Chief Roi Mata’s Domain: Vanuatu’s first UNESCO world heritage site

The cultural tour begins at Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta which houses a display on the Roi Mata site. We were treated to a performance by musician and artist Edgar Hinge who sang, played the flute and demonstrated sand drawing. Sand drawing is a kastom art form which features on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage. The artist uses only one finger dragged in a continuous line through the sand to create an elaborate drawing. Drawings have different purposes and meaning, sometimes as part of a ritual. Edgar create a number of drawings for us, each with its own story which he told us as he drew. This one relates to a tale of a blackbirding ship which visited one of the islands of Vanuatu:

Sand drawing by Edgar Hinge depicting a blackbirding ship

Sand drawing by Edgar Hinge depicting a blackbirding ship


Artist and Musician Edgar Hinge perfomaing at the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta

Artist and Musician Edgar Hinge perfomaing at the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta


Following Edgar’s performance, we travelled by bus to the west coast of Efate where boats waited to take us to another part of Efate mainland called Mangaasi, which had been the location of Chief Roi Mata’s residence. At this first stop we were greeted by a number of performers acting out the process of Roi Mat bringing peace to Efate. We walked around the area of his residence, passing a number of tabu stones, a large banyan tree and ending at a modern slit gong. The slit gong has significance because Roi Mata attended the feast on Lelepa at which he died following a disagreement over the playing of a large slit gong, or tam tam.
Modern slit gong, or tam tam, at Roi Mata's former area of residence at Mangaasi, Efate island, Vanuatu

Modern slit gong, or tam tam, at Roi Mata’s former area of residence at Mangaasi, Efate island, Vanuatu


Back in the boats, we headed to Artok, also known as Hat Island due to its shape. This is the location of Roi Mata’s burial site, excavated in 1967 by French archaeologist José Garanger. There is a strong oral tradition surrounding Roi Mata and the sites relating to him. In the 1950s, French anthropologist Jean Guiart recorded these stories and Garanger subsequently followed them up by excavating sites identified in this local knowledge (including Artok, Mangaasi, and a site called Fels cave which we visited next). The burial site on Artok was discovered to include the grave of Chief Roi Mata, and around 50 other burials but there is thought to be potentially as many as 300 burials. Local tradition tells that these other people were buried alive as part of the ceremony surrounding Roi Mata’s death and it has been found through excavation that many of the bodies exhibit signs of this having been the case. A number of graves were found to contain men and women together.
View across to Artok, or Hat Island, the site of Chief Roi Mata's burial

View across to Artok, or Hat Island, the site of Chief Roi Mata’s burial


Burial site of Chief Roi Mata and others who were buried there as part of a ceremony surrounding his death. Roi Mata's grave is maked by the large headstone to the right of the photo

Burial site of Chief Roi Mata and others who were buried there as part of a ceremony surrounding his death. Roi Mata’s grave is maked by the large headstone to the right of the photo


We then travelled by boat to Lelepa, the site of Roi Mata’s death. Following lunch in the local school of laplap and fish curry, we walked around the island to Fels (or Feles) cave. The imposing white rock is formed of compressed ash and pumice. This cave is apparently where Roi Mata was taken after falling ill and it was where he finally died. Inside are petroglyphs depicting whale, turtles, humans and other creatures, the earliest of which are thought to date from around 900AD. There are also markings believed to be a type of counting system.
The entrance to Fels Cave

The entrance to Fels Cave


Rock art inside Fels cave depictiing a man (possibly Chief Roi Mata), a turtle and a bird

Rock art inside Fels cave depictiing a man (possibly Chief Roi Mata), a turtle and a bird


Rock art inside Fels Cave depicting a whale

Rock art inside Fels Cave depicting a whale


The tour of Roi Mata’s domain is incredibly informative and enjoyable and a great way to see the island of Efate, but it also gives a glimpse the ways work is being done to preserve Vanuatu’s unique and rich cultural heritage. The trips to the three sites (Mangaasi, Artok and Fels Cave) are available for anyone to book and are run by Roi Mata Cultural Tours, a community-owned tourism business. This is an environmentally and culturally sustainable community tourism project and the tours help the Mangaliliu and Lelepa communities protect their World Heritage area. I was particularly interested in experiencing the tour as it is hoped that one day the missionary sites on Aneityum (the southernmost island of Vanuatu to which I would be flying the following day) will also receive World Heritage status.
You can find out more about the Roi Mata site here: http://chiefroimatasdomain.com/
– Eve

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