The House and its Rules
House location and orientation
Contrary to other tribal communities of N. E. India, slopes or hilltops are not favoured by the Karbis for establishing a village, nor is the vicinity of streams. Mountains and streams are believed to be the abode of the most jealous kinds of terrestrial spirits and hence people fear that the foundation of a human settlement nearby would bring disease and destruction (a-hi-i keso) in the village. For that reason flat areas are always preferred. The position of the house is not determined by any fixed spatial orientation, however one usually find dwellings oriented towards the village road or lane, and preferably facing towards the East direction. When houses are to be build on hilly ground, they are oriented so that the front side faces the valley and the rear part faces the upslope of the mountain. In communities settled on rivers banks houses usually stand facing the river.
The dwelling space
Traditional Karbi houses are made up entirely of wood, bamboo and thatch. The whole construction is raised several feet above the ground on a bamboo platform supported by wooden posts, under which domestic animals run about freely. The floor rests on a layer of support consisting of splintered and whole bamboo grids to ensure appropriate rigidity. This platform is enclosed on four sides by a fence of bamboo lattice, leaving only one entry to which one accesses by a bamboo ladder. This protected area contains two constructions :
– Usually facing the entrance of the compound, at the rear of it, is the main building (hempi), where household members work on various domestic chores, have their meals and sleep. The main house has only one entrance doorway, in front of which lies an open platform (hong, literally ‘front‘). In this space all kinds of social and everyday activities take place such as dhan pounding. At the back of the building, a second smaller open veranda (pang, meaning ‘behind‘) is primarily used to throw waste as well as to store any items which are not used daily.
– Occupying one side of the compound and most often oriented perpendicularly to the main building (although sometimes facing it, with the entrance located in between) is a smaller house, hong pharla (hong = front, pharla = platform), which primarily serves as a reception hall for guests Occasionally it is used as a sleeping room for unmarried boys of the household when the main house is too crowded, as well as temporarily for married children before they establish their own separate residence. This annex building has a unique entrance doorway too.
The external aspect of the two buildings is very much similar :
Both are single rectangular structures made of wood (all pillars, ridge pole, horizontal support beams, roof support beams) and bamboo (bamboo poles for cross beams and all the small roofing structure, interlaced bamboo strips for walls and doors). Remarkable is the absence of nails, wires or metal clippings, as well as windows. Bamboo splits as well as thongs extracted from the bark of trees are used to tie structural and non structural elements. The eaves in the front and rear sides (more rarely the overhanging of the gable when the roof is set up perpendicularly) form two small porches. Roofs are thatched by using an unidentified species of grass (karbi : phelang) reaching a height of 1.5 to 2 meters, available in the nearby forests. The eaves do not extend much further down than fencing level. It must be noted that Karbi houses of important people bear no special external decorations that may advertise the status of their owner, as it is often the case in neighbouring societies.
The interior of the two buildings, however, differs : the dwelling-house is divided by a transverse lattice-work partition into two sections, kam (literally : ‘work‘) and kut, both containing a fireplace, while hong pharla is not compartmented and does not contain any fireplace. Moreover all household goods (grain, firewood, clothes, kitchen appliances, jewellery and other valuables of the family) are stored in the main building only. Baskets of bamboo serve the purpose of wardrobes in which paddy, household goods and clothes are kept. Joints of bamboo are used as containers for water as well as ornaments and other valuables of the family.
Entering a Karbi dwelling-house one first gets into a first room called kam. On the left side lies a raised platform of split bamboo (thengkroi, thengtor) for storing kitchen artefacts and, more or less in the center of the room, a fireplace, with a hearth made of clay and wood planks to hold clay at place. The rear side is used as a store room for wood (pang-a-thekroi) and, delimited by a bamboo lattice partition, a sleeping area for unmarried girls (dambung).
From kam, one can access directly either to the back veranda (pang) or to another room (kut) which also contains a central fireplace. Kut can be entered only from kam. It is in fact the innermost area of the house where all the sacred and important possessions of the family are kept. The rear side is occupied by the rice store room (sok angkro). The sacred household paraphernalia (a storage basket, marjong, containing other ritual artefacts) are located in the most valued part of the house, i. e. attached to the central pillar (angbong a-nujok, literally meaning ‘central pillar’) located in the middle of the partition separating kam from kut. When sleeping, the household master should always have his head close to this pillar. Marjong (the name applies both to the basket only or altogether with its contents) is in fact oriented towards the side of the pillar which faces the household master’s sleeping place, and placed just above his head.
Social rules within the house
Among the Karbis as elsewhere, spaces within the house are encoded with social and cultural meanings which are manifested in the many conventions regulating their use. The way spaces are separated and linked is determined by social and cultural norms, so the observation of the use of domestic spaces is a relevant clue for understanding the true nature of social relationships. At this level it would be false to consider that the Karbi house is simply divided into a private part and a public part where all social interactions take place. In fact both compartments are multi-functional spaces, where guests are entertained, cooking is done, materials are stored, and both serve as bedrooms. Hence understanding the cultural meaning of the house division requires a more cautious approach. In the case of Karbi society, the spatial distribution of persons and functions is primarily grounded in kinship ground : inside the domestic group, it is primarily based on the degree of parental proximity to the household head. Beyond the domestic group, the encoding of space expresses the perception and degree of acceptance of others.
Spatial ordering of sleeping positions in the household
Household members and guests are not made to sleep outside on the raised platform (hong), but always inside. As far as sleeping is concerned, kut access is restricted only to the household master and his wife. Only tolerated are children below the age of 5 of 6 years who are generally made to sleep besides their mother. Beyond that age, they must move to kam area. Although occupying the same sleeping place, the positions of the two household heads are not equivalent since the household head should have his head closer to marjong than does his wife. In kam, unmarried boys and girls sleep separately, girls sleep together towards the rear side (dambung) while boys (as well as an eventual newly married couple) use the raised platform (hong a-thengtor). Only boys eventually move to sleep in hong pharla if needed.
Spatial ordering for meals and reception of guests
Members of the household usually eat together in kut, unless guests are invited in hong pharla (in which case they will be joined by the household master). People usually have their meals around the fireplace being seated on stools (inghoi) which are similar to Assamese piras. In kut, the household head generally has his meal with his back facing the rear side of the house (although no strict rule requires him to do so), next to his wife. He should always be the first to eat the food prepared for the family (meaning it has not be tasted by anyone before) and the first to be served.
Theoretically, all elders of the same clan (kur-isi, lit. ‘one clan‘) as the owner of the house are allowed to sit in kut. In practise, this access is permitted to clan elders of the same regional subdivison (Chingthong, Amri, Rongkhang or Dumrali) only. Ethically speaking, only elders should be invited although other members may have access to it if needed. No one else is admitted in kut. Village headmen, officials and all important people, if not belonging to the same regional section of the owner’s kur-isi, will be received in hong pharla.
Apart from household members, only people whom the owner knows personally (chini-chetek, literally ‘known very well to each other‘) are invited to sit in kam instead of hong pharla. Amongst them are kin related people in general, being either close relatives (hem-isi, lit. “one house”, applying mostly to the paternal kin, or nit, lit. ‘intimate‘) or far relatives (chepho-chiri; from chepo = touch, and chiri = to lead).
Important visitors received in kam are served rice beer or liquor as a sign of respect. This is also the case for wife’s givers (representatives of the mother’s lineage, don-rap, such as mother’s brother or mother’s brother’s son). On the contrary wife’s takers are supposed to bring rice beer along with them and serve it to the house master (who is in position of wife‘s giver to them), as would do also all those coming as employees or wishing to solicit the household master for something. This reflects status inequalities between wife’s givers and wife’s takers in Karbi society, the former being superior to the latter.
The house as a ritual unit
The Karbi house is a residential, economic, but also ritual unit. The responsibility to propitiate the household spirit as well as to perform all kind of domestic rituals usually lies in the hands of the living father, who assumes the title of Arnam Ke-ot abang. After him it should normally pass to the eldest son who is taught all the ritualistic procedures. In case the eldest son refuses or is unable to take the responsibility, the next immediate son will get it. Whoever is to take charge of domestic cults is regarded as Hemripo (hem = house, ri = to lead, -po : male gender suffix) and, as such, should inherit the parental house. It is interesting to note here that a daughter can become Hemripi, since she can inherit lands, properties and money if the situation arises. But daughters cannot inherit the religious artefacts that constitute the marjong, including the basket (arnam a burub) which contains them. The chosen male relative to inherit this is required to become a religious leader of the family. i.e arnam ke-ot abang. A son does not immediately set up a new ritual unit by establishing a new house after marriage, for he will have a new marjong only if the father pass it on to him. Usually after the father has died it is handed to him by the Hemripo. Otherwise he has to attach to his father house and come to his father house for joining all appropriate rituals. Most important rituals take place in kut and especially close to the place where marjong is kept. Kam sometimes serves as a place to perform some rituals such as those in order to improve or restore health of individuals.
Article written by Mr. Bouchery Pascal, Lecturer in Anthropology, University of Poiters, france.