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The Ngada House, a Spiritual Guardian

Between two live volcanos, Gunung Inerie and Gunung Deru, lies the Ngada village of Guru Sina on Flores, Indonesia, with a total of 27 sa’o (houses)—not more, not less—lived in, maintained, and reconstructed when necessary. In this way, traditional forms continue, yet structures are renewed, revitalized, and continue to be functional. This practice is notable in Southeast Asian vernacular architecture, where the tropical climate quickly deteriorates natural materials, yet the form and design have enduring meaning to the inhabitants.

The ancestors of the village’s inhabitants are revered, and honored with shrines. Shrines to male ancestors, or ngadhu, are upright, umbrella-shaped structures, covered with thatch. Small house-shaped structures, called bhaga, honor female ancestors. Ancestral shrines and graves are an integral part of village life—children can sometimes be seen lounging and playing among the village’s ngadu and bhaga.

The inhabitants of the Ngada house are protected both physically and spiritually—from the rain and wind by the multilayered, humped peak of the steeply sloping alang alang (thatch) roof, and further protected from malevolence, some by a carved male figure on the roof, others by spear-like, defensive poles atop the structure. These manifestations of the divine guard the house from above. In a landscape towering with live volcanoes, such protection must be welcome!

The height of the step at the entrance to the house indicates the status of the family. The pali wa’i, or lowest step, prevents trouble from intruding: an evil person who steps here will be tripped by his own karma pala. The peace of the inhabitants of a house is further guarded at the entrance by the carved and painted image of a sawa, a fantastical creature. This is the innermost guardian of the house. The mythological animal has the feet of a chicken, the tail and body of a horse, the neck of a snake, the head of a turtle, and the mouth of an elephant with three trunks. In local mythology, this creature sleeps at the feet of the Hindu goddess Durga, and it comes at birth and at death.

A buffalo skull mounted on the house façade commemorates a deceased ancestor. A buffalo is sacrificed upon a death to insure a safe transition to the realm of the dead, and the skull at the door is a reminder of the inevitability of death for all living beings.