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Monday, October 3, 2022

Five Traditional Houses Around the World That Are Perfect Embodiments of Individual Ethnic Cultures and Traditions

Culture and tradition influence the exterior appearance of a house and also the interior partitions

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: From time immemorial, man had the primordial desire to protect himself from the elements. So, he created shelters using natural resources like stone boulders, trees and plants.

Even when living in a “natural primitive shelter” like a cave, he had the innate urge to express himself. So he drew animals, birds and other images on the rocks inside his shelter.

With the institution of marriage, kinship and tribe, homes became not just protection for family and material possessions, but importantly, symbols of identity of all kinds – tribal, tradition, culture, family and values. 

Just like the dresses, food habits, customs and languages, houses too became embodiments of culture and tradition. Culture and tradition influence the exterior appearance of a house and also the interior partitions.

In my sojourn in many parts of the world over the years, I had the privilege of sighting and visiting a bewildering variety of traditional houses made from different materials. 

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Along with this, I got the privilege of learning about the stories surrounding many of them. So if you ever wondered what traditional houses look like in various countries, here are five of the interesting traditional houses from around the world.

The Yurt of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Kyrgystan

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The Kazakh Yurt is a traditional abode based on the nomad’s principle of communion with nature. That is why the nomadic Kazakhs built Yurts near-flat Steppes or high mountains or alpine meadows, so they can live in unison with nature. 

A traditional Yurt house. Photo Credit: Pixabay

Yurt is a portable hemispherical wooden structure draped tightly over by felt. Natural and renewable raw materials are used, along with leather materials. Both men and women make the exterior coverings and decorate the interiors with traditional zoomorphic, floral, or geometric patterns.

All festivities, ceremonies, births, weddings and funeral rituals are held inside a Yurt. Hence the yurt remains an abiding symbol of family and traditional hospitality, which are fundamental to the identity of the people of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan.

Rumah Gadang House, Indonesia

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The Rumah Gadang is the traditional house of the Minangkabau people”, living in West Sumatra, Indonesia. There are a few legends associated with the origin of this name, but the most compelling is a little folklore which is narrated to all visiting tourists.

According to the story, when the Minangkabau heartland was confronted by a small Javanese army, the Minangs cleverly persuaded the Javanese to hold a fight between their buffaloes
to decide the victor, instead  of getting into a real ground battle. So it that the Javanese would retreat if their buffalo lost and the Minangs would surrender if theirs lost.   

A  funniest and widely believed tale is that the Javanese fielded a giant buffalo while the Minangkabau deliberately chose a calf, that had been kept starving for some time. The Minangs also tied a sharp knife on the nose of the calf. So as the calf was set free, it made a natural dash to the female buffalo looking for milk. 

Rumah Gadang is a model of traditional house that is commonly found around Indonesia, this model is a reflection of local genius. Photo Credit: Pixabay

Not suspecting any danger from the calf, the giant buffalo’s motherly instinct allowed the calf to suckle, but in the process got knifed by the instrument tied to the calf’s nose. 

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Thus the story of the victorious calf of MinangKabau. Even to this day, traditional houses in the region hoist a buffalo head at the top to signify a blessing to the visitor.

Batak house, Samosir Island, Indonesia

Batak architecture is a sight to behold. A traditional Batak house (‘Jabu” or Rumah bolon’) is a wooden construct made of special palm fiber. Made entirely without nails and anywhere between 40 to 60 feet tall, it has no doors and can only be entered using a ladder via a trapdoor through a raised floor or stilts. And No windows!

With sharp jutting rooftops, it is decorated with colorful mosaics and carvings of animals and birds (to denote fertility or protection of the
house). There is a water buffalo head looking down from the roof blessing visitors.

Batak house is known for its extraordinary roof section and its surface that is beautifully and meticulously decorated. Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Communal Houses of Vietnam

Among the many types of traditional houses I found during my tenure in Vietnam, the Communal House was the most interesting. The Vietnamese are primarily agricultural. Unlike in nomadic cultures, they value their houses more than anything else.

The communal house simply oozes tradition and embodies the rich spiritual life of the Vietnamese. It serves an extended family comprising many generations or even a community.

A typical communal house has a large courtyard, the main house, and several sub-houses within the same property area. The Viet people have developed a style of architecture that incorporates natural features while being private, yet open.

The communal house is both the cradle of traditional arts and the village public house with many functions. Photo Credit: Google Images

Other common elements are a garden, a fish pond, a poultry and cattle breeding ground, and a drying yard, all secured by a gate. 


In essence, the communal house is highly self-sufficient and self-sustaining. Everything important in the lives of the Viets happens under this benevolent roof – births, marriages, festivals, feasts, deaths, and funerals. It is simply the soul of the Vietnamese commune.

The mud high rises of Hadramaut

Not many may have had the opportunity to visit Hadramaut as I did. Way back in 1990, I spent a few days admiring the muddy high-rise buildings of Mukalla city, which is the capital city of erstwhile South Yemen’s largest governorate, Hadhramaut.

Located in the Southern part of Yemen, off the Gulf of Aden, Hadramaut is renowned for its historical wall city comprising traditional Arab mud houses.

Some of the mud houses in the walled city were built in 300 CE.  The whole complex has been declared a heritage site by UNESCO. These mud houses are deemed to be excellent examples of sustainable architecture that fulfills the socio-economic needs of the community. 

Photo Credit: Salma Samar Damluji & Dawan Architecture Foundation

In all these countries, despite the onset of urbanization and modernization, the traditional houses have been preserved and introduced as part of tourist circuits.

Also Read: The Portuguese Connection between Indonesia, Goa and Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

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