Malay houses, or rumah kampung, represent the beauty and wisdom of traditional architecture, of sharing a home with others, and of living in harmony with nature.
In its simplest form, the traditional Malay house is a structure raised on stilts high above the ground, covered with thatched roofs, enclosed with wooden walls, and perforated with windows and lattices. The size, form, and ornamentation of the houses depend on the size, wealth, and status of the family in the community.
Traditionally, these settlements were a cluster of houses set in a compound — incidentally, the word “compound” itself is derived from kampung. These dwellings were often surrounded by the pastoral landscape of rice paddies, fruit orchards, and fishing jetties, which were the sources of livelihood for the community.
"Malay houses, or rumah kampung, represent the beauty and wisdom of traditional architecture, of sharing a home with others, and of living in harmony with nature."
In days long past, Malay settlements were found everywhere across Peninsular Malaysia as well as the east coast of the Sumatran Island in Indonesia. Since these houses exist in the Malay provinces of both Malaysia and Indonesia, much of the varying styles found in both countries are quite similar, and are even influenced by one another.
From the humble fishermen’s wooden huts found on the eastern coast of Terengganu, to the vibrant and eclectic houses of Melaka that combine styles from different cultures, to the magnificent Minangkabau-style communal houses of Negeri Sembilan, each Malay house represents the efforts of a community to carve a style of its own that can embody its culture, customs, and identity, right in the place where the communal life itself revolves around: home.
The Perabung Lima (lit. “five roofs”) style is distinguished by the unique style of the roof, which resembles a five-sided pyramid (the word “Lima” means five in Malay) influenced by Dutch-style home architecture. Malay houses in this style were commonly found in the states of Kelantan, Terengganu, and Perak, and was a favored style by royal families for their palaces. The Istana Kenangan in Kuala Kangsar (above) was built as an official residence for the Perak royal family.
Malay houses are sometimes classified by their roof forms, and the Bumbung Panjang (lit. “long roof”) style is the most common style in Malaysia, characterized by its tall and long ridged-slopes. It is said that all Malay houses were traditionally built in this style, prior to the arrival of the Dutch in the Malay Archipelago. Moreover, the Bumbung Panjang style differed from one Malay state to another, depending on the preference of the carpenter and the needs of the community.
The Kutai style is predominantly found in Malay houses in Perak, specifically near Kuala Kangsar, which was the seat of the royal family. It is also known as the Rumah Perak or Rumah Tua (lit. “old house”), as the word “Kutai” is another word for old in the local Perakian dialect.
The Kutai style incorporates the Bumbung Panjang style, but it is distinguished by the carvings on the door, porch, awnings, windows, and walls, which can be more elaborate than other styles. It is also the style preferred by the Perak royal family and other influential members of the community since the elaborate ornamentations were a luxury that could only be afforded by certain people.
The Tiang Dua Belas (lit. “twelve stilts“) style is a subset of the Bumbung Panjang style. Commonly found in Kelantan, Kedah, and Perak, the style and its near cousin, the Tiang Enam Belas (lit. “sixteen stilts”) style, was the preferred style for rich families and large families, as the Malay houses built in this style were larger than usual. Because it was usually built for rich families, they are also distinguished by elaborate woodcarvings on the doors, porch, awnings, windows, and walls.
Another subset of the Bumbung Panjang style, the Gajah Menyusu (lit. “suckling elephant“) style is named as such because the smaller house attached to the main house is likened to a baby elephant suckling on a mother elephant. Typically built with thatched roofs, this Malay house can be found commonly in Penang.
Also known as the Rumah Serambi Melaka, this style can only be found in Melaka. Due to the historical confluence of cultures and styles in this state, the Rumah Melaka incorporates architectural styles from the Bugis, Jambi, and Minangkabau culture from Sumatra, as well as the native Peranakan style. This is easily distinguished by the stone piers and especially stairs leading up to the house, which is a borrowed influence from the architecture of Chinese temples.
Also known as the Rumah Potong Belanda, this style is predominantly found in Selangor, Terengganu, and Johor, where it is also known as Rumah Muar. Malay houses built in this style incorporate a Dutch-style roof that resembles a pyramid, as well as the use of stone piers instead of wooden stilts. Additionally, the Limas roof design is the preferred style for government and public buildings in Malaysia, notably the Muzium Negara in Kuala Lumpur.
A subset of the Rumah Limas style, the Rumah Jawa incorporates the Dutch-style pyramid roof, as well wide and covered open spaces in the front yard. This style along with the common Rumah Limas can be commonly found in the countrysides of Selangor, particularly in Kampung Sungai Janggut.
Apart from roof forms, Malay houses are also classified based on the type of wood used for building. The Rumah Bujang (lit. “single house“) is another subset of the Bumbung Panjang style and is predominantly found in Terengganu along the coast and fishing jetties. It is most commonly built with kayu cengal, or timber wood native to Malaysia, due to its strength and ability to withstand strong monsoon winds that typically affect the eastern coast.
The Rumah Bujang is smaller compared to other Malay houses and is most similar to the Rumah Tele, another subset of the Bumbung Panjang style found in Terengganu.
The Rumah Gadang or Rumah Minangkabau is the style created by the Minangkabau people, who are an ethnic group indigenous to Sumatra. They are famously known for being the largest matrilineal society in the world, which led to a widespread diaspora of Minangkabau men all across the Malay provinces in Southeast Asia. The style is most easily distinguished by the roof form, which is multi-tiered and has dramatic, upward curves.
Though more commonly found in Indonesia than Malaysia, the Rumah Gadang is important as it is a forerunner style to the Rumah Negeri Sembilan, the preferred style of the Minangkabau people who have made Negeri Sembilan their home since their diaspora from their native homeland.
Out of all the Malay houses found in Malaysia, the Rumah Negeri Sembilan is unique in that it differs comparably from the other Bumbung Panjang style houses. Notably, the curved roof form bears a strong resemblance to the Rumah Minangkabau. This is because most Malays from Negeri Sembilan are Minangkabau Malays, descended from their Minangkabau ancestors who migrated from Sumatra to the Malay Peninsula. The house is distinguished by elegant and elaborate woodcarvings on the doors, windows, and lattices that express the Minangkabau culture.