I was cleaning out my drawers, when I chanced upon a beautiful piece of jade – a pendant shaped like a cross between an anchor and a fishing hook – the hei matau – a talisman that augurs safe travels. On every travel, I take it out of its cardboard box and clasp it around my neck – a small bit of harmless superstition hurt no one! The pendant was a generous gift from N, chosen after about an hour’s debate in a jade-designer’s shop in Rotorua on the quality, grade and translucence of the jade used to carve these designs. ( check out the photo in the featured image at the beginning! The gorgeous pendant worn by the woman on the left of me!)
It was there that I chanced upon the symbolic importance of the jade pieces that most Maoris sport around their neck. And my interest in knowing more about them, the original Polynesian inhabitants of the islands of New Zealand was piqued.
We were travelling around Rotorua, one of the three cities of New Zealand that we spent a few days in. As our bus from Auckland to Rotorua entered this picturesque little town, the first scent to hit me was that of sulphur!
Rotorua, to the uninitiated is the land of natural hot-springs and geysers. The landscape is a mind-boggling array of colours from yellow to vivid reds and greens – the result of centuries of mineral deposits. In the heart of Rotorua is a living Maori village, the Whakarewarewa – wh is pronounced as F, the result can sometimes be funny.. like it is when you pronounce the name of this one – fak-are-wa-re-wa. Giggles out of the way, walk in through an entrance that is a memorial to the Maori warriors who fought on the side of their British colonialists in the First World War.
The guides taking you through the village have stories of their childhood to share – when communal living was the norm. You see the bathing pools where there was hot water through the year, the channels made to take waters into shallower pools, the little hole dug in the earth to use the natural heat under the earth to cook the Hangi meal. If you don’t mind sparely spiced food, the Hangi meal is a must try – succulent corn and vegetables served with perfectly cooked chicken and beef that literally falls off the bone.
How did I jump to the lunch description? Wait, here’s the best part of visiting a living village – you get to meet the Maori warriors and the women – a proud race, but equally fun-loving. Every morning and evening, they put up traditional dance performances – some fierce war routines, others that are more fun and jovial. Like every tribe across the world, they love taking the mickey out of their fawning audience too. Don’t be overwhelmed by their roll of eyes and the fierceness of their expressions – the belly laugh that usually follows the intimidated look on your face can leave you feeling sheepish!!
Another interesting fact I learnt that day was that the tattoos a Maori sports are not a fashion fad but has deep cultural importance. The tattoos that cover the faces are often in memory of a struggle or in remembrance of an elder, who had an impact on their lives, or to express pride in their rich cultural heritage. Their tattoos are exquisite, intricate and often cover their entire faces and bodies!!
Most Maoris today are leaving their traditional settlements to integrate into townships and cities across New Zealand. They have moved on to day jobs, worry about their health and life insurance and most have given up on their traditional skills and arts. But the village was an insight into lives when living was simpler, when food was plenty, heat rose in vapours from the land, local herbs were used by the shamans to cure illnesses and meals were cooked and had together. At roughly the same time every day, you can watch a geyser erupt and marvel at nature’s alarm clock. We visited Whakarewarewa in November. The weather was drizzly, a bit moany and overcast, but the hot springs, the odour of sulphur and vapours in the air gave the place an ethereal aura.
I am very fascinated by the burial rituals and the way in which the dead are remembered – every civilisation, group and tribe have their own customs – poignant and a mirror of their culture. I walked by the gravestones, several had fresh flowers. It is easy to identify who the village elders were, the wise women whose wisdom kept the community close-knit.
This is a post that began with a jade pendant – let me close it there. The jade pendant was not the only souvenir I brought back from Rotorua. I brought a Tiki back too – a wooden sculpture of the first man according to the Maoris or let’s for convenience call him the Maori’s Adam! And an oar wonderfully sculpted with Maori symbols and… the list is long.. But each memento reminds me of a fierce tribe, struggling proudly to preserve their ancient traditions and customs in the modern world!
Someday I’ll meet more Maoris and then perhaps I’ll show them my pendant – the promise of their ancestors that I’ll travel safe with the green stone around my neck. 🙂