Recently I was in Tonga for the coronation of King Tupou VI. In fact, I was very fortunate to have made it to Tonga at all, as we were flying on standby tickets from New Zealand and every flight going out was oversold. Thankfully it all worked out, and I got to experience Tonga in a way that I never had before. While it is usually a rather sleepy place, the capital city of Nuku’alofa was at full capacity, as many overseas-based Tongans made their return to the island for the coronation festivities. I also was pleased to see that downtown Nuku’alofa was relatively clean and free of the discarded plastic bottles, food containers, and aluminum cans that are normally found scattered along the side of the road. The sound of marching bands could be heard parading through the streets of the downtown business district. The celebrations lasted for 11 days in total, and they included countless parades, singing, dancing, feasting, and partying.
There were also many foreign dignitaries in Tonga, as well as military marching bands from several countries including New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, and The United States. I tried to attend as many of the coronation performances as possible, but unless one had some form of connection to the king himself, the view was generally very poor due to the large crowds that gathered around palace grounds. Despite Tonga being a nation located in the middle of the South Pacific, there was an almost European feel to the style of the coronation formalities. The decorations, manner of dress, and symbolism used by the Tongan royal family are largely not of Polynesian origin. One performance I attended at the stadium seemed almost like a tropical island version of North Korea’s Arirang Mass Games. It was conducted by thousands of Tongan schoolchildren who were dressed in red from head to toe.
Tongan society is highly stratified, and it was interesting to observe the ways in which many of those in the commoner class celebrated the coronation of the new king by offering gifts that sometimes appeared to be well beyond their means. Many of the houses of commoners, especially along the parade routes, were intricately adorned with red and white ribbons and/or signs wishing Tupou VI and his wife a long and prosperous reign. Tongans are generous people, and to many of them the coronation of a new king is a highly significant event. It was great to see the Tongan people out socializing and celebrating while wearing their finest tupenus, ta’ovalas and puletaha’s.
I admit that because of where I grew up, I often struggle to make sense out of the concept of monarchy, and there were times that I looked at the apparent imbalances that exist within Tongan society through a critical lens. If half of the money that was spent on the coronation was instead spent on upgrading infrastructure, many improvements could surely be made for the benefit of the people. But this is Tonga, the only South Pacific nation to never have been colonized by a foreign power, and things are done mostly in accordance with the Tongan tradition. If the Tongan people did ever want incite social changes, then I am confident that it would be accomplished.
An important lesson that I took away from this trip is how to control my physical and mental reactions when negotiating a stressful situation. All facets of Tongan society operate on a vastly different system than that which we are accustomed to in the developed world, and Tongans possess an impressive ability to subdue their reactions no matter how frustrating or dire the circumstances may be. The number one rule to follow in Tonga no matter what happens: Don’t react. Don’t worry about time, or and form of consistency either.
I am pleased to share my photographs from a vibrant and festive time in the history of Tonga.
(click photos to view slideshow).