While a video camera looked on serenely, Faletau and two of his brothers contorted and strained their bodies until they had made the shape of the Ha'amonga 'a Maui, or the burden of Maui, three coral slabs that stand near the northeastern corner of the island of Tongatapu.
Some of the first palangi visitors to Tonga likened the Ha'amonga 'a Maui to Stonehenge, because its shape echoes the sections of England's most famous ancient monument. Today a few pseudo-historians use the internet to claim that the Ha'amonga was actually built by blokes from Wales or Britanny, rather than by Tongans. Curiously enough, these Celtic irredentists never bring their arguments to the kava circles or seminar rooms of Tonga.
If there is any parallel between the Ha'amonga and Stonehenge, then I think it relates to the place of the two monuments in the consciousness of the descendants of their makers. Stonehenge is one of the most widely disseminated and easily recognisable symbols of Britain. Its pillars and lintels decorate teacups and biscuit tins as effortlessly as Black Sabbath and Hawkwind album covers.
But Stonehenge is mysterious as well as ubiquitous. Its origins, function, and symbolism are the subjects of protracted and sometimes comical debates (the latest attempt at an explication comes from Julian Spalding, who thinks that an enormous altar might have sat on top of those famous stones).
The mysteries that hang about Stonehenge remind us of the depth and oddness of Britain's history, and the arbitrary, improvisational nature of what we noawadays consider British culture.
Like Stonehenge, the Ha'amonga 'a Maui is a famous monument with a contested past. Neither Tongan nor palangi scholars can agree on whether it was a political monument, a tomb, an observatory, or a sculpture. The monument is a reminder of the long pagan history that only recently gave way to Tongan versions of Christianity.
At EyeContact I argue that Sione Faletau's version of the Ha'amonga 'a Maui embodies one of the oldest and most powerful contradictions in Tongan society.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]