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Pacific issues reporter Angela Gregory details the life of Tonga's King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV

King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV was a colourful, imposing and far-sighted monarch who retained the love and loyalty of thousands of Tongans despite his at times controversial and flamboyant reign.

Such was his stature King Tupou -195cm tall in sandals - was once recorded as the world's heaviest monarch allegedly topping the scales at just over 200kg.

He had previously been a keen sportsman, enjoying surfing and diving and in his youth was an accomplished athelete, a pole-valuting champion.

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But years of indulgent high-living led to heart problems in 1976 when he took the advice of the royal physician and over the next decade resumed healthier eating and exercise to shed over 30kg.

King Tupou would later urge his people to follow suit, endorsing a national slimming contest in the mid-1990's.

King Tupou died in Auckland last night aged 88.

With his ongoing health problems, and the average life expectancy of Tongan men at just 66 years, rumours of his death had often erupted like tiny volcanic outcrops in the island group.

In June 2005 flurries of phone calls, emails and text messages were fired back and forth between Auckland and Tonga with insistent rumours "the king is dead" until a palace spokesman confirmed he was in fact alive and "very healthy".

In June 2006 the New Zealand Government was asked to get a plane ready to take the King back to Tonga, allegedly amid fears he was about to die and wanted to end his days there.

Even back in 1988 there was a highly publicised death scare after a news report he had been in a serious road accident in Australia, although he was in New Zealand at the time.

The intense interest in part reflects King Tupou's lengthy rule since 1965 after the death of his revered mother, the long-serving and statuesque Queen Salote.

And with huge public pressure for more democratic methods in the Kingdom of Tonga, comes speculation as to how the monarchy and its near-absolutist rule will survive under heir Crown Prince Tupouto'a who has professed to support change.

King Tupou had just turned 49 on the day of his 1967 coronation, 18 months after Queen Salote's death and the country's lengthy mourning.

There were two coronation ceremonies, the first an exercise in extravagant European pageantry and the second the traditional but grand Tongan induction of taumafakava.

In the first King Tupou wore reportedly the world's heaviest crown, and ermine and red robes made in London, the occasion attended by the Duke and Duchess of Kent.

It was only the fourth coronation since the kingdom was united under his great-great-grandfather George Tupou I in 1845 to bring an end to vicious tribal warfare.

In the lavish celebrations, which lasted a week, huge feasts were prepared, turtles were fattened for soup, and the capital Nuku'alofa on Tongatapu was decked out in red and white, the colours of Tonga's national flag.

Until then Tupou had been the Tongan premier for 16 years.

He began his political career as the education minister in the 1940s.

A graduate of arts and law from Sydney University, he was the first Tongan to gain a degree and retained a strong belief in education like his mother and grandfather who were instrumental in making Tongans among the most literate people in the region.

King Tupou would argue an advantage of the monarch's right to appoint one-third of the legislature was to ensure better educated Tongans got into Government.

He was an advocate of technical education, even said to prefer reading technical manuals than fiction, and pushed for the use of English as a second language.

His kingship arrived at a time the country, with a subsistence economy, was faced with a rapidly increasing population.

In January 1966 he was described by a Herald writer as as a monarch in a hurry, with tremendous energy and enthusiasm for new projects.

King Tupou had ambitious plans for his kingdom with a steely if at times somewhat distorted determination to pursue its modernisation and economic diversity, to pull it up by its bootstraps and not a little overseas aid.

He also recognised the value of Tongans spending time overseas working to send money home and in 1968 appealed to the New Zealand Government to allow Tongans to work there.

Many were allowed in but over time many also overstayed, with more Tongans now living overseas than in Tonga.

In 1969 King Tupou demonstrated the outdated conservatism of his rule when he made headlines for annulling the marriage of a Tongan princess, his niece and daughter of the then Tongan Prime Minister, because she wed a commoner and without his consent.

The stuffy move would be echoed about a decade later when he refused to recognise the marriage of his own second-born son to a part-Tongan woman considered too lowly.

In 1970 King Tupou oversaw Tonga's full independence from Britain and the country began joining various international organisations.

Disgruntlement was meanwhile brewing over land allocation, allegations of corrupt practices, and an inefficient government administration.

An emerging class of educated Tongans was beginning to openly challenge and critique the ruling systems, while King Tupou's ambitions became increasingly unrealistic.

In the early 1980s he was "thinking big" with licenses issued to search for seabed minerals, following unsuccessful drilling for oil in the seventies where traces were found but no reservoirs.

Other proposals included importing tyres to burn to generate power, building a nuclear plant, a fish sausage factory, allowing a toxic waste dump, turning sea water into fuel and establishing a timber industry.

There came the sale-of-passports scandal with its missing millions, and growing controversy over the public-versus-private interests surrounding the King's children's business affairs including in satellite communications, an airline and a power company.

His taste for the grandiose and a fleet of vehicles including stretched limousines and Mercedes became subjects of ridicule against the backdrop of an impoverished country.

The Government, whose Prime Minister until February 2006 was the King's youngest son 'Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, came under fire over its unpopular media bans and controls with resulting court cases going against it.

Many have been disappointed with the King's failure to discipline his hand-picked ministers and the once deeply ingrained loyalty to the monarchy as an institution has frayed.

Challenges to the status quo continued to strengthen, culminating in last year's election in which the King stunned the country by announcing four of those elected, two nobles and two commoners, would be invited to join the cabinet.

A leading pro-democracy leader, Dr Fred Sevele, was appointed Prime Minister in March 2006 after the prince's resignation.

The tentative nod towards a more democratic approach did not however stop around 4000 Tongans from marching in Nuku'alofa in May 2005 in protest at rising electricity costs charged by a company part owned by the Crown Prince.

The country's public servants then went on an unprecedented nearly seven week strike in action that became a movement for Government reform and won promises of a review from the monarchy.

New Zealand historian and Tongan expert, Dr Ian Campbell, notes in his book "Island Kingdom" an irony that the policies of the revolutionary King Tupou who had brought much to his country had also led to a challenge to the political status quo in the later years of his reign.

Optimistically King Tupou had in an audience from his 2m throne, gifted from the British, talked of his honour as the latest in a kindly and caring royal line.

"My people love me, and I care for them. It is as simple as that."