Sumba Island - Sumbanese Traditional Houses
Aerial Photograph

The Sumbanese traditional House (Uma Mbatangu, “peaked house”) refers to the traditional vernacular House of the Sumba people from the island of Sumba in Indonesia. Sumbanese House is characterized by its high-pitched central peak in its roof and secure connection with the spirits or “marapu”.

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

Text description by the Architects1

Sumba is an island located in the southern part of East Nusa Tenggara province, Indonesia. The nature and climate of the island are dry with savanna and rocky plains.  The island contains several cultural and linguistic groups; however, all share a common architectural heritage. Their indigenous religion focused on the marapuMarapu includes spirits of the dead, of sacred places, of heirloom objects, and the instruments used to communicate with the spirit world.

This concept affects the architectural space within the Sumbanese House and the Sumbanese village. There are two main houses of the Sumbanese people. The most typical Sumbanese House is the Uma Mbatangu (“peaked house”) of eastern Sumba, which features a high central peak. This roof is made of thatched alang-alang and is somewhat similar to the central peak of a Javanese joglo, although much more high-pitched. The biggest peaked-house of Sumbanese people is known as Uma Bungguru (Sumbanese “house of the fellowship”).

The House is the main House of the clan where important rituals relating to the unity of the family are held, e.g., wedding ceremonies, funeral, and so on. The Big House is also the permanent residence of the oldest person in the village. Another type of home is uma kamadungu (“bald house”), which contains no central peak. The peak-less House is considered not ‘hot’ for a ritual, and so they are also known Uma Maringu or “cool house”.

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, and these posts are imbued with mystical symbolism. A Sumbanese house can accommodate a single-family or several extended families. Two entrance accesses are positioned to the left and right of the House. There is no window in a Sumbanese house, cross ventilation is provided from small openings in the wall, which is made of plaited palm boughs, areca sheath, or – among the very rich – buffalo hide. Buffalo horns often decorate the walls, a reminder to past sacrifice.

Traditional Sumbanese village is typically located on elevated sites, with houses (Uma) forming two or more rows on either side of a central plaza. The central square is aligned north-south and contains megalithic tombs and other sacred objects, the overall impact is that the houses of Sumba people intermingle with the graves.

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.

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 the 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 towards 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 patriarchy system. Male space is considered sacred and public. Meanwhile, female spaces are considered profane and private. Despite the spatial arrangement result 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 than 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
Sumbanese Traditional Houses Image Gallery
  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