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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day

The Rite of the Kawanga-Whare: Maori House-Opening Ceremonies

The Rite of the Kawanga-Whare: Maori House-Opening Ceremonies.

A special tapu attaches to the timbers of a newlycarved house, because the trees which have been felled to build the whare are the sacred children of Tane-mahuta, the God of the Forest, and because they have been carved into the semblance of revered ancestors and into representations of national and tribal deities. The tapu must be laid, its dangerous powers averted, before the house can be occupied safely. This priestly ceremony of quelling the mystic influences of danger is termed whai-kawa, or kawanga-whare, also taingakawa o te whare. The hau tama-tane and the hau wahine, the male and female principles, co-operate in the removal of the tapu.

A peculiar sanctity surrounds all the operations of constructing an important carved house, from the felling of the tree to the day that the last worked slab is placed in position. The carvers of to-day are very careful not to infringe any of the unwritten page 130 laws of the art and of tapu. Neither they nor any of the people would ever think of using the chips and shavings from the carvings for a fire for cooking food; neither will a workman blow the shavings off while he is engaged with chisel and mallet and axe. The breath is pollution; he turns the timber on its side and shakes the shavings off, or brushes them away. I have witnessed ceremonies of kawa-whare in the Arawa country conducted in strict accordance with ancient practice, with the full ritual which is believed to free the house from tapu and render it fit for habitation. The karakia or service of prayer and charm used on these occasions were dictated to me privately by the priests, after the meetings, and it is interesting to compare the several rituals. I have also collected notes of kawa-whare ceremonials and karakia in the Taupodistrict, and chants formerly used in the South Island. A ceremony of this kind which I shall describe is worth placing on record because it preserves the ancient Maori-Polynesian ritual unspoiled by pakeha influences.

I witnessed the ceremony here described in 1908 in the Tuhourangi village at Whakarewarewa. It was the taingakawa of the carved meeting-house “Wahiao”, built by Mita Taupopoki and his kinsfolk, a house richly adorned with whakairo designs without and within. Taua Tutanekai Haerehuka was the tohunga who recited the ancient rhythmic form formulae for the purpose of freeing the new house from the tapu of Tane's woods that clung to it.

In the carved bargeboards on the front of the house were placed the chisels, the bone and wooden mallets and the axes and adzes used by the carvers in their work. These tools were sacred for the time being, and special karakia were pronounced over them. With a taiaha weapon in his hand, a page 131 kiwi-feather cloak about him, Tutanekai advanced to the right front of the house and stood there by the side of the spiral-carved maihi or gable bargeboard. In a quick level voice he recited his charms to propitiate the spirit of the sacred forest of Tane-Mahuta. This was his opening karakia:

Ko te tuanga o te rakau ki raro:
Kakariki powhaitere
I te Wao-nui-a-Tane,
I te urunga tapu
Kua ara, kua ara
A Tane ki runga;
Kua kotia nga putake
O te rakau o te whare nei;
Kua waiho atu
I te urunga tapu;
Kua kotia nga kauru
O te rakau o te whare nei;
Kua waiho atu
I te Wao-nui-a-Tane.
Kua tae au
Ki nga pukenga,
Ki nga wananga,
Ki nga tauira.
Patua kuru,
Patua whao,
Patua te toki a Tai-haruru.
Kua piki hoki nei
Ki te maro-hukahuka-nui
A Tangaroa,
Te ngaru ai e whati ai
E Nuku-tai-maroro.
Kaore ko au
E kimi ana, e hahau ana
I nga uri o te whanau a Rata
Hai pokapoka ia Tane
E tu-i-i.
Kaore i kitea,
Kua mate noa atu
I te awa i Pikopiko-i-Whiti.
Ma te maranga mai ai
Ko hiki-nuku e!
Ta taua rangi!

The translation of this invocation is as follows:

“For the felling of the Tree:

“King of the forest-birds, chief of the parakeets that guard Tane's mighty woods, Tane's sacred resting place (listen to my prayer)! Tane (the Tree) stood erect, stood erect, amidst the page 132 forest shades; but now he's fallen. The trunk of Tane has been severed from the butt; the stump of the tree felled to build this house stands yonder in the sacred resting place. The branehy tree-top, the leafy head, has been cut off; it lies yonder in the Vast-Forest-of-Tane. I have performed my ceremonies of propitiation; I have appealed to the spirits of our priestly ancestors, and to the sacred ones. I have struck these timbers with mallet and chisel; I have struck them with the axe of the Sounding-Seas. I have mounted upon the great foaming girdle of the sea-god Tangaroa, the waves beaten down and divided by the canoe Nuku-tai-maroro. I am seeking, searching for the descendants of the children of Rata, to carve these timbers for me. I found them not; they were slain at the river Pikopiko-i-Whiti. O ancient ones, return and aid me on this our sacred day.”

The kakariki powhaitere invoked in the first lines is the bird which is said to lead the flocks of parakeets in the forests; it is in Maori mythology the guardian of the sacred woods of Tane-mahuta. The leader of the parakeets is an ariki, “a priest and king” of the birds. The karakia appeals to the bird for its help and sanction; the ancient belief was that if the forest-creatures were not appeased by supplication and pious rites when a great tree such as a totara was felled by axe and fire, the birds and the fairies would set it up again during the night. Rata, mentioned in the chant, was a Polynesian chief and canoe-voyager who lived centuries ago in one of the islands of Polynesia, probably Upolu, in the Samoa Group; the lines alluding to Rata and his children memorise the fact that he and his people were carvers and canoe-builders.

The second karakia in the ceremony was for the removal of the enchantment of the carvers' sacred implements, and of the tapu attaching to the carving of the trees into the semblance of gods and of sacred ancestors. It began:-

Takina te kawa o te whare e tu nei, he kawa tuatahi”—“Rehearse the sacred ritual of the house standing here, the first tapu-avertig spell,” and so on to the tenth kawa or charm for the lifting of the tapu. Then the chant proceeded:—“This is the page 133 prayer of Maru-te-whare-aitu, of Maru-whakawhi-whia” [deified ancestors of the Arawa tribe], “the prayer of the house Hau-te-Ananui” [a great whare-maire, or sacred house of instruction for the priests, which stood in ancient times in Arorangi Pa on the eastern slopes of Mokoia Island]; and ended with these words, always used at the end of invocations of this kind:

Whano, whano,
Haramai te toki,
Haumi e!
(“Bring hither the axe, 'Tis finished!”)

The last two lines were repeated by the assembled people in a chorused shout. As Tutanekai recited the Kawa he struck with his taiaha the various carved slabs and posts on the front of the house.

The third and final kawa was the “Ruruku o te whare,”an appeal to the gods to make the house stable and firm, to avert all accidents and ills, and make it a warm and pleasant dwelling-place. It began:—

Rukutia nga pou tauhu
O te whare nei;
Rukutia nga poupou
O te whare nei;
Rukutia nga tukutuku
O te whare nei;

and so on invoking the gods to bind firmly and make strong and fast the various parts of the house, so that all its posts and pillars, its rafters and beams and carved slabs, its thatch and roof might stand firm and never be overturned.

Then the chant proceeded in a passage of much beauty, a true house-warming prayer:

Rukutia, rukutia,
Kia u, kia mau,
Kai tae mai
A te Anu-matao

page 134

Ki roto i a koe—e!
Kai ninihi atu ai
A Ua-whatu, a Ua-nganga,
Kai whakamai hoki
A Hau-nui, a Hau-roa,
A Tawhiri-matea.
Taku hiki i pai ai
Mo roto ia Tane
E tu nei-i,
Ko Mahana,
Ko Pu-mahana
Ko Werawera
Ko Kohakoha,
Nga tangata mo roto
I a Tane e tu nei!
Whano, whano,
Haramai te toki,
Eaumi e!
Ui e!
Taiki e!

Here the house is considered as Tane the Tree god personified. This is my translation of the invocation:

“Bind, bind together that all may be firm and steadfast, so that into thee, O Tane, may enter not the cold and stormy elements, the Frost-wind, the Great Rain, the Long Rain, the Cold Sleety Rain, the Hailstones; that thou mayst stand against the assault of the Mighty Wind, the Long-prevailing Wind, the tempests of the wind god Tawhiri-matea! May all be warm and safe within thy walls! These shall dwell therein—Warmth, Heaped-up Warmth, and Glowing Heat, Joy and Gladness, these are the people who shall dwell within Tane standing here before me! Now 'tis done! Bring hither the axe, and bind it on. Our work is o'er!”

And as Tutanekai ended, all the people cried:—


The final act in the ceremony was the takahipaepae, treading the threshold. In accordance with immemorial custom this was done by a woman, on of ariki rank, a Ruahine, being chosen for the crossing of the door-sill, so that the house might henceforth be free to women to enter. This woman was Meré Kanea, daughter of Mita Taupopoki, and cousin of Hune, the chief carver. Tutanekai, the tohunga, accompanied her, and gave her the custom page 135 ary-sacred food, a kumara which had been cooked in a tapu oven, the “fire of Ngatoro-i-rangi,” one of the boiling springs. This was finally to remove the tapu from the interior of the building, so that food might be brought into it, and that people might eat and sleep there without fear.

Another kawanga-whare which I witnessed was that of the beautiful carved house “Rauru,” at Whakarewarewa, in 1900. It was remarkable because of its curious story of a fatal tapu which attached to some of the carvings, and because the two tohungas who performed the karakia both died soon after the ceremony, old Rangitahau of Taupo, in eight days, and, Tumutara Pio, of Te Teko, a little later. There was mutual jealousy, and the people say they fatally bewitched each other.

Pare or Korupe, above the door in a carved house. At its left end is the figure known as Manaia. This lintel carving, which was found in Taranaki, is of a primitive or archaic type not often seen in Maori art relics.

Pare or Korupe, above the door in a carved house. At its left end is the figure known as Manaia. This lintel carving, which was found in Taranaki, is of a primitive or archaic type not often seen in Maori art relics.