Experience the Spirit of Haus Tambaran

Wherever we go in life, we search for a centre. This could be a landmark or a meeting place to regroup, find our balance and come home to ourselves. For some, it’s the warmth of a kitchen where the family gathers, for others it’s in front of a hearth in which a fire blazes, or it’s at the sacred altar of a church. For the Sepik people of Papua New Guinea, it is the Haus Tambaran that is their village centre. A centre for traditional ancestral worship, meetings, rituals and initiations.

The Haus Tambaran are unique structures which show off the exquisite artistic abilities of the Sepik people. These spirit houses can reach up to 25 metres in height and are usually designed to be long and with an A-frame shape. The apex of the spirit house displays totems of the clans and the front entrance wall is often tall and elaborately decorated. Care is taken when building the house as it is the most important structure of the village. It is built to last up to 60 years so only the best materials are used.

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Within the Haus Tambaran, Ngwalndu line the inside. These are large flat painted faces which are the representations of ancestral spirits. The tribal people believe that the spirits of their ancestors and the forest can be called into the house and used for consultation on important matters. Hanging from the ceilings are suspended racks which hold symbols of traditional beliefs such as ancestral flutes. Mwai masks are also kept here. There is one for each clan and they are decorated with ancestral female faces. They are worn on special occasions and the mask has enough room so that some can play a flute beneath the mask while others dance with it on, hiding their bodies with grass skirts.

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The spirit house is for men only and in some tribes, only for initiated warrior men. Debates often take place here around a central debating figure that has broad shoulders and an intricately carved face. They call this the debating stool. A man who is holding the floor during the debate will use a cluster of leaves to strike the stool from time to time to emphasise his point. The other men will be seated on stools around the fire which smoulders day and night or they will be seated on the benches which line the Haus Tambaran. Once the debate has been settled the agreement is sealed usually with a gift of betel nut and a chicken.

Art is a sacred practice for the Sepik people and it is shown in the beautiful way that these spirit houses are designed and decorated. The people who designed the National Parliament building of Papua New Guinea recognised this and had the front entrance modelled on traditional Haus Tambaran architecture. You can visit the parliament house in Port Moresby.

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A trip to the birthplace of the Haus Tambaran is highly recommended with the Sepik River region stretching all the way from Telefomin in the Sandaun province to the river’s outlet at the Bismark Sea at the Kopar village. Here you can organise guided tours to witness and learn all about these deeply spiritual dwellings that are rich in history, stories and mystery. They are beautiful to witness and a window into ancient times and practices.

Gudmundur (Gummi) Fridriksson, is the CEO of Paga Hill Development Company (PNG) Ltd, overseeing the development of Paga Hill Estate, a world-class, master planned estate located in the heart of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Gudmundur first arrived in Papua New Guinea over 20 years ago and is passionate about sharing PNG’s natural beauty and diverse cultures with the world. Find out more about Gudmundur Fridriksson on his website: http://www.gudmundurfridriksson.com/ and about the Paga Hill Estate development at http://www.pagahillestate.com