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Arai Te Tonga – the most sacred marae in Rarotonga

Arai te Tonga, Rarotonga
Arai te Tonga, Rarotonga / Robert Engbert, Flickr. CC BY 2.0

WorldBlue  In short

The story of Arai Te Tonga started around 1250 AD. According to local legends back then in the open sea met two groups of ocean-going canoes full with settlers who were looking for new lands. One group brought Takitumu people from Tahiti, led by Tangi’Nui. He was fleeing from his elder brother Tutapu. The other canoes brought people from Samoa led by Karika.

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GPS coordinates
21.2131 S 159.7457 W
Location, address
Australia and Oceania, Polynesia, Cook Islands, Rarotonga, at Ara Metua, inland from it, 3 km east from the centre of Avarua
Ancient and prehistoric shrines, Megaliths
Alternate names
Te Au-o-Tonga
Around 1250 AD?

Map of the site

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WorldYellow In detail

Colonisation of Rarotonga

Tangi’nui with his 400 people found a beautiful island – Rarotonga. There were already living Polynesians but newcomers quickly conquered them.

One wonderful structure was inherited from these earlier inhabitants: excellent, 29 km long paved road around the whole island named Te Ara Nui o To’i or Ara Metua.

The vigorous Tangi’Nui managed to set the future spatial planning of whole Rarotonga island by setting up 47 marae and related structures, most of them close to the ancient road.

Rise of Makea family

Later here turned up also the other group led by Kariki, and, as Tangi’Nui needed allies in his war with brother Tutapu, it was agreed that Samoans will obtain the sacred land where the first marae was built and family of Kariki – Makea – will have the supreme power on island.

This was observed up to early the 20th century, although not without wars and constant conflicting between the families.

Short insight into Polynesian society

Matakeinangas – local communities of rarotongans – were ruled by ngati – councils. Senior member of each ngati was mata’iapo – chief. Highest chiefs were called – ariki.

Marae served as a place where the power and status of mata’iapo and ariki was represented – but marae was also a house of gods.

The main site of Rarotonga

High priest and tau-makeva initiation stone in Arai te Tonga, Rarotonga
High priest and tau-makeva initiation stone in Arai te Tonga, Rarotonga / Taken in the early 20th century, from
Vikings of the Sunrise by Te Rangi Hiroa, 1964. CC BY-SA 3.0

Obviously, the main marae of the Rarotonga island was the marae owned by ruling family – Makea. Their sanctuary – Arai Te Tonga – was as public as it may be: the main road of the island went through it. Ariki of Makea (you still manage to follow the terminology of Polynesian civilization?) was living next to the Ara Metua road some 100 m to the east from marae and there, next to the road and facing it, were aligned stone seats used for ceremonies by the representatives of other families of the island.

Arai Te Tonga – the sanctuary itself – still exists and consists of many very important parts.

One part is platform – some 3.5 m long, 2 m wide, 0.2 m high. It is a base of the wooden structure where during the ceremonies was main ariki. Unfortunately, nothing remains of this building. Other features are stone seats along the road (other seats, not the ones next to the house of ariki). On one the main ariki received gifts with the priest sitting next to him. One of the basalt slabs was maringi-toto – here were laid the heads of human victims sacrificed to gods.

Important stone is tau-makeva – nearly 2 m tall, a bit inclined basalt slab, reportedly brought from Hawaii. Here was approved new ariki – this man was lifted up on the top of stone – and afterwards carried south to another marae.

At least until the beginning of the 20th century in Arai Te Tonga was growing also enormous utu tree (Barringtonia asiatica), which, according to local stories, was growing here already in 1250 AD. Nowadays only a large stump of this tree remains.

Many ceremonies and festivities were held in Arai Te Tonga by many generations, for long centuries everyone in Rarotonga looked at this place with worship, terror, joy.

  1. Matthew Campbell, Memory and monumentality in the Rarotongan landscape, 2006, Antiquity 80:102-117. Accessed 13.01.11.
  2. S. Percy Smith, Arai-te-tonga, the ancient marae at Rarotonga, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, volume 12 1903, p. 218 – 220. Accessed 13.01.11.

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Mnajdra, lower temple. Such structures were created long before Stonehenge and Egyptian pyramids / steve deeves, Flickr / CC BY 2.0


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Doubtful Sound. / Bernard Spragg. NZ, Flickr / public domain

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Papa Mike’s Cook Islands Handbook, 3rd Edition

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