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3 things you need to know about the Melanau tall house

Unlike other traditional houses in Sarawak, the Melanau tall house was built distinctively higher.

However similar to longhouses of other ethnic groups such as Iban and Kayan, this Melanau traditional house can accommodate up to 50 families.

The Melanau tall house at Sarawak Cultural Village is one of the few traditional houses left as the rest have been abandoned or demolished.

Besides the one in Sarawak Cultural Village, it is difficult to find a traditional Melanau tall house in the state. Most of the houses in Melanau villages now are built individually on stilts, and the designs are believed to be inspired by houses in the Malay community.

Here are 3 things to know about the architectural heritage of a Melanau tall house:

1.They are built very tall for a lot of reasons.

Traditionally, a Melanau tall house is built about 10 to 40 feet above the ground. For this, the Melanau have to thank the Filipinos for inspiring the need for this design.

As the Melanau people lived mostly along the coastal region, particularly near the mouth of the Rajang river, they were often attacked by pirates from the Southern Philippines in the olden days. To protect themselves, the Melanau built tall houses and even fortified them with cannons.

Besides the pirates, the tall houses also protect the Melanau people during tribal wars against the Ibans.
The Brooke authority also had some scuffles with the Melanau on one point when the former accused the latter for harbouring pirates.

Furthermore according to author Peter Metcalf in The Life of the Longhouse: An Archaeology of Ethnicity, a house raised on stilts serves many advantages.

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“It escapes the mud below; it allows disposal of kitchen waste, soon cleaned up by free-roaming chickens and pigs; and it greatly improves ventilation.”

Particularly in Borneo, an elevated building like a Melanau tall house and a Bidayuh baruk would reduce the number of insects in your home.

2. The floor of a Melanau tall house was designed for defensive and offensive purposes.

Besides the height advantage, the floor of a Melanau tall house also serves to defend the community.
The flooring of the main level of the tall house are arranged in a crisscross pattern with small gaps in between.

When there was an attack, the flooring made it hard for the enemies to pierce their sharp weapons through the floor. As for the Melanau, they would pour hot, boiling water on their enemies.

The columns, which are the main structure of the building, are typically made from belian while the wall and flooring structures are made from nibong.

Meanwhile for the roof, they used sago leaves, which also happen to be the main economical source for the Melanau people.

The rungs on every staircase in a Melanau tall house were built in odd numbers. This is because they believed that by doing so it could bring wealth and good health to the household members.

The rung of a ladder in a Melanau tall house has odd numbers because they believed it would bring them luck.
3.The living arrangement in a Melanau tall house.
A traditional Melanau house comprises of few levels.

According to research done by Universiti Sains Malaysia, gender and marital status affected the organisation of the space in a Melanau tall house.

Every tall house was built with a few levels and each level had multiple bedrooms.

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Only unmarried men occupied bedrooms located aon the first floor while married couples and unmarried women had their bedrooms on the upper level.

The upper level also houses the family’s ceremonial items and assets.

Curious visitors still can see some of Melanau artifacts at Sarawak Cultural Village’s tall house.

Some of the ceremonial items displayed at Sarawak Cultural Village’s tall house.
Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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