Rumah limas (“limas house”), also known as rumah bari (“old house”), is a type of traditional house found in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia. They can also be found in Baturaja. The house is traditionally built of wood and raised on stilts, with a stepped, or gradated, floor composed of two to five areas at slightly different heights, with a broad porch, and a distinctive roof. In Palembang, these houses are associated with the nobility and other people of high status. The style was adopted across Sumatra, Java, and Malaysia by the Dutch and the Chinese alike.
Sultanate of Palembang
Limas houses began as pile-dwellings along the River Musi. Palembang, being a vibrant port city, was exposed to foreign influence. Clay roof tiles have been used for limas houses since the early 15th-century when the new material was introduced to the Palembang Sultanate by Admiral Cheng Ho in 1407, replacing the previous thatched roofs.
A Chinese chronicle from the early 15th-century describes rules concerning the ownership of certain house types in Palembang, although it does not explicitly mention exact house types. Formerly, Palembang society was divided into three classes: the nobility (divided into priyayi and mantri), commoners, and slaves. The sultans were the only people who were allowed to live in brick houses. Commoners usually lived in wooden pile dwellings, whereas immigrants were only allowed to live in raft houses (rumah rakit).
In the early 19th-century, limas houses were still reserved for the nobility. In Palembang, limas houses were usually found inside Kuto Besak (the fort city of Palembang) and the area surrounding the fort. These grand limas houses were often large in size and always consisted of five gradated floor levels (kekijing or bengkilas).
Dutch and Arab traders
Following the abolition of the sultanate by the Dutch colonial government in 1823, the diminishing role of the nobility created a condition where limas-house owners and their descendants were unable to maintain their houses. As a result, many limas houses deteriorated and disappeared.
In the course of the nineteenth century, other social groups, such as traders, began to construct limas houses for their own use, something that earlier would not have been allowed. The important actors during this period were Dutch and Arab traders. In the 18th-century, a growing number of Arabs settled in Palembang and mixed with the local population.
The Arabs enjoyed a special position, and they were allowed to settle on land, probably because they came from the heart of the Muslim world. In the mid 19th-century, the Arab traders (who called themselves sayid) grew more wealthy and became part of the new city elite. They also started building and living in limas houses. Ornamentation of limas houses conforms with the Muslim norm of not showing animal figures and using Arab calligraphy instead. The Arabs preferred to live in close proximity to one another, forming an enclave that is today the Kampong Arab, or Arab village. Many Arabic limas houses (rumah limas Arab) can still be found in this area.
In the early 1920s, during the short rubber-industry boom, there was a sudden increase in the construction of limas houses in Palembang. These new limas houses were smaller than such houses from the sultanate period, mainly due to the high cost of construction. The number of floor levels was reduced from the original five, to four, three, or even two, levels.
Decline due to modernism
Various changes occurred in the internal partitioning and layout of the house. As a result of changing values and worldviews, the old strict rules were now interpreted loosely. Ritual importance was not important anymore. The gradated floor levels in the front part of the house are slowly losing their former function as indicators of status during ceremonies. This does not mean, however, that they are now regarded as superfluous; on the contrary, without the gradated floors, a house is not considered a limas house.
Modernization brought new building materials, replacing the wood of the original limas houses, which had left them vulnerable to fire. Furthermore, modernism meant that people would choose a more modern house as a symbol of status. This shift meant that more limas houses were left abandoned. Most of the limas houses in the older parts of Palembang, along the Musi or one of its tributaries, were left to deteriorate.
Recently, there has been an increase in the popularity of limas houses which are regaining their former function as symbols of prestige. However, because of the disappearing expertise in building traditional limas houses, the limas house is still rapidly disappearing.
Limas houses were in decline because of their high cost of maintenance, impractical internal arrangement, and because they were not considered modern. The present slow revival of limas houses has resulted in the renovation of a number of them and even the construction of a new one (although for non-dwelling purposes). The limas house has been re-evaluated and owning one is again a sign of prestige. The renewed attention paid to the limas house is visible in the ever growing number of limas houses being renovated or even moved to the city from the surrounding areas.
The space between the original piles is used as additional living space. The combining of the traditional and the modern is even more conspicuous in the roofing of modern architectural structures, especially government offices and porches, with a limas roof. This is even encouraged by the local government. The limas roof has become a trademark of the city, even of the whole province of South Sumatra.
In July 1997, Fire destroyed 200 houses including 23 limas houses.
A traditional limas house is basically a wooden house built on stilts, often on a river, as water transportation was the primary method of transportation, until the introduction of streets. It is generally accepted that no nails should be used in the construction of a limas house. However, it is possible that Palembang had a thriving nail-making industry as early as 1798. The house traditionally covered a relatively large area, from 400 square metres (4,300 sq ft) to 1,000 square metres (11,000 sq ft). The walls of a limas house are typically constructed of wooden boards, affixed to a special beam known as sento. It has a stepped, or gradated, floor made up of two to five levels at different heights and an idiosyncratic roof form.
There are five floor levels, at most, with the center always being at the highest level. Differences between floor levels vary between 30 and 40 centimetres (12 and 16 in); and on every level there are usually two windows, on opposite sides. The different floor levels of the limas house have different functions during ceremonies: e.g. in a wedding ceremony, the floor level indicates the status of the person seated on it. The posts supporting the roof vary in length, usually between 1.5 and 2 metres (4 ft 11 in and 6 ft 7 in). In general, the upper part of the house is made of durable and expensive types of wood, such as tembusu and other types of hardwood. The posts supporting the house are made of unglen wood. Nowadays, the space below the floor is frequently walled in with concrete to create additional living space.
The roof of a limas house follows the gradated levels of the floor and is topped by a hip roof, which is always covered with clay tiles. There are different slopes to the roof, the lower one averaging 14° while the top one reaches 45°. Roof ridges are usually decorated with thumb-shaped roof ornaments known as the tanduk kambing (“goat horns”) or daun pandan (“pandanus leaves”), which some believe protect against lightning, and cement ridges contain pieces of iron. There are various explanations for what these shapes represent, the most common includes doves, thumbs, leaves, or horns. In the past, a large number of these decorations was believed to be a sign of close familial relationship to the sultan. On the very top of a limas house, on the top of the hip roof, in the middle of the uppermost ridge, is a roof ornament called the simbar. The simbar has the form of a flower, described as the jasmine flower or water lily, both of which represent civilization, good manners, and purity.
This ornamentation may appear on top of the roofs, in paintings, or in woodcarvings. Traditionally, the ornaments can only be created by special craftsmen who adhere to very strict rules regulating their craft. In the beginning of the 20th-century, this work was done mainly by Chinese woodcarvers, although it seems that, at least during the time of the sultans, mainly Palembang women did the carving. As early as 1832, it was reported that none of these women remained, and that there were only 20 male woodcarvers. By 1922, there was only one Palembang family employed in the craft.
The interior of a limas house is divided into three main sections: the front (luan, literally “prow”, but people do not generally associate this or any part of the house with ships) made of several gradated floor levels, the middle (badan ruma) where the family rooms are located, and the back section (bur) consisting of the kitchen and back veranda. The number of rooms varies considerably.
The luan is the front section of a limas house. The rooms within this section are usually unfurnished. The luan is a realm of men and boys. It is where guests are received, and it is seen to protect the house.
The luan begins at the stairs at the front of the house. Traditionally, two sets of wooden stairs (tangga kiai-kemulan muka) led up to the two front doors. In earlier times, large water jars (guci) were placed at the bottom of the stairs to allow guests to wash their feet before entering the house. Nowadays, these stairs have been replaced by cement ones and, frequently, by only one staircase, not two.
Traditionally, there would be an odd, and auspicious, number of stair steps. There is an old custom concerning the odd number of the steps: while climbing the stairs one would count the steps with the words tanggo, tunggu, and tinggal. If the top one ends with tanggo (“stair”, “step”) or tunggu (“occupying, inhabited, guarding”), the house is considered ‘cold’ (dingin), which is a good sign. Ending with tinggal (“abandoned, desolated”) is considered a bad sign, as some said that the word also resembles the word meninggal (“to die”). Similar word-sequence customs are found in other regions of South Sumatra, e.g. measuring the perfect length of knives, or the size of particular spaces in a house. Similar customs are found among the Besemah Lebar of southern Sumatra.
The stairs led to a broad porch known as tenggalung (“to look/observe”). The breadth of the tenggalung is usually wider than the main house. The tenggalung is used to receive guests or to relax. It is separated from the outdoors by a partition known as the pagar tenggalung (literally “a fence/boundary area to look/observe”). Sometimes there are additional rooms at the side of the house, located along one or both side walls on the second and third floor levels. These rooms are known as jogan (from the word jagaan, which refers to a place where men watch or guard). Limas houses with this feature are known as rumah limas Arab, and many can still be found in Kampung Arab, Palembang.
Approaching the badan ruma are different kekijing (levels), each of which differs by about 30 centimetres (12 in) from an adjacent level. These areas are used to receive guests. During ceremonies, e.g. a wedding, the lower kekijing is reserved for senior guests during a ceremony, while the higher kekijing is where close relatives sit.
The badan ruma (“main house”) is where most private activities occur. The middle section is separated from the front, luan, section by a wall with large double doors. The badan ruma is a realm of the women.
The double doors are decorated with an arabesque decoration known as awan, which act as air vents to allow cross-ventilation of the house. It is sometimes decorated with symbols, e.g. a Dutch crown, or Arabic calligraphy (also known as Muhammad bertangkup). An awan decoration is also installed in other parts of the house, e.g. partitions. The awan is a cultural symbol of the Palembang people more popular than the limas house itself; if the limas house is torn down, the awan is often preserved.
In large limas houses, built-in large cupboards (gerobek leket) are usually installed on each side of doors. The cupboards consist of glass doors, behind which antique plates and glasses are displayed, with the lower part used for antique storage. If the cupboard is absent, the walls may be richly ornamented.
During ceremonies, the middle section is almost exclusively the territory of women, with the exception of male family members of the owners. At a wedding ceremony, the male family members of the bridegroom are allowed to enter the middle section. The central part of the middle section is also known by the name ruang wanita (“women’s space”). This central space is where the most important rituals take place, e.g. cutting the hair of a newborn baby and circumcision. The whole central part of the house is also known as the ruang gegajah (“elephant chamber”) or pedalon; the name refers to either the room being the largest room in the house, or from a carpentry term kito gegaja (“elephant kito”; kito is a binder on top of the ground posts that rise only as far as the floor level, the largest binding structure located below the floor, and runs across several posts under the pedalon).
The ruang wanita is usually empty. In modern times, this is where the television set and occasional chair (occupants generally sit on the floor) and other furniture are placed.
The bur is the back section of the house. The kitchen (pawon) is located in this section. The place where the dishes are washed is known as the perlimpahan. Toilet and bathroom may be located next to or underneath the back of the house (jamban). In the past, people would bathe in nearby rivers or ponds instead.
Elaborate rules, strictly adhered to, were followed in the construction of a traditional limas house. The first step is the choice of location, the pekarangan (yard or compound), and its orientation. It was forbidden to have the front of a house facing west, toward the sunset (mato ari mati), which would leave it vulnerable to the west winds in the rainy season, which were said to be unhealthy, especially for older people, and might also cause bad luck.
Following the construction of the house, but before the inhabitants officially moved in, a ritual ceremony for the occupation of the house (upacara nunggu rumah) was conducted. Three to seven older widows who were related to the house’s owners would sleep in it for a length of time varying from one night to one week, during which time the family provided them with husked rice, water, and spices. Only after this time would the family move into the house, bringing with them a piece of split bamboo and a cat to chase away malevolent spirits. On the subsequent Thursday, a final ceremony known as ratib saman (praising by means of reciting sacred texts) was held, in which Allah was thanked for his presence and his lasting blessing and protection was requested.
Today, there is not a single person in the city of Palembang who is considered to be an expert on limas house construction. The number of such experts had been declining since the 1970s.