaked house”, is a type of vernacular architecture unique to the island of Sumba in Indonesia. The house is distinguished by its high-pitched central peak in the roof, which serves as a symbol of spiritual significance and a connection to the Sumbanese belief system known as “marapu”. This connection with the spiritual world is central to Sumbanese culture and is reflected in the design and construction of these traditional houses. They are an important part of Sumbanese heritage and continue to be used by local communities as homes and for cultural events and ceremonies.

Sumbanese Traditional Houses Technical Information

A basic Sumbanese house has a square layout. This layout can be as small as 5 x 5 meters of as big as 15 x 15 meters. Four main posts supported the roof peak of a house, these posts are imbued with mystical symbolism.

Sumbanese Traditional Houses Photographs

Aerial Photograph of a House in Sumba island
Aerial Photograph – Sumbanese Traditional Houses
Aerial Photograph - Sumbanese Traditional Houses
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Open Space in front of the Houses - Sumbanese Traditional Houses
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Sumbanese Traditional Houses in Indonesia / Vernacular Architecture
© Monica Renata | Houses of Wainyapu – Kodi, CC BY 2.0

Sumba Island: An Architectural Treasure of Indonesia’s Southern East Nusa Tenggara

Located in the southern part of East Nusa Tenggara, Sumba is an Indonesian island characterized by a dry climate and rugged savanna and rocky plains. Despite its diverse cultural and linguistic groups, the people of Sumba share a common architectural heritage rooted in their indigenous religion, Marapu, which venerates spirits of the dead, sacred places, heirloom objects, and instruments used to communicate with the spirit world.

The Sumbanese House: A Fusion of Culture and Function

The Sumbanese architecture reflects the significance of Marapu in their lives, with two main types of homes – the peaked Uma Mbatangu and the peak-less Uma Kamadungu. The Uma Mbatangu is a square-shaped structure with a high central peak made of thatched alang-alang, while the Uma Kamadungu is a cool house that lacks a central peak and is used for less ceremonial purposes. Both homes are supported by mystical posts and lack windows, relying on cross-ventilation through small openings in the walls.

The Big House, or Uma Bungguru, serves as the main residence for the oldest member of the village and the site of important family rituals such as weddings and funerals. Meanwhile, traditional Sumbanese villages are located on elevated sites, with rows of homes forming a central plaza. This central square, aligned north-south, contains megalithic tombs and other sacred objects, blending the houses and graves into a harmonious coexistence.

From the symbolism imbued in the posts to the decorative buffalo horns adorning the walls, the Sumbanese architecture is a testament to the rich cultural heritage of the island and its people.”

Construction of the House

Model of the House
Model of the House
Construction of the House
Construction of the House

The Sumbanese clan house is mostly a timber and bamboo construction, bamboo being more used on the western side of Sumba Island than on the east. Tree trunks constitute the four principal house posts and other load-bearing elements. Only certain hardwoods are reserved for the construction of special ancestral houses (Uma marapu). Walls are made from panels of plaited bamboo or woven coconut leaf. Whole bamboo culms constitute the floor. The roof is made of a dense thatch of alang-alang grass, tied with coconut leaf to battens made from saplings.

The Layout of the Sumbanese House

Bedroom inside the House
The bedroom inside the House
Interior of the house
Interior of the House

The space within a Sumbanese house is divided into three: the upper space, the middle space, and the lower space. The upper space (roughly the high-pitched peak roof area) is where sacred heirlooms are stored. This upper space is where the marapu resides. Food offerings and other rituals addressed to the ancestors are held in the upper space.

Only older men are permitted to enter this otherwise empty part of the building, and even this is a rare occasion. The middle space of a Sumbanese house is where the mundane activity is held, while the lower space (the space below the HouseHouse) is where livestock, such as chicken and pig, are kept.

Another division of space is using the concept of right or left space (seen from outside the front facade). The space on the right is considered masculine, while the left is feminine. The right side of the House, called the “big (major) house floor” (kaheli bokulu), is mostly reserved for ritual and other public affairs conducted by men. The left side of the House is named the “cool house floor” (kaheli maringu). It is associated with female domestic activities, such as preparing a meal, dining, and sleeping (single compartments for sleeping are built along the left wall).

In Sumbanese society, women are considered “owners of houses” (mangu umangu) because they spend more time at home than men. On the other hand, men are associated with the exterior and with external relations among clans as well as communication with the spiritual being. Similarly, the door on the right front is reserved for male access, while the one on the left rear is reserved for female access, each leading to a slightly lower verandah and the exterior.

The right-left and front-back dualities are further reflected onto the four main posts of the roof. These four posts supported the peak of the roof. A hearth is located at the center of these four main posts. During construction, the front-right post gets the priority, followed by the back-right, then back-left, then front-left. The front-right post is called the “augury post” (kambaniru uratungu); the name is related to several rituals related to the marapu. A person will ask what the marapu wants and will learn the answer by sticking a spear into the front-right post. Being the essential part of the House, the front-right area of the House is also where Sumbanese people keep bundled mummified corpses. These corpses are placed in a sitting position and facing toward the main (right front) post in the same way as a priest engaged in ritual performances.

The back-right post is known as “the post that divides” (kambaniru mapaberingu) since this is where men butcher and divide the meat of sacrificed animals. The front-left post is named “the post that scoops the rice” (kambaniru mataku) so-called because this is where women prepare rice before passing it through a special aperture to a priest who formally offers the food to marapu in the right front part of the House.] The back-left post is called “the post that feeds chickens and pigs” (kambaniru matungu uhu wei, pani manu), linking the area with the care of animals sacrificed to marapu.

Gender Spaces2

Gender in West Sumba traditional houses are firmly divided into male and female spaces; the inhabitants oblige to obey the gender separation in the homes as a representation of their respect to Marapu and tradition.

Both men and women respect other respective spaces and maintain appropriate boundaries in harmony with customary law. Representations of gendered spaces are adjusted to men’s and women’s roles in the culture that embraces the patriarchal system. Male space is considered sacred and public. Meanwhile, female spaces are considered profane and private. Despite the spatial arrangement resulting in gender separation, it does not mean that men and women are contesting their space and position; men
are not considered to have a superior place to women. 

Sumbanese Traditional Houses Plans

Sumbanese Traditional Houses
Floor Plan of a Sumbanese Traditional House
Section of the House
Section of a Sumbanese Traditional Houses
  1. Hok, Ir Liem Siang. “TRADITIONAL HOUSING IN SUMBA, INDONESIA.” Ekistics, vol. 6, no. 38, 1958, pp. 281–285. JSTOR, Accessed 2 Aug. 2020.
  2. Extract from “GENDERED SPACE IN WEST SUMBA TRADITIONAL HOUSES” by Nurdiah Esti Asih, Asri Altrerosje, and Hariyanto Agus Dwi. Journal of Architecture and Buil Environment, Vol 42, No. 2, December 2015, 69-76