Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Re-thatching a roof by Dawasamu in Tailevu © Pacific Heritage Hub

The Traditional Fijian Bure

There were once three traditional house- construction styles in Fiji. The first, rausina, was common in the hinterland tribes of mainland Vitilevu. Its prominent feature was its single-ridge pole that gave the roof a conical shape. The second, kubulolo, was common in the outer islands of the Lau group. Its prominent feature was its oval shape, which is a typical feature in Polynesian Tonga and Samoa, two islands renowned for their trade with the Lau islands. The third, which is the focus of this article, is called the vasemasema style, and it was known for its two main ridge posts and was commonly found around coast tribes and villages on the main islands of Vitilevu and Vanualevu.

The bure1Traditional indigenous Fijian house is made of natural materials—reeds, hardwood posts, stones, bamboo, sinnet, and ferns. It is said that such was the ingenuity its construction that in hot and humid weather, the interior of a bure remained cool. During the cold season, the ambience within was always warm and comfortable.

In the days before the coming of Christianity, there was a class of the traditional Fijian society known as the mataisau or craftsfolk. They resided close to a ruling overlord chief because it was they who constructed the overlord’s bure, double- hulled canoe, and clay vessels like drinking and cooking pots; they even fashioned special war clubs and eating forks. Each traditional polity had its own class of craftsfolk who were bound to other similar craftsfolk as kindred descendants of a single ancestor hero from ancient times called Rokola.

When a stately bure was commissioned, each post required human sacrifices. There are traditions of craftsfolk willingly sacrificing themselves in their zeal towards their chief for in those days, death was seen as a noble passage into another world. Remains of such stately constructions scantly remain. A notable one called Na Manā is located in Rewa, the seat of the paramount chief in the Burebasaga confederacy on the eastern mainland of Vitilevu. The site is under traditional tabu2The English word taboo is derived from this word. to approach or tread upon out of deference and respect by its people.

Once completed, a cooking hearth was place inside for it was believed that the continual billowing of the smoke preserved the wood and thatch. There were no doors, merely a doorway, which was occasionally covered with mats to keep out the elements.

The presence of smoke within a dwelling did not strike a sympathetic note in the early Christian missionaries, who with good intentions, wrongly considered it unhygienic and instructed that the cooking hearth be relocated outside. Over time, denied of the constant curing of the smoke, the thatch, wood, and bindings gradually gave way to rot.

Another impact of Christianity was the end of tribal warfare which rendered many social classes redundant, one of which was the craftsfolk. It must be remembered that in pre-Christian Fiji, each class in society had its own special consultant priest from whom a group’s processes, rituals, spectacular power, and inspiration was drawn from.

As Fiji entered into colonialism, the moorings of traditional knowledge and inheritance began to wane to such an extent that it is so rare to find these wonderful works of architecture around the country.

The iTaukei Institute of Language & Culture, in consequence of Fiji’s ratification of the UNESCO 2003 Convention, has partnered with the Department of Culture in revival projects of Living Human Treasures particularly because traditional knowledge in the indigenous iTaukei community is communally owned. So when an LHT is identified, its revival is communally approached. One such revival occurred in the Dawasamu District in Tailevu Province on the eastern mainland of Vitilevu. Recently, the same group was engaged to renew the Molikilagi bure that graces the Oceania Centre for Culture, Arts and Pacific Studies at the University of the South Pacific. This bure is named after the mythical abode of two princes in local legend. Featured are a few photos of the interior and exterior of the bure that keeps much of the traditional structure with a few minor adaptations and serves as a classroom, conference, and seminar room for many of the university’s academic events.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Traditional indigenous Fijian house
2. The English word taboo is derived from this word.