Friday, May 31, 2013


In Alasland, the family which composes a household is the smallest kinship-structured unit. In everyday life, on the other hand, the household, which consists of kinsmen, adopted children, slaves, servants, and so forth, is the smallest political and social unit inside a village, although these days most households among the Alas consist of the nuclear family only.
A family which constitutes a household is referred to as indung jabu; the term indung is equivalent to the Malay terms indung, indong, induk, or indok which mean ‘mother’, 'dam of animals', or 'base or home in certain games' (Echols et al. 1963:154; Wilkinson 1959:425); the term jabu means 'family' or 'lineage'. Even when a household is composed of a stem family, this family and household are also called indung jabu. If a household contains servants or slaves, however, these people are not recognized as members of the indung jabu.

1.  The Traditional Longhouse
The traditional Alas house, which has now almost disappeared, is a large longhouse (Rumah) which is oriented to the north. The house is built on piles, which are approximately two metres high, and varies in size, but usually it is more than ten metres from east to west, more than twenty metres from north to south, and more than seven metres from the ground to the roof top. It is built of wood and thatched with leaves of a sago palm (Rumbie), but before the colonial era many a house was thatched with straw (Rih). Once it is built, the Alas say, it will stand for more than fifty years although every five or six years its roof has to be rethatched. It is divided into seven main sections, viz. an entrance (lepou: lit. 'fore-veranda'), a veranda ((se)Rambih tundun: literally, the term (se)Raabih. which is equivalent to serambi in Malay, means 'veranda', and the term tundun means 'back quarter'), a kitchen ((be)kas mangan: literally, the term (be)kas means 'place', and the term Mangan means 'to eat'), a north room (hanjung (ken) julu: literally, the term hanjung means 'room', and the term (ken)julu means 'upstream'), a south room (hanjung (ken)jahe: literally, the term (ken) jahe means 'downstream'), a large common section (Rumah indung), and a widow's room (lekuk: literally, the term lekuk comes from the Malay term lekuk or lekok which means 'hollow' or 'dent'; Echols et al. 1963:218; Wilkinson 1959:671), as is shown in Figure 2 (cf. Kempees 1905:141-3; Kreemer 1917:399; 1920:87; 1922:358-62; Militaire Memorie 1930-1:17-8, Bijlage A). A bird's-eye view of a house would reveal that it is shaped like the alphabetical letter "T".
Each house has only one set of steps (tangge) at its entrance, which is always installed on the north side. Thus the house is invariably oriented to the north. The set of steps leans against an entrance. At the southwest side of the entrance is a veranda. Both the entrance and the veranda form an open platform of the house, the floor (daseR) of which is Bade of bamboo or planks. In the daytime, this space is used for women's craft work such as making mats, or for men's meetings. Some village assemblies used to be held on the veranda of a village headman's longhouse, because in olden times there was no independent village hall or communal house in the village. At night, in olden times, this platform became a place where unmarried young men slept (see Kreemer 1920:116).
There is a door (pintu Rumah) on the east side of the entrance, which leads to a kitchen. Usually there are a number of fireplaces (daPuR) for families who live together in the house, but there is only one fireplace if only one family lives in the house. The floor is also made of bamboo or planks as in the veranda. On the east side of a kitchen there is a long shelf (paRe sanding: the term paRe means 'shelf', and the term sanding means 'corner'), on which tableware and cooking utensils are kept.
Figure 2:Plan of a Traditional Alas Longhouse

(see Kreemer 1922:373). Members of the house sometimes eat their meals in the kitchen, and sometimes in their own rooms. At night, in former times, this kitchen was used for a sleeping space for unmarried young women. Sometimes, however, a part of the kitchen could be divided into smaller rooms for a few families living there.
On the north side of the kitchen there is north room or parents' room, which has its own fireplace for cooking, lighting, and heating, and its own sleeping place (peRatas). However, this room sometimes does not have its own fireplace, and people using this room use a fireplace in the adjacent kitchen. On the south side of the kitchen, on the other hand, there is a south room or the eldest son's family room. This room also usually has own fireplace and a sleeping place. Sometimes these two rooms may also be partitioned into a few smaller rooms, where several nuclear families live.
On the west side of the kitchen there is a large communal section. Although this section is sometimes not partitioned, it is usually divided into a few smaller rooms (bilik or Ruang) by wooden walls, the number of which depends on both the number of families living together in the house and the size of the house. As for the north room and south room, each small room usually has its own fireplace and a sleeping place. When this large section is partitioned into smaller rooms, each room is used for a separate nuclear family. When there are not many families living in the house, the large communal section is not divided. In these circumstances, the section is used for meetings, rituals, craft work, and so forth. Not only in the large communal section, but also in the kitchen, the north room, and the south room, there are no windows, so the Alas house is always dim and begrimed with soot. The floor of these rooms is usually lade of board, but sometimes lade of bamboo or planks as in the entrance or veranda.
A widow's room is not always found in every traditional house. The small corner between the kitchen or the south room is usually used for this special purpose. This room also has its own fireplace and sleeping place.

Other than the above-mentioned quarters, there are several important parts in the traditional longhouse. First of all, the king's pillar (tjhang Raje) between the large communal section and the veranda is the lost important lain pillar of the house. On the other hand, the minister's pillar (tjhâng menteRi) between the large communal section and the kitchen is the second lost important pillar of the house, and together these two pillars form a pair for the purpose of ceremony and ritual (see below; Kreemer 1922:360-2). When non-Alas people look at the house, the lost noticeable feature is a tripartite ornament on the four verges of the roof. This ornament consists of three bars: two vertical ones are called tanduk ('horn') which, according to the Alas explanation, symbolizes a pair of water buffalo's horns, and a horizontal one is called congkiR ('something projecting'). However, the symbolic leaning of the latter is not clearly known (cf. Hazeu 1907:1039). Both on the upper side and on the lower side of each bar there are two notches: on the upper side is a girl's flower (bunge bujane: the ten bunge. means 'flower', and the term bujane means 'girl'), and on the lower side is a boy's flower (bunge belagaR: the ten belagaR means 'boy').
A further important feature is a lumber room or garret (paRe muang; the term muang means 'old thing') on the upper part by the entrance, which is accessible from the large communal section. In this room, farming tools or fishing implements are usually kept. Further still, on the ground under the floor, poultry and livestock are usually kept at night, but this space (teRuh kaRane: literally, the term teRuh leans 'under', and the ten kaRane leans 'garden') also serves another function. When girls from other villages gather in the house for the purpose of a carriage ceremony, young men from the village come to this part of the house under the floor at night, and then talk with the girls who are located on the floor above, so then there is a floor between the girls and the boys (see Kern 1923:237). This kind of courting is called mepahuR (lit-'to talk with girls under cover of night').
As a latter of course, there is a close relation between the symbolism of an Alas house, in particular a traditional longhouse, and the Alas folk conception of spatial orientation. In Alas there are four tens which refer to the cardinal directions: the east is called (ken)gugung. the west is (ken)cuah. the south is (ken)jahë. and the north is (ken)julu. The prefix ken is equivalent to the English prepositions in, at, or to. There are no indigenous words which refer to other directions such as southeast or northwest.
As for the east, the ten gugung leans a mountain, a mountain chain, or a highland, and the east is called so because to the east of the Alas valley rises the Alas range, the peak of which is lore than 3,000 metres high. It is true that the Gayo Luos highland to the north, the Karo-Dairi highland to the south, and the Bukit Barisan range to the west surround Alasland, but only the Alas range to the east rises very steeply. On the other hand, the term cuah refers to a land less high than mountains, a low land, or a seashore. In comparison with the Alasrange, the Bukit Barisan range to the west is neither high nor steep. Moreover, to the west of Alasland, beyond the Bukit Barisan range, is the coast of the Indian Ocean. Although to the east of Alasland beyond the Alas range is the coast of the Strait of Malacca, the Alas know that the Malay Peninsula is on the other side of the strait. Both the tens julu and jahe are closely connected with the Alas river. As the river runs through the Alas valley from the north to the south, the ten julu, which leans 'upstream', also means the north, and the term jahë. which means 'downstream', also means the south.
In Alasland, north and west are thought to have symbolic superiority over south and east for the following reasons. Although it is natural that Islamic Alas people have a concept of the sanctity of the west, which is also roughly in the direction of Mecca, according to one of my informants the north seems to have something to do with the kingdom of Aceh, which used to be the largest centre of the Islamic religion in Sumatra. Contrariwise, to the east and to the south of Alasland is Batakland, which is pagan and used to be the homeland of slaves held in Alasland. About the inferiority of the south and the east, the Alas always answered that they disrespected these directions because in olden times Batak slaves came from the southern region of Alasland and the slaves were hauled to Alasland by way of the mountain trails beyond the Alas range to the east. Originally, however, superiority or inferiority of directions among the Alas seems to be based on a dualistic structure of Alas symbolic classification such as superiority and inferiority, north and south, west and east, upstream and downstream, mountain and sea, Muslim and pagan, Acehnese and Batak, and so forth.
As mentioned before, all traditional longhouses invariably face north, so that, if one were to stand in front of the set of steps of a longhouse, to the right (kemuhun) is the west and to the left (kiRi) is the east, although these days many modern houses face east, west, or south. However, there is no special rule concerning the building plots for longhouses as well as modern houses inside an Alas village. The Alas can build their houses wherever they like as long as the plots are their own.
As for the primacy of the north, the north room of a longhouse is occupied by the eldest married couple, and the husband is usually the owner of the longhouse, while the south room is occupied by the second eldest married couple, and the husband is usually the owner's son. The Alas say that the eldest owner, who is acquainted with everybody, lives in the north room because the north room and the door of a longhouse adjoin each other, but this fact also implies the superior character of senior, father, and the north, and the inferior character of junior, son, and the south.
The veranda, which constitutes the west or the right-hand side of a longhouse, used to be the sleeping place for young boys, and the kitchen, which constitutes the east or left-hand side of a longhouse, used to be the sleeping place for young girls. According to Islamic tradition, men are symbolically superior to women and the right hand is also superior to the left hand, and therefore the veranda is superior to the kitchen. Moreover, men usually sit on the west side of the veranda, while women sit on the east side. According to an old custom among the Alas, women were not permitted to sit on the west side of the veranda, so they had to work at the entrance or on the east side. In actual practice, however, this separation seems not to have been strictly observed. Vhen guests come to the veranda of a longhouse, the owner of the house invites them to be seated on the west side of the veranda. In this situation, the guests are temporarily superior to the owner.
The large common room of an Alas house is also symbolically divided into two parts, viz. the upper part or seat (ulunen: literally, the term ulun means 'head's direction') on the vest side of the room, and the lover part or seat (ladahen; lit. 'leg's direction') on the east side. As on the veranda, guests usually sit in the upper part of the vest side, but unimportant guests, for example, friends of the owner's sons, are not permitted to sit in the upper part. A bridegroom who marries a girl belonging to the house, and his best man, do not sit in the upper part of the vest side until the whole of the marriage ceremony has been completed. This custom suggests that a bridegroom is inferior to his bride's kinsmen before the ceremony is completed, and that after the ceremony he becomes symbolically equal to his bride's kinsmen. At the marriage ceremony, many girls also come to the bride's house from the bridegroom's village, as veil as from other neighbouring villages, and they sleep in the kitchen. After marriage, the bridegroom's kinsmen, i.e. the wife-takers, seldom pay a visit to the bride's father's house, while on the other hand the bride's kinsmen, i.e. the wife-givers, often call at her father-in-law's house as veil as her house, in particular for circumcision ceremonies, funerals, and so on. When they come to the bride's father-in-law's house, he has to invite them to be seated in the upper part of the vest side of the large common room.
The most important guests, such as local lords or territorial chiefs, used to sit in the upper part of the vest side of the large common room just in front of the most important main pillar of the house, viz. the king's pillar. As mentioned before, this pillar is always one of the pillars which are on the vest side of the large common section, while the second most important pillar, viz. the minister's pillar, is one of the pillars which are on the east side of the room. The reasons why the Alas call the most important pillar the king's pillar and the second most important pillar the minister's pillar, are rather vague. The Alas explained that the most important pillar is the king's pillar because the king is the most important person in a country, and the second most important pillar is the minister's pillar because the minister is the second most important person. In an Acehnese house, the most important main pillar is called raja ('king'), but the second most important is called putrôë ('princess') (Snouck Hurgronje 1906a:43).

When the Alas want to build a house, the most favourable day for beginning building is chosen according to the Islamic almanac (cf. Kreemer 1923:531). When the house frame is being put in place, pillars with the beam on the vest side of the room, which include the king's pillar, are erected, and then next pillars with the beam on the east side, which include the minister's pillar, are erected in the same way. Thirdly, pillars with the beam on the north side, and fourthly, pillars with the beam on the south side of the room are erected. These days, however, some modern Alas houses have their king's pillar on the north side of the large common room. In such cases, pillars vith the beam on the north side of the large common room, which include the king's pillar, are erected first. After erecting the pillars, both the king's pillar and the minister's pillar are ceremonially decorated with a few lengths of cloth such as adat cloth and some ornaments such as an adat umbrella (payung mesiRat) or headdresses (bunge sumbu and bunge SâRi bulan) for the marriage ceremony, and are then purified carefully with a bundle of several herbs (Kreemer 1920:112; 1923:550,599).
When someone in the house dies, the Alas turn the dead person's head to the king's pillar, in other words, to the vest or to Mecca, and their feet to the east. As the Alas people do not want to lie with their heads to the king's pillar, like dead bodies, they usually lie with their heads westward or northward when they sleep. In particular, they dislike lying with their heads southward, because, as they explained, Batak slaves in Alasland lay with their heads southward, i.e. to Batakland.
Also outside a longhouse, both the symbolic superiority of the north and the vest, and the symbolic inferiority of the south and the east, can be observed. Usually, the traditional house had its own granaries on the vest side of the house, although another granary vas built on the east side of the house if two were needed. On the other hand, the east side of the house is usually very dirty, because on the east side there is a drain from the kitchen and much rubbish always accumulates there.
Besides the four cardinal directions, the symbolic opposition of above and below also could be seen in each Alas house. Usually, all pillars of a house, including both the king's pillar and the minister's pillar, are covered at the top with a piece of red cloth (above) and a piece of white cloth (below) when they are erected. As for the comparable custom in an Acehnese house, the pillars of which are covered at the top with three pieces of coloured cloth (red, white, and black), Dall has suggested that, according to an Acehnese animist, the colours white and black are respectively symbolic representations of good and evil, the upper world and the lover world, day and night (1982:51), but he is silent on the colour red. According to Snouck Hurgronje, however, the Acehnese use only two pieces of cloth, viz. red cloth and white cloth (1906a:44). In Alasland, as the Alas explained, the pillars are covered with two pieces of cloth for the purpose of preventing evil spirits from coming. However, the two-coloured cloth also seems to suggest the dual symbolic classification of red and white, above and below, good and evil, or life and death, because, in the Alas language, red, particularly red cloth (uis megaRe). is usually connected with a bridal costume while white, particularly white cloth (uis mentaR). is connected with a shroud. In former times, on the other hand, black cloth (uis mbêRone) was usually used for everyday wear, so that black seems to be symbolically intermediate between red and white among the Alas.
More examples of the symbolic opposition of above and below in an Alas house are as follows: humans (jeme) usually live on the floor of a house, while on the other hand animals (benatang) usually live under the floor. At night, moreover, many wild beasts such as tigers or wild boar used to come to the ground under the floor. It is suggested that the upper part of a house is symbolically superior to the lover part, and human beings are superior to animals.
Finally, odd numbers are also symbolically superior to even numbers in an Alas house. In Alasland, the most important number is seven (pitu), which is regarded as a sacred number (see Kreemer 1923:535-7). Since the Batak also regard seven as a sacred number (Neumann 1886:516-9), the idea both among the Alas and among the Batak seems to have the same historical origin. For example, the Alas believe that a human being has 'eight bones and seven souls' (tulang si waluh. tendui si pitu) (cf. Skeat 1900:50). The set of steps of an Alas house has usually seven, five, or three steps, the number of which depends on the height of a house. The Alas believed that in olden times seven nuclear families usually lived together in a longhouse (cf. Kreemer 1922:361). As for the structure of a longhouse, as the Alas explained, the house always has seven, five, or three spaces, the number of which also varies in size, among pillars on the vest side of the veranda (see Kempees 1905:142; Militaire Memorie 1930-1, Bijlage A). Judging from the structures of actual longhouses, however, there appears to be no actual evidence for the number of spaces among pillars. Kreemer has reported an Alas traditional longhouse which had four spaces among five pillars on the vest side of the veranda (1920: 87; 1922:359), and a traditional longhouse in the village of Tualang Sembilar, which was built around 1900 and still regained in 1988, also had four spaces among five pillars on the west side of the veranda. Therefore, this building rule seems not to hold true in all cases.

Table 2 shows oppositive terms which constitute Alas dualistic classification in connection with the longhouse. However, these represent only a fraction of a vast body of dualistic classification employed in Alas life generally. Moreover, not only dualistic classification, but also triadic, four-fold, and seven-fold classification can be observed in Alasland.

Re-written by Ahmad Ubaidi Selian.