Raiatea: Ground zero for Godzone

By Alan Perrott

It's hard to know what to feel when someone casually mentions there are four warriors buried under your feet. And that they were buried alive.

One part of you is going "Wow, really? Cool." The other part is asking "Ummm, should we be standing here?"

Grisliness aside, walking about Taputapuatea marae is about making connections with home. It's a place that should be known to all New Zealanders, because if the Pacific has a ground zero, this thin slice of flat land is it.

But don't feel bad if the name means little to you - and it didn't to me - it's been all but hidden behind the haze of Frenchness that helps make this region of Polynesia feel doubly exotic.

We're on Raiatea, a small island within a 30-minute flight of Tahiti which shares a lagoon with neighbouring Taha'a. Due to a lack of beaches, Raiatea is mercifully free of the tourist trappings you find at more popular destinations such as Bora Bora, but if you're of a mind you can still get a lovely hut over the lagoon at places like the Hawaiki Nui Hotel.

Not that the locals are fussed about the lack; they get more than their share of another commodity - rain - and as one bloke said to me, "I'd rather have water than sand." Despite being surrounded by the stuff, fresh water is a real worry for Raiatea.

Anyway, according to local tradition, this is the sacred island where the great Polynesian voyagers set off to find and settle places such as ours. To be finicky, the marae isn't the fleet's exact departure point, that's further around the island in the river flowing down from the lush
Fa'aroa Valley, but this is where the king who ordered it was crowned and where he kept an eye over several million square kilometres of ocean.

My guide tells me that the double outriggers were sent our way in June or July in 950AD, give or take, and were commanded by a useful bloke named Kupe, who was the brother-in-law of a local chief.

When word got back that they'd found somewhere quite nice, if a little colder than they'd have liked, the new discovery was given the name Te Aotearoa.

All went swimmingly until one king, locked to the island by custom, put a tapu on any further contact because he was worried all his subjects might follow. This edict remained in place until a Maori delegation travelled to the island in 1990 for a tapu-lifting ceremony.

Oh, and apparently Raiatea isn't the island's original name; that was Hawaiiki, a name the voyagers took with them, as can be seen in place names such as Savai'i and Hawaii ... it was about now that elements of this story began to sound naggingly familiar.

I'm sure I'd have heard about all of this years ago if the missionaries who followed the French ashore here hadn't been so thorough in their work. Simply by knocking the elders' storytelling sessions on the head, as well as the traditional songs and dances, they managed to turn centuries of oral history into a list of meaningless names and muddled yarns. And that was before they helped the French colonial powers nick all the land - well, what land there is on small islands.

It's a hell of a lot of history and exploration to be centred on the remarkable Taputapuatea marae, a marae without any resemblance to those we know in this country.

These meeting places are essentially flattish areas of raised rock which may disappoint anyone expecting carved pillars and sloping roofs, but the rock work is remarkable given the stone-age technology of the times; some have been shaped and smoothed by techniques that were lost somewhere along the line.

As with the people, marae are stratified. At the top you have the international marae, like this one, then national, local, family, social and specialist - essentially guilds where various craftsmen got together to talk shop and hang out.

One of the largest marae here is that used for coronations. This bed of stones is broken only by eight upright boulders, each marking the spot where the eight kings, almost all named Tamatoa, were crowned. The largest boulder near the centre was for the first king and is where the unfortunate warriors still rest. It seems the dark deed was done to boost the top man's mana.

Further marae are set nearby, each serving a different purpose. There are diplomatic zones, schools, entertainment areas and a space where the women and children could keep themselves occupied. The more important sites feature raised stages which were for the exclusive use of the gods, and the king if he could get a leg up - an offer that wasn't difficult to find, because under their law if the king's feet touched the ground that ground became his, so the

king got carried around a lot.

Taputapuatea also features rocks from every island group the kings claimed dominion over. Representatives from these islands arrived through the nearby break in the reef when they wanted to address the king.

They would be met by warriors who cut the ropes on their outriggers to prevent any chance of escape before they were interrogated by the high priests. If they didn't like their answers, or they couldn't convince the priests of their genealogy, a pointed stick was shoved in one ear and out the other and they got hung in a tree.

Human sacrifice remained a common practice until the missionaries pulled the plug, so volunteers were appreciated.

While the marae has been renovated to some degree, the site still carries the air of a recently uncovered Aztec ruin: all forbidding stone, bloody

reputation, and, um, coconut trees. But it's not just a place of archaeological interest; it's beginning to recover some of its role as the home of courtly intrigue.

You see, when the French arrived in Tahiti they were dead set on finding some local political clout to aid their colonialistic ambitions and settled on a local chief named Pomare.

While originally only a regional leader, the French elevated him to overall kingship and he marked the start of a dynasty of variably abled rulers, the last of whom, Pomare V, was such a renowned drinker his tomb is topped by a booze bottle - the polite version is that the vessel represents his baptism.

Either way, his family's remaining power ended the moment he signed over control of his declining landholding, reputedly in part for a larger booze allowance.

This whole affair is now disputed by the independence movement on the grounds that it was never properly ratified or negotiated. That seems oddly familiar as well ... all the same, his descendants are now trying to revive the notion of Taputapuatea marae as the centre of the Polynesian triangle.

It has already hosted groups representing the major island chains for several ceremonial events, even if Raiatea locals believe the Pomares' motivations are more about self-interest than cultural revival. Still, the next meeting is scheduled for 2010.

Alan Perrott visited Taputapuatea as a guest of Tahiti Tourisme and Air Tahiti Nui.

GETTING THERE:

Air Tahiti Nui has regular flights from Auckland to Tahiti; see
www.airtahitinui.co.nz or ring (09) 308 3360.

FURTHER INFORMATION:

To find out about accommodation and activities see Tahiti Tourism's
website at www.tahitinow.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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