They came from every island in Polynesia to celebrate the union of the people who inhabited a large area of the Pacific called Te-Moana-Nui-o-Hiva, otherwise known as the Polynesian triangle, that has Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand as its boundary markers – inhabited by the Ma’ohi civilisation from before the year 1000. They sailed for weeks on traditional double-hulled canoes equipped with a simple auric sail and paddles for rowing. How they managed to orient themselves is unclear. Certainly with the reading of the sky, the stars and ocean currents, but also with rudimentary portolan charts drawn on woven vegetable fabrics and equipped with shells to represent the islands and archipelagos. They arrived at the site of Taputapuatea, on the island of Raiatea – believed to be the centre of the triangle and the largest spiritual hub of the Pacific – in order to meet and conclude alliances.
The remains of the temples (marae in Polynesian), are actually still impressive today and testify to the importance of this place of worship as they are built on the oceanfront in a vast flat area where there are centuries-old trees and coconut palms. The Marae Hititai appears to have been dedicated to Ta’aroa Nui, the creator of the universe. Rites were celebrated here which saw human sacrifices offered to the deity and sacred sharks placed as guardians of the temple.
The Hauviri marae, on the other hand, was dedicated to the investiture of priests (Ari’i), according to a genealogy that is highlighted by the raised stones which are meant to represent the various exponents of the families of the priestly caste. The investiture ceremonies were celebrated by the population who prepared special libations for the occasion and displayed their dedication with propitiatory dances. Near these temples is the sacred beach where incoming canoes from the most distant islands were welcomed and where the chiefs established new agreements before returning to the sea. There was also a temple dedicated to the younger lineages, who according to a legend handed down, sailed the Great Ocean during the expansion period following the routes designed by the mythical octopus Tumu-Rai-Fenua.
But the largest marae (still preserved today with its volcanic stone structure), is the one dedicated to Ta’aroa, god of peace and war. Here covenants were established and rituals were celebrated to invoke divine forces.
These temples were in all respects considered to be producers of energy and life force. Their access was forbidden to most of the population: only priests and leaders could enter it according to the rules established by the guardians. The strength of an ancient spirituality that has lived in these places for more than a thousand years is still perceived today, preserved in these black stones erected in front of the turquoise ocean. It is a memorial to a population which disappeared following the western colonisation, who besides the many damages, brought diseases that decimated the inhabitants of the islands and a lifestyle that radically changed the culture of these places over the centuries. It is no coincidence that the main social problems here in Polynesia are widespread obesity and alcoholism. I have often seen kids go to school early in the morning with a bottle of coca cola in their hand, as well as many alcoholics on the street asking for alms. The local government claims to engage in awareness campaigns, but in every supermarket or mini-market there is a huge choice of carbonated drinks and Hinano beer – the Tahitian factory employs hundreds of people.
In short, there are many contradictions that stand out which should be analysed in greater depth in order to have a clearer opinion. But in any case, it is good to remember that France conducted 193 nuclear tests between the 1960s and the 1990s in some Tuamotu atolls and that many inhabitants of the neighbouring islands died and still die from cancer and other radiation-related diseases. This would be enough to make us understand the seriousness of the effects of colonisation on these islands – the same islands which once sought the protection of the gods through sacred ceremonies at their temples but who are today forced to denounce France for crimes against humanity.