PADAWAN: FOR more than a century, longhouses have been a ubiquitous feature of Sarawak’s landscape, housing a union of family and culture within their walls.
These wooden structures, usually nestled deep within the state’s vast interior, with some requiring days of road travel to access, symbolise the Dayak people’s unique identity and their love of communal living.
However, the longhouses have come under threat. Fires in longhouses have become more frequent, resulting in losses running into millions of ringgit.
There is also an incalculable heritage cost involved.
When a longhouse burns down, a modern replacement takes its place, sacrificing the traditional wooden designs.
Most longhouses are built on stilts, high on riverbanks. With commanding views of the river, an average longhouse has 20 to 25 doors, with some going up to 60. Each bilik or “door” represents one family.
Sarawak has 3,977 registered longhouses. In the last eight years, 164 longhouse fires were recorded, leaving more than 2,000 families homeless. Losses were estimated at RM138 million.
In those fires, 78 longhouses were completely destroyed, while 20 of them sustained 90 per cent damage.
In most cases, the fire begins from unmonitored cooking or is caused by short circuits triggered by exposed wiring.
The fact that they are wooden means that an 18-door longhouse can burn down in 30 minutes.
What is at stake is not lost to Dominic Neng, 67, village chief or tuai rumah of the Annah Rais Longhouse at the foothills of the Borneo Highlands.
Built 3m above ground, the Annah Rais Longhouse is one of the few remaining traditional Bidayuh longhouses in Sarawak.
Two years ago, the longhouse caught fire in a cooking mishap.
The flames, Neng said, moved so fast that the next longhouse also caught fire within minutes.
“We put it out with fire extinguishers which were luckily still functioning,” he said, adding that the fire extinguishers were given to the longhouse 10 years
ago when the Fire and Rescue Department conducted training there.
Since becoming tuai rumah last year, Neng has made fire prevention a priority and has instituted ground rules.
For example, he said, some dwellers preferred to cook the traditional ayam pansuh dish over wood fire as the meat would be more flavourful and juicy.
“Instead of cooking in their own bilik, I ordered every household to move their kitchen to the ruai (common area) or tanju (open veranda),” he said.
Although the longhouse is one of the largest in the state, with 150 doors, it has less than 30 fire extinguishers.
Neng said he would request for more fire extinguishers and training for volunteer firefighters, as well as to have a hydrant set up to connect to the water supply from the mountains.
“If these steps are not taken, the longhouse’s history, culture and tradition will be gone.
“Without a longhouse, many rituals, ceremonies and festivals cannot be carried out in the traditional way as we wouldn’t have a communal space.”
TOMORROW: Experts fear that longhouses with traditional Dayak architecture will be lost, which would be an irreparable loss of culture and heritage.