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The Fijians: A Study of the Decay of Custom

The Mbaki, or Nanga Rites

The Mbaki, or Nanga Rites

We have now to consider a cult which is remarkable in more than one respect—in its contrast to the religious system of the Fijians, its resemblance to certain Australian and Melanesian rites, and in the side lights which it seems to throw upon page 147the origin of ancient monuments in Europe.1 Fijian mythology is essentially tribal; the Mbaki took no cognizance of tribal divisions. It was rather a secret religious society bound together by the common link of initiation. The rite of initiation is a curious echo of the Engwura ceremony of the Arunta tribe in Central Australia as described by Messrs. Spencer and Gillen. The Nanga, the open-air temple in which the Mbaki was celebrated, has more than a slight resemblance to the alignments at Carnac in Brittany and Merivale on Dartmoor.

The Nanga was the "bed" of the Ancestors, that is, the spot where their descendants might hold communion with them; the Mbaki were the rites celebrated in the Nanga, whether of initiating the youths, or of presenting the first-fruits, or of recovering the sick, or of winning charms against wounds in battle. The cult was Confined to a comparatively small area, a bare third of the island of Vitilevu. Outside this area it was unknown, and even among the tribe that built and used the Nanga there were many who knew nothing of the cult beyond the fact that a certain spot near their village might not be visited without exciting the displeasure of the gods, although members of tribes that worshipped other gods, and were frequently at war with them, resorted to the Nanga, which they were not permitted to approach. Even when the two tribes were at war those of the enemy that were initiated were safe in attending the rites, provided that they could make their way to the Nanga unobserved.

The Nangas are now in ruin. There is a large and very perfect one at Narokorokoyawa, several in Navosa (Western Tholo), and three on the south coast between Serua and the Singatoka river. On the western coast there are said to be two, one in Vitongo and the other in Momi. I have visited several whose structure was so identical that one description will serve for all. The Nanga is a rough parallelogram formed of flat stones embedded endwise in the earth, about 100 feet long

1 The alignments at Carnac in Brittany and Merivale on Dartmoor are suggestive of the rites of the Mbaki

page 148by 50 feet broad, and lying east and west, though the orientation is not exact. The upright stones forming the walls are from 18 inches to 3 feet in height, but as they do not always touch they may be described as "alignments" rather than walls. At the east end are two pyramidal heaps of stones with square sloping sides and flat tops, 5 feet high and 4 feet by 6 feet on the top. The narrow passage between them is the main entrance to the enclosure. Two similar pyramids placed about the middle of the enclosure divide it roughly into two equal parts, with a narrow passage connecting the two. The western portion is the Nanga-tambu-tambu (or Holy of Holies); the eastern the Loma ni Nanga (or Middle Nanga). In the Nangas on the south coast the two truncated pyramids near the entrance are wanting. At the middle of the west end there is another entrance, and there are gaps in the alignments every six or eight feet to permit people to leave the enclosure informally during the celebration of the rites. Beyond the west end of the Nanga near Vunaniu the ground rose, and on the slope were two old graves upon which were found the decayed remains of two "Tower" muskets. It is possible that chiefs were buried near the "Holy of Holies" of all the Nangas in order that their Shades, who haunted the graves, when summoned to the Nanga by their living descendants, should not have far to come.
Attention was first called to the Mbaki cult by the Rev. Lorimer Fison, of the Wesleyan Mission, who, though he did not visit any Nanga, wrote an account of the rites in the charming style that marks all his writings.1 He overcame the natives' reluctance to reveal these dread secrets by a ruse. While he was describing the Australian Bora rites to one of the Vunilolo Matua of the Nanga a woman passed, and, lowering his voice, he whispered, "Hush! the women must not hear these things!" Covering his mouth with his hand the old native exclaimed, "Truly, sir, you are a Lewe ni Nanga. I will tell you all about it." Mr. Adolph Joske was probably the first European to see and describe the great Nanga at Nerokorokoyawa, and he has added much to our

1 Journal Anthrop. Instit., Vol. xiv, p. 29.

page 149knowledge of the rites1. The two accounts vary in detail, perhaps because Mr. Fison drew some of his information from Nemani Ndreu, the Raisevu, who seems to have supplemented his ignorance of the Mbaki with excerpts from his own Kalou-rere cult, and from the rich stores of his imagination.

The tribes that used the Nanga were the Nuyamalo, Nuyaloa, Vatusila, Mbatiwai and Mdavutukia. All these tribes have spread east and south from a place of origin in the western mountain district. They are of Melanesian type, and have fewer traces of Polynesian admixture than the coast tribes. The Mbaki, while its Nanga-temple bears a superficial likeness to the Polynesian Marae, has a very strong resemblance to Melanesian institutions; its dissonance with the Fijian religious system at once suggests that there must be some tradition of its introduction from over-sea. For this we have not far to look, for the tradition is green in the memory of every initiate.

"Long ago two little old men, called Veisina and Rukuruku, drifted across the Great Ocean from the westward, and passing through the Yasawa Islands, they beached their canoe upon the little island of Yakuilau, which lies by the coast of Nandi. Veisina, who landed first, fell into a deep sleep, and slept till the coming of Rukuruku. From the spot where Veisina lay sprang thanga (turmeric), and from Rukuruku's footsteps sprang the lauthi (candle-nut—Aleurites triloba), and therefore the followers of Veisina smear themselves with turmeric, and the followers of Rukuruku with the black ash of the candlenut, when they go to the Nanga.

"The two old men took counsel, saying, 'Let us go to the chief of Vitongo and ask him to divide his men between us that we may teach them the Mbaki.' And when they made their request the chief granted it, and gave them a piece of flat land on which to build their Nanga. There they built it and called the place Tumba-levu. The descendants of men to whom these two little black-skinned old men taught the mysteries of the Nanga are they which practise it to this day. When they left their home and travelled eastward they carried

1 Internationales Archiv. für Ethnographic, Bd. II, 1889.

page 150the mysteries with them. The Veisina do not know what the Rukuruku do in the Nanga, nor do the Rukuruku know the mysteries of the Veisina."

Here we have the earliest tradition of missionary enterprise in the Pacific. I do not doubt that the two sooty-skinned little men were castaways driven eastward by one of those strong westerly gales that have been known to last for three weeks at a time. By Fijian custom the lives of all castaways were forfeit, but the pretence to supernatural powers would have saved men full of the religious rites of their Melanesian home, and would have assured them a hearing. The Wainimala tribes can name six generations since they settled in their present home, and therefore the introduction of the Nanga cannot have been less than two centuries ago. During that time it has overspread one-third of the large island.

The following account of the rites is gathered from inquiries that I have made of old men who accompanied me to the Ndavotukia Nangas, supplemented by the full accounts written by Messrs. Fison and Joske. The Veisina and Rukuruku sects used the same Nanga, but were absolutely forbidden to reveal their mysteries to one another on pain of madness or death. In Wainimala they seem to have held their respective festivals in alternate years. But a few of the youths of each sect were initiated in the mysteries of both, in token, perhaps, of the common origin of their institutions. Mr. Joske says that no Nanga was used twice for an initiation ceremony, but I found no support for this statement among the Ndavotukia, whose Nanga was said, and certainly appeared, to have been used for generations.

Each "Lodge" comprised three degrees: (1) The Vere Matua, all old men who acted as priests of the order; (2) the Vunilolo, the grown men; and the Vilavou (lit., "New Year's men"), the youths who were novices. The great annual festival was the initiation of these youths, who were thus admitted to man's estate, and brought into communion with the ancestral spirits who controlled the destinies of their descendants. The word Vila is the inland synonym for Mbaki, which, with the distributive affix ya (ya-mbaki) is page 151the coast word for "year." The Vilavou, or New year ceremony of initiation, was an annual festival, held in October-November, when the ndrala-tree (Erythrina) was in flower. The flowering of the ndrala marked the season for yam-planting; the same seasons were observed by the Hawaiians and Tahitians as the New Year. The rites of the Veisina differed slightly from those of the Rukuruku, but as they were more tame and formal I will give precedence to the Rukuruku.

Preparation for the Vilavou began months before the appointed time by putting all kinds of food and property under a tabu. On the occasion of the last ceremony a number of pigs had been dedicated by cutting off their tails and turning them loose in the vicinity of the Nanga, Masi was beaten, clubs and spears were carved, paint was prepared for the bodies of the worshippers, and a vast quantity of yams was planted. As the Vere of Ndavotukia expressed it, "If any man concealed any of his property, designing not to give it, he was smitten with madness." The same fate awaited any that killed one of the tailless pigs, or dared to dig up any plant that grew near the Nanga. Invitations were sent to the members of other Nangas, who were called the Ndre, and they brought lavish contributions of property.

On the day appointed the Vere and the Vunilolo went first to the Nanga to present the feast and make other preparations, while in the village novices were having their heads shaved with a shark's tooth, and being swathed in coils of masi. A procession was then formed. An old Vere went first, carrying a carved staff with a socket bored in its upper end. Blowing upon this as on a flute, he sounded a shrill whistle, and the boys followed in single file, carefully treading in his footsteps. As they approached the Nanga they heard the weird chant of the Vunilolo, which was supposed to imitate the sound of the surf breaking on a distant reef. The boys flung down their weapons outside the sacred enclosure, and with the help of the Vunilolo divested themselves of the huge swathing of masi, each lad revolving slowly on his axis while another gathered in the slack, like unwinding a reel of cotton. page 152It being now evening, the property was stored in a temporary shelter, and the ceremony for the day was over. The ovens were opened, and all feasted together far into the night. For four successive days this ritual was repeated, until the store-house was full to bursting. Thus were the novices made acceptable to the ancestral spirits.

On the fifth day an immense feast was prepared, and the boys were so weighted with the cloth wound about their bodies that they could scarcely walk. They followed the Vere piping on his staff as before, but as they approached the Nanga they listened in vain for the welcoming chant. The enclosure seemed silent and deserted, but from the woods broke forth shrill parrot calls, and a weird booming sound, which they presently came to know as the note of a bamboo trumpet immersed in water. The old Vere led them slowly forward to the eastern gate of the Nanga, and bade them kneel and crawl after him on all fours. Here a dreadful sight appalled them. Right across the entrance lay the naked body of a dead man, smeared with black paint from head to foot, with his entrails protruding. Above him, stretched stiff, with his head upon one pyramid and his feet on the other, lay another body, and under this hideous arch, over this revolting threshold they were made to crawl. Within the enclosure their hearts turned to water, for the dead men lay in rows, smeared with blood and entrails, and over every body they had to crawl. At the further end sat the chief Vere, regarding them with a stony glare, and before him they were made to halt in line. Suddenly he burst out with a great yell; the dead men started up, and ran to wash off the blood and filth in the river hard by. They are the Vere and a few of the Vunilolo, playing the part of the dead Ancestors with the aid of the blood and entrails of the pigs now baking in the ovens.

The ancient priest now relaxes the ferocity of his mien, and displays an activity remarkable for a person of his years. Capering up and down, he chants in shrill tones: "Why is my enclosure empty? Whither have its inmates gone? Have they fled to Tumbalevu (the deep sea)? Have they fled to Tongalevu? "Presently he was answered by a deep-toned page 153chant, and the Vunilolo, washed, oiled and garlanded, return with rhythmic step, each carrying a club and a root of kava. When all are seated in the Nanga four of the Vere come in, the first carrying a piece of roast yam, the second a piece of pork, the third a shell of kava, and the fourth a napkin of native cloth. The first three put their offering, which is carefully wrapped against contact with the fingers, to the mouths of each of the Vilavou in turn, who nibble the food, sip the kava, and allow the napkin-bearer to wipe his mouth. Then one of the old Vere admonishes them solemnly against revealing any of the mysteries to the uninitiated, or infringing any of the tabus of the Nanga, or being niggardly in contributing their property, for the penalty attached to all these grievous sins is insanity and death.

The Vunilolo now brought in food, and towards evening the Mundu, a great pig dedicated years before and allowed to run wild in the sacred precincts, was dragged in and presented to the boys. Feasting was continued for several days, during which the boys did not leave the Nanga, except to obey the calls of nature. By the sacrament of food and water, too sacred even for the elders' hands to touch, they have become Vilavou: their Ancestors had deigned to receive them as members of the Nanga.

A few days after this it was the turn of the women, who had thus far been rigidly excluded, to come to the Nanga. The usual dress of the women of these tribes was a liku—narrow enough, truly, but still sufficient for decency. But for this occasion they were dressed in a series of such fringes as would satisfy the most puritanical if they did not begin too late and end too early. The fringes were tied one over another from the waist to just below the breast, so as to clothe the trunk in a neat thatch, and, seeing the postures the women had to assume, it was a pity that a thatch starting at the waist should not have been carried downwards instead of in the other direction. In this fantastic garb, with hair dyed black, the women proceeded to the Nanga with baskets of food. At the entrance they dropped on their hands and knees, and crawled into the enclosure in single file, the men sitting on either side page 154of a narrow lane left for the procession, and crying, "Lovo ulu! Lovo ulu!" (Keep your heads down!) During this performance it was strictly forbidden for the women to gaze about them, or to look behind them, on pain of insanity. The lane was interrupted with little mounds of freshly-turned earth, and over these the women had to crawl. It was in topping these mounds that a better arrangement of the fringes suggested itself. In the inner chancel of the Nanga the Vere were chanting a song called the Vaya. The chief Vere dipped his hands in a bowl of water, and prayed to the Ancestors to bless the women with ample families. This is called the Vuluvulu (hand-washing), and as the Vuluvulu is the ordinary form of release from a tabu, it is possible that it is intended to absolve the women from the usual consequences of entering a place forbidden to them. As to what happened after this, the native accounts are in conflict. Mr. Joske's informants declared that women only entered the Nanga to bring food, and that the rites were orderly and inoffensive; Mr. Fison says that when the women emerged from the enclosure, "the men rushed upon them, and an indescribable scene ensued. The men and women addressed one another in the filthiest language …," and that from this moment until the close of the ceremonies "very great licence prevailed." Mr. Walter Carew was assured that in Wainimala the men rushed upon the women while they were in the Nanga, and that any woman laid hold of was the lawful prize of her captor. Among the Ndavotukia I had no difficulty in obtaining an account of the ritual until I came to this point, but here all my informants broke off with a self-conscious giggle, and said that they knew no more. One told me frankly that they "did things that they were ashamed to think about in these enlightened days, and, when pressed upon the point, wrote down for me a song of gross indecency connected with the tattooing of women. A native of Mbau, who lived for some years near the Nanga, assured me that the visit of the women to the Nanga resulted in temporary promiscuity; all tabus were defied, and relations who could not speak to one another by customary law committed incest. This would account for the mystery that is page break
Serua, an island chief village in the Mbaki country.

Serua, an island chief village in the Mbaki country.

page 155thrown about the rite even now. The festival was a propitiatory sacrifice to the Ancestors to bless their descendants with increase, and the temporary abrogation of all human laws that interfered with freedom between the sexes had a logical place in such a sacrifice.

On finally leaving the Nanga the property was carried to the village, together with two candlewood saplings, which were set up in the village with appropriate songs, and the property was piled between them. Those who were not members of the Order had to keep fast within doors, for if they inadvertently caught sight of the worshippers they would have been smitten with insanity. The invited visitors, who were in hiding near the village, were now summoned by parties of the Order, who went out chanting a song to find them. These they followed to the village square, where they deposited enormous quantities of property by the saplings. The feasting and licence continued for several days. On the last day the Vere shared out the property, taking the best care of their own interests, and a number of the pigs were shorn of their tails and turned out near the Nanga to serve for a future celebration. It was an act of piety to feed these pigs, to which the sacrificer calls the attention of the Ancestors in words such as these: "Remember me, O ye our chiefs, who lie buried. I am feeding this pig of yours." To kill one was an inconceivable sacrilege. One of these great brutes was living within a year of my visit to the Nanga. It met its death at the hands of an irreligious half-caste, whose continued sanity after this sacrilegious deed was attributed to his foreign parentage.

The ceremony ended with the Sisili (or Bath). All the men went in company to the river, and washed off every trace of the black paint. The Vilavou were then drawn up before the Vere on the river bank to listen to a long discourse upon the new position they had assumed. They were admonished to defer to their elders, to obey the customary law of the tribe, and to keep the secrets of the Nanga on pain of the sure vengeance of the Ancestors. Especially were they to avoid eating eels and freshwater fish and all the best kinds of food. These must be presented to the elders, for their food, until page 156they had attained a higher rank in the Order, must be wild yams and food that is held in less esteem.