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Chinese New Year, or the Spring Festival, is around the corner, and it also represents the start of a Lunar New Year. Living in a multicultural country, we are no strangers to the customs of one of the biggest celebrations in Chinese culture.

In the spirit of the festival, members of the Chinese Malaysian community will be doing spring cleaning to declutter their house in the last few weeks leading up to Chinese New Year, doing away with the old and welcoming the new.

But did you also know that when it comes to sprucing up homes, Malays historically had their own beliefs regarding how to build a home, known as tajul muluk? Below are six practices, past and present, that they have followed when building their homes:

1. Mama knows best!

Traditionally, the importance of the mother’s role as the homemaker was recognised, with homes built using measurements based on the length of the matriarch’s outstretched hands, known as depa (armspan).

The depa affected many parts of the home. For example, according to belief, if the height of the home’s main pillar (which was known as tiang ibu or mother pillar) in a traditional Malay house was a round figure, the family was thought to be blessed with great abundance.

Hands are still used in construction today, but in a different way.

2. Rice – it’s not just what’s for dinner

Rice is beloved in Malaysia and around the region as a food staple that tastes good with a wide range of side dishes. However, it has more than just nutritional value, as bertih beras, or rice fried in its husk, has traditionally been thrown near the entrance of homes to ward off evil influences.


Sadly, too much rice can lead to complications such as diabetes.

This was also seen in traditional weddings, when bertih beras is sprinkled on prospective brides to achieve the same purpose, during the potong andam ceremony prior to the wedding itself (don’t ask us what potong andam involves).

3. Building in harmony

While less exciting than rice charms and pre-wedding rituals, the layout of the home plays an important role in Malay tradition. Traditionally, it is divided into the main building, comprising the terrace, living room, and the family rooms.

Source: Rumah Tradisional Melayu Semananjung Malaysia, Abdul Halim Nasir, 1985

Even today, such distinctions are important to ensure the home’s spaces are harmonised with the activities the owner conducts within them. For example, the terrace serves as a venue to receive guests, while keeping them from the family areas, where the parents and children sleep.

In older times, the family rooms were separated, either by curtains or doors, with different rooms for girls and boys. Boys were also encouraged to sleep in the front room, or surau.

4. The lay of the land

Similar to feng shui, where land, water and elevation were considered when building a structure, traditional Malay homes also took the surrounding landscape into account. As such, the location of the land was an important consideration.

For example, when constructing a home at the edge of a river, the floor was generally built higher in case of floods, with the space underneath also serving as a place to hold community activities. With higher land, the floor was lower, and the space below could be used for storage.

Today, properties with riverside views command a premium on the market.

5. Bunga halang as a boon

Walking past traditional Malay houses, you may spot some traditional red, white and black cloths hanging on top of house posts to protect the family within. These cloths are called bunga halang and they were used to ward off bad luck.

They also had a symbolic purpose, with different colours representing the owner’s status in society. Three colours were used for villagers, five for the wealthy and seven for royalty.

6. Warding off misfortune

Even today, misfortune or bad luck is thought to be caused by negative forces in the environment. To prevent these misfortunes from happening in the home, images of holy verses are often hung in the living room, where family activities are held. Specific holy verses can also be recited in the home due to the belief that “the devil flees from a house where they are read”.

So, whether you believe in metaphysical practices or not, it’s always good to be aware of these customs when you are moving into a new house, for a fuller appreciation of Malaysian traditions and history.

(By Felicia Soon, 24 Jan 2019)

Related articles:

Choosing Your Right Home – The Feng Shui Way

Different Traditional Rituals for Moving into a New House

6 New Home Superstitions Every Home-Owner Should Know Before Moving In!

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