Indigenous architecture saves lives in Lombok quakes

  • Huge earthquakes have devastated the Indonesian island of Lombok in recent weeks, killing hundreds of people.
  • Many more people lost their homes in the disaster. But where houses made of concrete and brick collapsed or were severely damaged in the quakes, traditional houses made of wood and bamboo remained standing.
  • The Indonesian government has often dismissed indigenous architecture as mark of poverty and “backwardness,” and Lombok is no exception. But now some are calling for a greater emphasis on traditional designs.

BELEQ, Indonesia — “Alhamdulillah, my family is safe,” says a misty-eyed Jumayar, giving thanks to god.

His home, once proud and tall, lies crumpled beside him in a tangle of debris.

Like thousands of others, Jumayar’s house fell early on Aug. 5, as the second of four large earthquakes in the span of three weeks ripped through the Indonesian island of Lombok, clobbering his village of Beleq in the process.

Registering a magnitude 7.0, the Aug. 5 quake was the most powerful of the four. It injured thousands of people, left 350,000 homeless, and killed 460, most of them crushed in the ruins of their homes.

The quartet of earthquakes claimed hundreds of lives and leveled whole villages. Image by Fathul Rakhman/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Although Lombok, which is next to Bali, sits squarely on the quake-prone Ring of Fire, heavy, concrete homebuilding is the norm. These rigid structures became death traps during the earthquakes.

Only the handful of wooden traditional houses in Beleq, with their lightweight, flexible designs, emerged unscathed.

Ancient wisdom

The customary homes in Beleq draw on the centuries-old traditions of the Sasak people, who make up most of the population of Lombok.

Though elements like floor height or wall width may vary in different parts of the island, all traditional Sasak homes employ the same basic design: Thatched bamboo walls enclose dirt floors, connecting them to roofs of woven reeds. A berugak, or gazebo, stands out front, while a lumbung, or rice barn, sits in the back.

The transition away from these designs to concrete homes has left families vulnerable: While wooden homes can sway, or “breathe” when earthquakes strike, concrete houses cannot; they have no flex and topple easily.

In North Lombok, the epicenter of the damage, 70 percent of the houses collapsed or were severely damaged. Rebuilding will require hundreds of millions of dollars, according to government estimates.

In Beleq, families in traditional houses ran outside like everyone else, fearing for their lives. Not a single one of their traditional structures fell, even as the concrete homes around them crumbled.

The traditional homes of Beleq village on the island of Lombok have survived several earthquakes over the years. Image by Fathul Rakhman/Mongabay-Indonesia.

“If the government offers to rebuild here, we will reject the [construction of] concrete homes,” said Sahirman, the Beleq village head. “We want to go back to our ancestral homes.”

Nationwide, indigenous architecture has proven similarly resilient to earthquakes.

In March 2005, a powerful earthquake struck off Nias, an island in the west of the country near Sumatra. While more than 80 percent of public buildings were destroyed, most of the wooden indigenous architecture survived.

AMAN, the country’s largest indigenous rights NGO, noted stories of indigenous resilience elsewhere on Lombok.

In traditional villages scattered in the North Lombok areas of Sembagek, Sukadana Senaru, Bayan, Batu Gembung, Akar-Akar and Kayangan, only the wooden Sasak houses remained standing.

“The ancestors bequeathed to us an architecture that is in harmony with nature,” said Lalu Satriawangsa, chairperson of the provincial AMAN chapter.

“When traditional villages survive three consecutive earthquakes, this is proven,” he added. “The traditional village complex has been tested by time.”

The Indonesian government has typically looked upon the traditional houses as “slum dwellings,” an indicator of poverty. But Lalu says the government should support the construction of traditional houses. Not only are they cheaper, but as the recent disasters proved, they are infinitely safer.

For too long traditional homes have been seen to mark the persistence of poverty rather than the preservation of culture, ignoring their instrumental value, Lalu said.

“Now is the time for us to campaign for [the rebuilding of] homes that are more in tune with nature,” he said.

Local residents rebuild a path that was damaged by the earthquake in Beleq. Image by Fathul Rakhman/Mongabay-Indonesia.


As aftershocks continue to rock the island, a rhythm has returned to Beleq. Men gather daily to repair the concrete path that split during the quake. Women prepare rice and papaya in the communal kitchen. Children read books and race around, kicking up dust.

Now, as rebuilding plans take form, Sahir, the Beteq village head, believes the community should look to the past for inspiration.

“I don’t want to sleep in a concrete house ever again,” he said.

Jumayar agreed. “We should return to [the ways of] our ancestors.’’

*Earthquake dates and strengths: July 29 (6.5), Aug. 5 (7.0), Aug. 9 (6.2) and Aug. 18 (6.3).

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on Aug. 13, 2018.

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