Stones

The Washing Of The Stones

by Tolosi Fa & Ray Wick

One of the many mysteries of Tonga are these ancient tombs here in Lapaha the ancient capital. This Langi, or royal burial tomb, is made up of massive coral slabs which were brought here, as legend has it, by canoe some 800 miles from what is now Wallis island. People say it was respect, admiration, and love that motivated Tongans to go to the extreme in building these magnificent monuments.

Tongans no longer build such elaborate tombs to honor their leaders. However, funeral ceremonies in Tonga, especially those involving royalty, contain many elaborate and mysterious rituals which demonstrate a special love and respect given to their leaders. One such tradition is the Lanukilikili, or the Washing of the Stones.

William Mariner, in his account of Tongan traditions noted five rituals surrounding the funeral of a Tongan high chief. Four of them dealt with the physical abuse Tongans inflicted on themselves in a show of deep despair and grief. During the funeral of the great warrior ‘Ulukalala Finau II, Mariner recounted that Tongan men were driven to cut themselves with shells, and to beat themselves over their heads with their war clubs until the blood flowed.

Equally important was the Fifth ritual, the “Lanukilikili”, or the Washing of the Stones, which signified the official end of the painful and sometimes fatal mourning period.

In 1993 the death of Princess Melenaite Tupou Moheofo was the beginning of another painful mourning period for her family and her country. She was loved, admired, and respected. Her loss touched everyone in Tonga.

It was 100 days after she had been laid to rest when Ha’atufunga, the royal undertaker, was again summoned for one final task. The stones had been carefully selected from those from the shores of the volcanic island of Tofua. Each stone is selected by size and shape and it is time for Ha’atufunga to carefully sort them out and to wash them clean of salt water and sand.

(interview: 96 year old former matapule)

There are two ceremonies of the Kilikili. Washing the stones in the water is called the “Lanu Kilikili”. Taking them from the water to another “sene” and mixing them with oil is called the “Hifo Kilikili”.

In the old days Tongans were known throughout Polynesia as the stone cutters. Their work is easy to see in monuments like the Ha’amonga, where painstaking care must have been taken in selecting just the right size and shape of stone to be used for its intended purpose. In a similar but smaller way the tradition is now passed on in process of selecting the stones to be use for the Lanukilikili.

Another element used in the special oil used to wash the stones again. It is made from sweet-scented indigenous plants. The most common used is the “mohokoi” flowers. Another ingredient are leaves from the “siaipasi” tree, which also adds to the fragrance.

All the plants selected are then grounded together.

The main ingredient for Tongan oil is the coconut. It is grated and squeezed to extract only coconut milk. The flowers and leaves are then mixed together with the milk to make a creamy mixture. The mixture is then cooked on an open fire until it becomes clear. The oil is then cooled. The ingredients are then removed leaving just the oil. When it is ready it is then poured into bottles and is ready for use.

The oil used in the Royal Kilikili ceremony is a special blend. It is made of special flowers which is used only for those of royal or noble birth. Each presentation is made in special bottles adding to its worth.

The enormous task requires the participation from the descendants of all three former Kingships of Tonga. The descendants of Tu’i Tonga, Tu’i Ha’atakalaua, and Tu’i Kanokupolu were all represented before his Majesty King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV and Queen Halevalu Mata’aho.

After the ceremonial oil and tapa had been presented to their Majesties, the procession of Kingly lines made its way down the familiar path to Mala’e Kula the site of the Royal Tombs.

Once inside Mala’e Kula, takapu, the King’s matapule or spokesman, takes charge of the ceremony making sure tradition is closely followed. Because the tomb area is considered very sacred a simple mistake can sometimes prove fatal.

(interview with head of traditions)

There was the occasion when they closed the Royal Tomb they found out one of the matapules was still inside the burial chambers. Due to taboo, and due to the recognition that you only open a burial chamber of the royal household for no other purpose but for that purpose alone, the life of the matapule was not considered a worthy option. So for the rest of his life he would contact the outside world by tapping, and that is how they would sit there and they would realize he was still alive until such a time he didn’t tap again.

In Mariner’s time a human chain was used to bring sand and kilikili from the shore to the langi for the funeral ceremony. Because of a strong taboo, simply crossing the path formed by the human chain meant certain death. Today, Tonga’s passion for culture and tradition still exist. However, fortunately, it is not with the same final consequences.

Once everything is in place the washing process begins. The stones are poured into a large bowl called “sene” where the stones and oil are mixed together. After thoroughly stirring the stones, their appearance takes on a shiny black color like that of precious stones or metals. In the past as in the present only those things of the highest value are ever used in paying respect to those of royal or noble decent. In this case, even ordinary stones are made to be more valuable and worthy of those they are intended to honor.

When the stones are then taken out of the “sene” or “hake”, they are put in special Tonga baskets called “‘oa” . The stones are then carried to each tomb basket by basket by the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of the Kingly line.

The stones are arranged on each tomb in careful order. The larger stones go on the bottom and the smaller stones are placed along the top. Since the tomb is made up of mostly sand, one important use of the stones is to simply hold the original shape of the tomb.

Originally, each tomb at Mala’e Kula with the exception of Princess Melenaite’s tomb had the kilikilis or stones already placed on them. For today’s ceremony all the stones have been removed and are now being washed once again. Some of the stones, like those of King Tupou I have been washed in as many as six separate ceremonies.

Because of taboo, there are only two groups of people ever allowed into the Royal Tomb area, those of royal birth, and those belonging to the “Ha’a Ma’u” or the Ma’u clan. The Ha’a Ma’u is responsible for everything done at the Royal Tombs. Since the time of Tu’i Tonga they have been the Royal Tomb caretakers.

In order to show special honor and respect to Princess Melenaite, her family has added to the tradition, shiny black marbles. The look and beauty of the marbles resembles the kilikili. However, the marbles are not to be used to cover the tomb but rather to outline the top. It is again a painstaking process, but the end result makes it worth the effort.

It has now been over three years since Princess Melenaite had passed away and as you can see many of the stones are still here. It stands as a reminder of the love her family and friends have given up in her memory.

One of the last great traditions of Tonga rest here at Mala’e Kula. It is important because as things change in Tonga so does tradition. The Washing of the Stones is one of the oldest traditions in Tonga. It dates back well before the time of Captain Cook. But,, we are in a new era now and things all around us are changing. We need to ask ourselves, if Tonga, the last remaining Polynesian Kingdom were to come to an end, could a tradition like the Lanu Kilikili which is significant to the Royal Family live on?

This documentary won two awards at the 1996 South Pacific Women’s and Directors Awards

  • Best Script
  • Best Editing

Oceania Broadcasting Network, Ltd.

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Nuku’alofa, Kingdom Of Tonga

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