Home Truths

The unique architecture of the Bodo homestead is inspired by the traditional beliefs and values that animate the Bodo way of life
The kitchen is the mainstay of the household. Photo Credit  Surajit Sharma
The kitchen is the mainstay of the household. Photo Credit Surajit Sharma

Surrounded by trees and bamboo fences, traditional Bodo houses are a unique mix of artistic skill, functionality and traditional beliefs. A visit to a Bodo homestead provides interesting insights not just about the daily routine but also the rich tapestry of beliefs attached to their homes, a sacred place animated by the spirit of Bathou, the religion of the Bodos. 

A typical Bodo homestead, generally single-storied, is built around a central courtyard called &lsquocisla&rsquo. On the northern side stands the &lsquonomano&rsquo or the principal house. This is the main residential house that is divided into three parts &ndash the &lsquoiching&rsquo or kitchen, the &lsquookhong&rsquo or dining hall and the &lsquokhophra&rsquo or master bedroom. The most important portion of the house is the iching as it is used for cooking and worship. The altar of Bathou Borai, the chief god of the Bodos, and Mainao Buroi, the daughter of Bathou Borai, is placed on a raised earthen plinth to the north of the hearth in the iching. Before every meal, it is customary to offer prepared food to the deities. Rice is kept near the altar in a pitcher called mai hando inside which two round stones, symbolizing God Mahadev and Goddess Mainao, are kept. The close and auspicious relationship between food and devotion is evident in the Bodo household. There are many traditions and taboos around this part of the house which is separated by means of a door from the middle room or &lsquookhong&rsquo that is used as the dining space and the western room or &lsquokhopra&rsquo that serves as the bedroom. 

The Bodos value privacy and seclusion and this is evident in the way they build their homes. While the &lsquonomano&rsquo is only for use by members of the family, guests and unmarried boys are accommodated in a separate house called &rsquochhwrano&rsquo or guest house facing or near the entrance to the house. The &lsquochhwrano&rsquo is built in such a way that it works as a barrier or screen that secludes the inner portion of the homestead. 

Every evening the Bodo family worships the deities by lighting the &lsquojewari&rsquo or earthen lamp. Any Bodo home can be recognised by the presence of the domestic altar or (Bathou-Thansali) of the Bathau Borai in a corner of the courtyard. At the centre of the altar stands the Sijou plant, representing the Supreme Being of the Bodos. The sijou tree is often accompanied by the &lsquojatrasi&rsquo and tulsi plant on either side. These plants represent the other deities of the Bathou pantheon.   

Apart from these residential units, Bodo homesteads possess a barn (&lsquobakhri&rsquo) for storing grain and a cowshed (&lsquogoli&rsquo). The barn, constructed on a platform, is the first structure to be built. Its importance in the agricultural society is unmissable. Constructed on top of a platform to protect the paddies from flood and damp, the barn is made of bamboo or timber. The &lsquogoli&rsquo or cowshed is open on all sides to let light come in, and keep the shed clean and dry. It is constructed with wooden or bamboo pillars. One can find references to the &lsquobakhri&rsquo and &lsquogoli&rsquo in many Bodo folk songs where brides-to-be hope to be married in a home where the granary and cowshed are easily visible, and where crows cannot enter easily. 

There are many beliefs, rituals and traditions attached to the Bodo homestead. The &lsquonomano&rsquo is sacrosanct. There is only one door to the house, usually on the south side. There are rules to who can and cannot enter. Usually outsiders are not entertained in the &lsquonomano&rsquo. Even family members who have returned after a long sojourn must wash and clean themselves before stepping into this innermost sanctum of the house. If a cow enters the nomano, it is regarded as a sign of death of a clan member. However, if a vulture sits on the roof of the nomano, it is considered an auspicious sign. Similar beliefs are prevalent around the &lsquocisla&rsquo or courtyard as well. It is believed that the longevity of the male members decreases if they walk on an unswept courtyard. For this reason, it is a common practice for Bodo women to sweep the courtyard first thing in the morning. 

The different houses of a typical Bodo homestead are oriented and constructed as per traditional prescription &ndash while the &lsquonomano&rsquo or main house along with the kitchen is constructed to the north of the courtyard, the barn is ideally constructed to the eastern side of the courtyard. The other units are placed in the rest of the directions. 

While traditional Bodo houses are made of bamboo, cane, thatch and mud, nowadays, more modern roofing materials are used. However, the traditional beliefs of Bathou continue to inspire and define the ways in which the Bodos live at home and in relation to nature. 

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