Tambaran is a spirit, so the haus tambaran is the house where spirits live, inhabiting sacred carvings and tambu (forbidden or sacred) objects. Up to 50m long and 30m high, haus tambarans are often referred to as ‘spirit houses’ or ‘men’s houses’ because only initiated men were traditionally allowed to enter.
Most villages in the Sepik have at least one haus tambaran and they are still very much the centre of local life. Men lounge around on high berths inside the building, carving, talking or sleeping. In each village, people belong to several clans named after animals and birds (pig, crocodile, eagle, rat, dog) and where a man sits inside a haus tambaran depends on which animal clan he belongs to.
Inside a haus tambaran there are usually some garamut drums, carvings depicting deities (usually female), the chair representing the spirit of the village and, more frequently these days, carvings and masks for sale.
Young male initiates remain up to nine months in the upstairs section of the haus tambaran while they prepare for (and often recuperate from) initiation rites. During this period they often cannot look at a woman until they are reborn as men.
The haus tambaran is universally a female symbol: above some entrances there are sometimes female figures with their legs spread, symbolising rebirth, yet everything about them and what goes on inside them is secret men’s business and tambu to women. These days this rule is bent for tourists and both male and female travellers are allowed to enter and look around, usually for around K10.