Culture
Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Polynesian Material Culture – Tongan Kava Bowl – Te Papa Museum

Polynesian Resource Center
Polynesian Resource Center

 

Few objects in Polynesia are so loaded with cultural symbolism as the humble kava bowl, and although this article will show fine and beautiful kava bowls in fact the word humble fits perfectly the average kava bowl in Polynesia, because most are both plain and common. The name kava is from Tongan and Marquesan; the other names for kava include ?awa in Hawai?i and ava in Samoa. The roots of the plant are used to produce a drink with sedative and anesthetic properties, like the paper mulberry another canoe plant it requires growing from a cutting. Kava is sedating and is primarily consumed to relax without disrupting mental clarity, and is very much a drink of social function and of ceremony, and its history goes back to the beginnings of settlement in Samoa, Fiji and Tonga in about 1500BC, then to Eastern Polynesia with the exception of New Zealand.

Kava bowls themselves are beautiful objects especially an old well used bowl with a bleached and stained interior from years of use. Traditionally in Tonga they were four legged but some in Samoa are now multi legged which to my taste is not as pleasing on the eye. Examples from Hawaii and the Australs can be superb works of art, but ordinary kava bowls of good quality can be bought for a few hundred dollars. My advice though is to go through the Te Papa Collection online till you see a bowl that especially pleases your eye and wait till a modern or forty year old one comes up on Ebay or on New Zealand's Trade Me. Of the customs around kava drinking we can simply start with Te Papa's own excellent educational videos which are brief yet illuminating:

 

 

However, the video I have been saving is special, and is from the Australian Museum featuring Eseta Aholelei performing a charming Tongan action song called the Milla loua which is from a village in the west of Tonga, and these people, the Kolovai being the traditional keepers or protectors of the Tongan royal family. Points to look for are Eseta's head flicks at the end of each verse which is a traditional element of both Tongan and Samoan dances.

 

In fact Eseta's action song with its beautiful hand movements contain within it the key to understanding Western Polynesian dance. Most peopleare familiar with the Hawaiian hula, and the hip swaying erotic dances of Eastern Polynesia, of Tahiti and the Cook Islands. Tongan and Samoan dances are different, they are graceful and expressive, they are I should be quick to point out neither superior or inferior to Eastern Polynesian dance, but of a completely opposite character. The charm of Western Polynesian dance is their grace belonging more to a style of Balinese dance. They show the charm of the women who perform them to great affect. But watching a Tongan or Samoan woman dance is to see the Asian and South-East Asian origins of Polynesians. Polynesian dance has many purposes but is never far from the joy of the giving and taking of pleasure. Eseta's action song very much gives us the flavour of The practice of drinking kava continues in Polynesia today in both social and ceremonial settings, and it is something I recommended visitors to Polynesia do if they get the chance.

 

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