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Marcellin College

Tapa , A Tongan Treasure

The story of grandmother's tapa cloth

My Name is Mele.

At our house we have a very decorative and ancient piece of tapa which has come down from generation to generation in our family. It was passed down from my third great-grandmother on my father's side. She was a professional at making tapa and one day she decided to make something special for future generations. She started by making one row of tapa. Then her younger sisters and all the granddaughters made one row of tapa each.

What was to be remembered during this process was that it had to go from the oldest to the youngest in each generation, and that the patterns used by my third great-grandmother were to be repeated in every row. When we make our piece of tapa, we also remember our great-great-great-grandmother and her talent in making tapa.

This ancient piece of tapa - ngatu in Tonga - is very long . The last time it was measured, it was just over 25 feet long! The tapa is numbered down one side which shows how many rows there are. Most pieces of tapa have that to make it easier to measure, because one foot = one row.

Each of the patterns on this ngatu has a meaning. For instance, the bird is a dove which represents the holy spirit. The three dots pattern represents the eyes and mouth of the coconut - the three holes on the coconut -  and the triangle with patterns represents the pathways of life.

Those patterns really meant a lot to my third great-grandmother because these symbols represented her, and I guess that's why she used them for the tapa.

To take care of the tapa, my sisters and my mother use black paint. They paint it three times per year to keep the patterns clear. They also mix flour and water to brush over the tapa  to make it last longer and shine. After it is painted and pasted it is left in the sun to dry and then it is folded up and put under the mattress on the bed. This keeps it flat and ready for the next time it will be used.

This piece of tapa is very important and we pray that it will be kept for a very long time after we pass it on. It is very decorative and special because some of our ancestors have made a row of tapa and stuck it onto the main piece. It is quite a miracle to have it today.