Festival time for the Maori!
The Maori New Year is about prayers, dancing and feasting; the underlying themes are material sustenance and spiritual rejuvenation, writes INDER RAJ AHLUWALIA
UNIQUE CULTURE Glimpses of the Matariki Festival, a time of reflection, rejoicing and continuation of the life process itself
The early morning stillness hung over us like a shroud as we milled around our host, Tom Mulligan, chairperson of Te Taiwhenua o Heretaunga, braving the wind that seemed to have come straight from a giant refrigerator. We were at the entrance of the Mihiroa Marea in Pakipaki, Hawke's Bay, being welcomed in traditional Maori style.
It was ceremonial but simplistic, and in a way that sums up the Maoris. Ladies go in first, the men follow. "I'll tell you why later," Tom whispered, but never got around to doing it. We stopped just outside the meeting house to `reflect and think of loved ones gone.' Then, shoes off, we entered the plain looking enclosure with its plain looking interior, "into the bosom of ancestors and their Lord."
"Welcome to our Marea. You honour us," said the local Maori leader. Politely, we heard him through, Tom said a short prayer, we greeted one another by rubbing noses, and left the Marea.
Though moved by the episode's simple intensity, I hadn't then quite realised just how fortunate I was to be amidst the Maori at this particular time. For this was the Matariki Festival. The festival for the Maori!
The next three days were a blur of activity that saw me pitch-forked headlong into generous doses of their unique culture, my stint including everything from hot air ballooning to traditional feasting.
Matariki is a small cluster of tiny stars, also known as Pleiades. To the Maori, it's as important as life itself, a time to look forward, rejuvenate, and celebrate the reawakening of the rhythm of life. Matariki is so integral to this rhythm that it's closely studied as a foretelling of the coming harvest.
If each star stands out distinctly, a promising season will ensue with the promise that the earth will once again release her prosperous bounty.
In autumn, as the crops are gathered and preserved and the daylight hours shorten, Matariki disappears from the heavens. Now it's a time to stop, reflect and celebrate the year that has passed and enjoy earth's bounties, and wait for Matariki to reappear in the heavens and continue Nature's rhythms.
It's also a time to garner food resources, bid the past goodbye, welcome the new growing season, make plans for the land and for the new spring garden, and plant new trees and bushes. Birds and fish are its harvests. It's a continuation of the life-process itself.
Matariki appears in the Eastern sky around the shortest day, usually around mid-June, the first month of the Maori. As the stars rise on the north-eastern horizon, around the shortest day, it signals the beginning of the Maori or lunar New Year referred to as Matariki. New year celebrations were traditionally held on the sighting of the next new moon. In traditional Maori society, communities still sit up to watch out for Matariki.
"Wood-carving is an important part of Maori culture," Tom said. Fair enough! We spent the next hour watching students doing traditional carving. And that's when I met Collin Tihi, carving tutor and proud Maori. Thanks to the festival, Te Wananga O Aotearoa (art school) was a beehive of activity.
At the centre of things is Te Rangi Huata, the `living treasure' of Hawke's Bay, who as the mainstay of the Public Dreams Trust is the creative energy behind Matariki. Te not only spearheads the month-long celebrations now a regular annual feature providing visitors a variety of experiences through diverse activities but is also its designated spokesperson.
Came evening and it was time for the Mahinarangi Moon Beams. Half of Hawke's Bay was there, braving the cold, thronged around the stage that featured live music, dances, including, believe it or not, the Bhangra, and the local Tina Turner who cavorted on-stage with her two grandsons.
Five metre firewheels twirled and sparked, lanterns glowed, hot air balloons ten stories high stood ready to take flight, and fireworks lit up the night sky. The fireworks and balloons symbolised the kites that were flown by Maori from hilltops in their traditional celebrations of the Maori New Year.
Fireworks are Huata's passion, and he likens them to looking at Christmas tree lights.
"They engender a feeling of warmth, and are like light banishing dark, good triumphing over evil, an adventure in the celestial realm. They lift people's spirits unconsciously," Te says in his simple style.
Showing rare enthusiasm, I joined the queue. "Sorry, we've just run out," the lady at the hot-chocolate counter told me apologetically. "But they're selling hot tomato soup," she said, pointing South.
They were, and we got some, and ventured further afield, doing full justice to the offerings, including the traditional Maori Hangi (with food cooked in the ground).
A new day! We beat the sun and reached Matariki Vineyard in the dark for `The Great Matariki Vintage Car Balloon Chase'. That's just what it was. You had a choice of either ballooning off and soaring across the country, or hopping into vintage cars chasing them in hot pursuit, in a wacky treasure hunt across the region. Needless to say, the daredevil in me saw me opt for the balloon.
Those magnificent men in their flying machines. Well, almost. It takes an hour to inflate a hot-air balloon and make it airworthy. In the meantime, the sun had come up, giving the balloons a touch of gold. We boarded and took off. And immediately felt the silence. All quiet on all fronts.
We kept low, skimming the vineyard, scattering sheep, watching the mosaic patchwork slip by below. The sun was brightening up everything all around us, with just the middle bit where we were, still untouched by its rays. I counted twelve other balloons scattered around us.
The only ditch
And then, disaster! We crash-landed in a ditch. There was probably only one four-foot wide ditch in the Hawke's Bay area if not in the whole of New Zealand, and we found it. A painful elbow, clothes soaked right up to my waist, and lots of `oohs and aahs', and we returned to our hotel. But this apart, the ride had been fun, even though half of New Zealand had heard about our mishap within the hour, and Tom asked me later if I'd enjoyed my `fishing.'
The grand finale of the Matariki Festival was the Matariki Kahungunu Winter Ball, a traditional but elegant affair featuring a `Kahungunu Cuisine' chef leading Marae cooks in preparation of a three course indigenous foods dinner.
Table settings by Maori artisans, entertainment by the Aotearoa Big Band, performances by the Kahurangi Maori Dance Theatre, and leading musicians. It was celebration in a true-blue old-fashioned way.
It was crayfish for starters, followed by mussels, vegetables and baked fish. Then came cake and ice cream. The wine was all local produce. It so happened, the `All Blacks' were playing England in rugby that evening, and that meant a strong diversion. "Excuse me," Thomas said twice during the course of the evening as he disappeared to another room to watch the game on television.
As festivals go, Matariki is about as simple as one can get. Prayers, dances, and feasting notwithstanding, the underlying themes are material sustenance and spiritual rejuvenation. While it has given tourists to New Zealand an added incentive, for the Maori it's an important link in continuity.
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