Bau Island’s historic Vatanitawake

Bau Island in 1945. Picture:

One of the historical physical structures that remains on Bau Island today used to be the tallest in the village skyline of olden day Fiji. It is called Vatanitawake.

According to the Fiji Museum, the original Vatanitawake on the island was most probably a bure kalou or spirit house, used by Bauan chiefs, including Ratu Seru Cakobau, during the days of ancestral worship.

The rectangular stone-faced Vatanitawake was a seat of religious and secular power and played an important role in religion before Ratu Cakobau got converted to Christianity.

One of the earlier drawings of the bure kalou on Bau was captured in the book Fiji and the Fijians by Reverend James Calvert.

This drawing, from around 1850, shows a killing stone, with a human corpse lying before it. The stone is depicted on the right of the men of rank sitting at the foot of the building mound.

The mound on which the bure kalou was built still stands on the island of Bau today although the bure kalou itself has long gone.

In the academic paper titled Fijian Bure Kalou, author Zachary Low, noted that the bure kalou was usually the tallest structure within any Fijian village.

It towered over every other building and was often placed within the centre or at a prominent position, making it the centre piece and utmost important building in the village complex.

It often lacked internal partitions, had an open layout and a single opening acting as a ‘door’. Low said while every bure kalou would be unique depending on the village, they generally stood at around six storeys high, however, only consisting of a single floor.

Inside it, the high priest or bete carried out his work as the medium between the people and the spirit realm.

The interior of the bure kalou featured an extravagantly long white masi bark cloth) spanning the entire vertical distance of roof all the way down to the floor.

This cloth acted as a bridge between the bete whose role was to give advice and warn the people based on what he was told.

One of the most comprehensive studies of the Vatanitawake is found in the research by Aubrey Parke titled ‘Investigations of Vatanitawake: A ceremonial mound on the island of Bau, Fiji’.

The research was conducted in 1970, when the temple platform or yavu was excavated for the rebuilding of a council house.

According to Parke, a number of burials were discovered in the mound during excavation, possibly belonging to Tongans who met their death at the battle of Kaba in 1855.

Bau Island today consists of three villages named Bau, Lasakau and Soso arranged around the rara or village green, used for special ceremonies and sports.

At the south end of the rara is the Methodist church, and at the north end is the Vatanitawake or Navatanitawake. According to Parke, for some years the mound was the site of a council house or meeting place.

‘On the hill are the Methodist Mission Compound, the school and, until recently, the two chiefly burial-grounds of Delainakoro and Uluinaceva,’ Parke said, based on his 1970 research.

‘These latter have now been levelled, and the bodies reinterred in a chiefly mausoleum nearby.’

‘On the lowest part of the north-western slope of the hill is a second stone-faced, doubleterraced rectangular earthen mound known as Navico. For some years this mound was the site of the Tailevu Provincial Office.’

Bau is located off the east coast of the main island of Viti Levu.

It rose to prominence in the mid- 1800s and became Fiji’s dominant power during Fiji’s early settlement, colonisation and its cession to Britain.

The grandeur of Bau Island’s Vatanitawake was showcased recently to the people of Fiji during the Great Council of Chiefs meeting on the island on May 24 and 25.

Part 2 next week

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