Tonga has begun 11 days of celebrations to mark the coronation of monarch King Tupou VI with an ancient kava ceremony and gifts of pigs and yams from the country’s chiefs.
Sitting in a circle wearing traditional ta’ovala mats around their waists, about 150 nobles drank kava from coconut shells in a ceremony dating back centuries.
One of the nobles, an MP and the brother of Queen Nanasipau’u, Lord Vaea, told Pacific Beat that for Tongans, Saturday’s taumafa kava ceremony was the most important event of the coronation.
“We are out there to sit on seats that have been there for hundreds of years,” he said.
“Through them, traditional ties go right back to the land and the sea.”
In the ceremony an ancient Tongan title called Tu’i Kanokupolu, that pre-dates the monarchy by centuries, passes to Tupou VI.
Anthropologist Adrienne L Kaeppler of the Smithsonian Institution said the monarchy traces its ancestry back to the sky god Tangaloa.
“The new king is the 24th Tu’i Kanokupolu, and the taumafa kava confirms his title when he drinks the kava.”
Street parties, black-tie balls, fashion shows and choral recitals will be held over the next week before the king is officially crowned in the capital’s Free Wesleyan Church on July 4.
A large number of dignitaries, including Japan’s Crown Prince Naruhito and an as-yet unnamed member of the British royal family, are also expected to attend.
Tupou VI, a 55-year-old former diplomat, succeeds his brother Tupou V, who died in 2012 after a six-year reign of major reforms that expanded democracy in the nation of about 110,000 people.
Ms Kaeppler said there was still a deep affection for the royals.
“Most of the people are still in awe of the chiefs and the monarchy, but they do have modern ideas influenced by the democratic ways they’ve seen in the US, Australia, New Zealand and so on,” she said.
Lord Vaea said thousands of expatriate Tongans have flown home for the ceremony.
“This is a time when we all come back to the islands from overseas, we work as one people for the coronation,” he said.
“We become realigned with our clans and our different groups.”
Tonga’s monarchy can trace its history back 1,000 years, and by the 13th century the nation wielded power and influence over surrounding islands, including Samoa, nearly 900 kilometres to the east.
Tupou I, who converted to Christianity after coming under the influence of missionaries, was proclaimed king in 1845 after winning control of the monarchy from two other royal lines.
By 1900 the country had become a British protectorate and only acquired its independence in 1970. It remains the only monarchy among Pacific island nations.