Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/February 1884/House-Building in the East

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IN England house-building is a matter on which, in spite of "jerry" builders, one can look with comparative equanimity. In Indo-China it is a very different affair. Everything that is a source of trouble in the West disappears in those comfortable latitudes. A site can be found practically anywhere. The jungle furnishes, for the trouble of cutting it, as much material as may be required. Comparatively so little skill is wanted to start as an architect that every man can be his own house-builder, and, if he is tolerably diligent and not too ambitious, might finish his house in a few days. But, as a set-off to all these advantages, it is a very difficult matter to raise up a house which is not rendered dangerous or ineligible by the nature of the soil, the idiosyncrasies of the surrounding spirits, or the revolutionary character of the timber used. Building houses is, therefore, a very critical operation, and not to be undertaken without very considerable Sabaistic lore and an intimate acquaintance with all the animistic peculiarities of the neighborhood. Otherwise the house-builder simply courts disaster, and may involve not only his own family, as well as himself, in overwhelming difficulties, but may actually render a whole district uninhabitable by his unwarrantable irritation of the spirits dwelling in the soil, in the air, and in the very logs of timber which are recklessly used, or are put up with an improper exposure to the south instead of to the north, or set in position at a time of year when presiding demons hold that such things ought not to be done. It is, however, a necessity, even of Indo-Chinese existence, that mankind should have houses to live in. For the instruction, therefore, of those who are forced by necessity, or are foolhardy enough to believe that they can build themselves houses without coming to any particular harm, there are elaborate text-books, both in Burmese and Siamese. The Burman Dehtton is a bulky treatise, containing a farrago of omens and signs with regard to all possible events and circumstances, and not merely to the process of building. The Siamese "Tamra," or "Manual of House-Building," is considerably more systematic, and, in addition, possesses the advantage that it sticks to the subject of which it professes to treat. The theories in both works are based on and elaborated from the Shastras which record the customs of the Brahmans. Notwithstanding their Buddhism, which prohibits all such beliefs, the Indo-Chinese have a very strong regard for the Brahmanical observances. They are much easier to comprehend, or at any rate more fitted to seize on the imagination, than the abstruse problems of the faith of the Buddha. Buddhist metaphysical positions are fine things to confound hostile controversialists with, but the common Indo-Chinese mind yearns for something more concrete. The house-building code is, therefore, a very popular institution. It persuades a man that he is pious when he has an internal conviction that he ought to be damned.

The first thing the would-be house-builder has to do is to find out the situation of the great dragon that encircles the earth with his body, like the Midgard serpent of Northern mythology. This must be ascertained before operations are begun at all, for it will have a great influence, not only on the time of beginning the building, but on the way in which the foundations must be dug and the method of hoisting the posts into position. This the Burmese have recorded for them in a rhyme which every school-boy can repeat. The Siamese are not less alive to the necessity of accurate information on the subject, and it is fully set out in the "Tamra." The reason of this is that when you come to dig the hole for the main post of the house you must heap up the earth on the side toward the Nagah's belly. Terrible consequences follow if you do not observe this preliminary precaution. If you should pile up your mound in the direction of the head of the dragon, your negligence or ignorance will involve the death of your parents, your brothers, and the patrons, of your house. To be without a patron in Siam or Cambodia is to get your name put down on the list of royal slaves. Insulting the dragon's tail is even more calamitous, for the tail is a most touchy member, and would as soon create an earthquake and ruin the whole township as not. The reckless builder who did such a thing would, therefore, be stoned out of the community as a public enemy. Touching the dragon's back is simple lèse-majesté. The lord of the house will soon find out his crime, but the knowledge will come too late. He will die. The belly is the only safe part. If you choose that quarter toward which to heap up your earth, then, subject to a number of other precautions to be mentioned, you are comparatively safe. It is to be observed, however, that you have only three months to do your digging in. The Nagah, for all that he is so testy, sleeps during that period, or, rather, it is the disturbing him in his sleep that causes all the mischief. When the quarter-year has passed he rouses himself, and shifts round to the next point of the compass, and there, like the Norway kraken, composes himself to sleep again. Digging operations must then be conducted according to the new rules. Still, the time allowed is not unreasonable. Even an average Indo-Chinese can dig a hole for a house-post in three months. When you have settled generally how you ought to dig, there are a number of special rules to be observed in the digging itself. It will never do to go blindly ahead, for all the world as if you were a navvy on piece-work. In the first place, it is well to dig at large all over the space your house is intended to cover. In fact, if you have any regard for yourself, you certainly will. There are divers reasons for this. If you find costly articles, silver or gold, or the images of men and deities, it is a most happy sign, and will go far to counteract all but willful remissness in other matters. On the other hand, when bones or ashes or the figures of wild animals are found, the deductions are most unpropitious, and, if you persist in going on, the house will have neither luck nor peace. If the remains of previous house-posts are found still lying buried in the ground, they must be carefully dug out and carried away, for if this were not done, and a new building were to be run up over the old remains, sickness and quarrelings would be the certain result.

In addition to such elementary rules, which are matters of universal knowledge in Indo-China, there are so many others that every one but a very self-sufficient person will submit his surface soil to the inspection of a regular professional man, an expert in the science of foundation-digging, before he makes a final decision. For example, though it is undoubtedly most lucky to find silver or old bricks in your excavations, you may at the same time come upon a colony of ants or other living creatures settled upon the spot. It is one of the fundamental rules of Buddhism that the breath of no living thing is to be taken, and to dispossess them is not by any means a creditable proceeding. Moreover, irrespectively of this objection, ants can bite through even sun-toughened skins, so that there is a direct personal argument to support the sentimental objection. Then, again, you may find lead in your soil-turning. There is not the smallest hesitation in the books on a question like this. If you go on and build you will lose slaves and goods. But, for all the lead that is there, the turned-up earth may smell of beans, or may have the fragrance of the sacred lotus itself. This is a most happy omen. The dwellers in a house raised on such land will be most fortunate, and the soil round about is the best possible for cultivation. In such a dilemma there is nothing for it but to call in a Sayah and pay him to work out the problem, to make a resolution of forces for you. There are certain amateur ways of arriving at a conclusion by means of split bamboos and heaps of paddy, but they are apt to be fallacious and afford no real satisfaction to a well constituted mind. It is not surprising to be told that sand is not a good foundation on which to raise a house, or that a soil which is mainly composed of small stones is undesirable; but when it comes to the slope of the ground, or the friability or stiffness of the earth, none but a thoroughly reckless man will trust to his own unaided intelligence.

At any rate, whether you get the advice of an expert or not, it is imperative that you should carefully turn over all the ground where the new building is to be. Having done this, it is a matter of reasonable precaution to make offerings to the earth-spirit. Acquaintance with this Phra Phum and his belongings is no light matter, and is likely to be as good as an annuity to the man who has mastered the details. As he is an earthy spirit he is especially liable to mortal failings, and notably possesses a very short temper, which will brook no deficiency in reverence. It will not do to be ignorant of the names of his father and mother and of his nine children. Forgetfulness of his possessions is equally likely to cause trouble. There must be no hesitation as to the proper titles of his house and the tower on it, his cattle-shed, his granary, his bridal chamber, his thrashing-floor, his lands, his garden, his monastery, and his three chief servants. Remissness in any one of these particulars is apt to make an offering dangerous rather than otherwise. This offering, by whomsoever brought, must be set down at the extremity of the toes of the Phra, who thereupon graciously takes up his broom and sweeps the place clean, and gives the pious votary his blessing. If an ignorant or presumptuous man should place his gifts near the head, the earth-spirit would curse him with terrible imprecations, and brush everything away, worshiper and all. Negotiations with this deity are therefore rather ticklish work, but it is perilous to leave them undone. The site being settled, and things made right with the guardian spirit of the earth, the next thing to be done is to dig holes for the reception of the posts. It is necessary to begin with that for the chief post, and the hole for this must not be dug square, but in the form of a triangle. This may imply more work, but that can not be helped. When the hole for the main post is finished, go on with the others, but be sure to do it in regular order, working round in circles from right to left, so as to follow the line of the dragon's body from head to tail. When it comes to the hoisting of the posts into position, the face must throughout be turned toward the back of the Nagah, a little inclining toward the tail, and the post must be heaved up toward this point of the compass. Thus in the first three months of the year you must face west-south-west, and haul up the beam from the northeast, and so on for the other quarters. It is also necessary to be very careful in the selection of the timber for the house. Trees especially to be avoided are those which have no flowers, those which have no leaves, trees which grow on anthills, trees with birds' nests on them, and those from which the bark has been torn off from whatever cause. Unhappily these distinctions are not obvious in timber which you have not cut yourself, and rascally Chinese carpenters will not hesitate to palm off upon the unwary wood from a tree on which scores of egrets--the Byeing, or sacred paddy-bird of the Talaings--have nested. Chinamen in their way are nearly as unscrupulous as Manchester piece-goods manufacturers, and have as little regard for the comfort and ultimate opinion of their customers. The beams for the house must all be measured with the standard of your own hand. This, however, is a detail which hardly needs to be strongly urged in a country where the three-foot rule is unknown. After you have got the posts up, the surface of the ground must be smoothed down, and then the posts are decorated with little bags of shells, coins, husked rice, and the like. These must be hung up by the hands of a maiden, and not by any rude male. The heads of the posts are also covered over with cloth, for the safe keeping of the guardian spirit of the house. It would be neither seemly nor safe to leave him exposed to the elements. The final ramming in of the posts is done at an hour fixed by the astrologers, the culminating point of some happy constellation. There is much shouting and feasting on the occasion.

With the foundation of his house settled satisfactorily, the sensibilities of the great world-dragon and the guardian spirit of the earth soothed and conciliated, and the house-posts raised and decorated with proper profusion, the house-builder may consider himself past all his troubles. If anything has been done wrong, it is now too late to repair the error. If everything has been carried out in seemly and orderly fashion, he may deem himself particularly fortunate. The putting on of the roof and the fitting up of the plank or split bamboo matting walls is a simple matter, and may be done according to the light of nature and with what dilatoriness and adornments the builder pleases, so long as he does not depart from the mundane laws of use and wont and infringe upon the sumptuary regulations. That is even a greater offense than flouting the great Nakh, or setting up posts in defiance of the angel of the soil. It certainly meets with swifter and more obvious, if not more exemplary, punishment. "There are two chances in the stare of a demon," says the Burmese proverb, "there is none in that of a king." One formality, indeed, remains, which is often omitted, it is true, but which no man of well-ordered mind should fail to observe. It relates to the setting up of the stair, or rather ladder, by which the house is entered, all the dwellings in Indo-China being raised off the ground on piles. If this stair is turned to the south, let a cat be the first living creature to ascend. If you manage this, then you will always have abundance in your house. The difficulty is to make the cat see the matter in the same light. If your steps face the west the question is simpler. All you have to do is to take some iron in your hand along with a few lotus-leaves and a wisp of kaing, or elephant-grass. Everything you attempt will thereafter come easy to you. A cock should crow at the top to inaugurate the stair ascending on the north side of the house. This also is a matter likely to keep you out of your dwelling for a long time if you persist in waiting for it. Stairs never ascend from the east, for the same reason that no Buddhist should sleep with his feet pointing to that quarter. It was from the east that the Lord Buddha came, and it would be scandalous to show to that quarter a disrespect that would entail severe punishment if it were exhibited toward the king or a great man. It will hardly be necessary to mention that there is only one set of stairs and one entrance to the house, if built according to the national model.

It will thus be seen that, though a wooden house or a walled hut does not seem to imply much expenditure of time, labor, or capital in its construction, yet, in reality, what with the perplexing rules to be attended to, the dangers to be avoided, and the spirits to be propitiated, the Eastern house-builder has emphatically a hard time of it, and is not to be envied by Westerns who have no greater grievances than damp walls, defective drainage, perpetual draughts, and chimneys that will not draw.—Saturday Review.