Traditional Housing Practices A Dying Art In Nagaland - Eastern Mirror
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Traditional housing practices a dying art in Nagaland

By Reyivolü Rhakho Updated: Oct 29, 2023 10:37 pm
A traditional house with slate roofing in Phuvkiu village, Kiphire district. (EM images) 

KOHIMA — Nagaland, a tribal state with rich traditions, is facing a decline in its traditional house-building practices, despite their centuries-long evolution. While traditional houses are a rarity in urban areas, this decline extends to rural regions where traditional houses are fast disappearing.

Some of the people that Eastern Mirror spoke to attributed the decline to the growing use of modern construction materials and the disinterest of the younger generation in learning these age-old techniques.

66-year-old construction worker Ngorünyü Kezo opined that majority of the younger generation would not be able to build a complete thatch house (roofing) using the ‘forefathers’ ways.’ He was also skeptical that they would even have the knowledge of crafting ropes from tree fibres.

On the other hand, most of the elders will still know how to build a typical traditional house from start to finish, he maintained.

For continuity of the craft, Kezo expressed the importance of imparting traditional design and construction methods to the younger generation through hands-on demonstrations rather than relying solely on oral transmission.

 “Simply talking to them about it will not work. The best way to teach them is through making it practical,” he asserted.

Kezo who hails from Khulazu Basa village in Phek district, said there are no thatch houses left in the village now.

According to him, while serving on the village council in the past, he proposed the idea of building a complete set of traditional houses as a museum in the village, intended for future generations to learn from. However, the proposal did not gain traction after his departure from the council.

Currently working as a seasonal construction worker, Kezo recounted his entry into the profession as a thatch carrier at the age of approximately 19. Reflecting on the changing times, he lamented that the once-abundant thatch grass in the village has dwindled significantly due to natural decay and the absence of regular maintenance, with fewer people engaged in its harvesting.

Kezo learned various traditional construction techniques from his elders but his forte had been in shaping poles and timbers using a dao (machete) and axe. Over time, he noticed the traditional axe-related tasks being replaced by modern technologies.

Unlike the present, construction of houses used to take place in the month of January, before the Chakhesang Naga festival of Sökrönye. “Within three days, we used to dismantle a house and build it back”, he said.

As per Kezo, in the past, village leaders organised capable groups to assist with house construction during the winter. Kezo recalled that working in the cold was challenging, especially when gathering natural ropes from fields, which have now been replaced by binding wires. Elders would send younger individuals like him to collect ropes, providing them with lit firewood, straw, or dried cow dung to stay warm.  However, he recounted instances where the firewood would burn out halfway, leaving them without any fire for the rest of the journey.

These natural ropes have also been replaced by ‘binding wires’ today, he said.

In subsequent years, when tin sheets were first introduced in the village, there were complaints among the workers who lamented the inability to construct thatch houses and partake in the feasts traditionally hosted by the house owner. During that period, although wealthier individuals could afford tin-roofed houses, they chose to build thatched-roof houses to host feasts for the community and uphold their social standing in line with their fellow villagers, Kezo maintained.

From the same village is Posahü Keyho, a gentleman with hearing impairment, who actively involves himself in weaving bamboo walls for personal use and occasionally, upon request, for fellow villagers. Recently, he expertly wove new bamboo walls to replace a section of his own house.

At the age of 72, he mentioned that he faces difficulty in carrying bamboo poles due to age-related issues. However, he remains actively involved in other aspects of the work such as slitting and weaving.

With materials prepared in advance, he can craft two bamboo walls measuring 6×9 feet, he said while adding, “I may not be able to see the alphabets clearly, but I can still see the bamboo slivers.”

He picked up the skill at the age of 30 by observing his seniors and elders.

Meanwhile, Kongkhiukiu, head GB of Phuvkiu village under Pungro sub-division in Kiphire district, shed light on the tradition of constructing houses with stone slates, particularly for roofing. This practice is still prevalent in the sub-division, which shares its border with Myanmar.

Elaborating on the process, he described how their ancestors would venture into the jungle to locate suitable stones. Once identified, they would excavate the upper layer of earth to access and gather the stones underneath. Subsequently, these stones would be crafted into slates using sharp stone spears. A hole would be made in the slates so that it can be tied with ropes.

Kongkhiukiu further clarified that typically two individuals would handle the excavation, while others would extract the slates and allow them to dry. After the stones had dried, they would be transported back to the village for use in house construction.

Even today, there are individuals, including Kongkhiukiu, who continue to extract these stones from specific locations.

Kongkhiukiu revealed that his own house has slate roofing that was installed four generations ago. He said that fewer people choose to build walls with slates, but they are still a preferred choice for roofing, and people still use it to make waiting sheds and memorials.

With the coming of education and various schemes introduced by the government, things have changed. “Through government supplies, we are now able to get tin and other modern materials for the construction of houses and people can choose accordingly,” he said. 

The head GB pointed out there are still over 20 stone slate houses in his village; a testament to the village’s endeavour to preserve the forefathers’ tradition and culture.

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By Reyivolü Rhakho Updated: Oct 29, 2023 10:37:10 pm
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