Thursday, December 28, 2006

Hands free !

Tonga's royal family is preparing to end 100 days of mourning for the late king by releasing 40 royal undertakers from a pampered three-month captivity.

The undertakers, known as nima tapu, meaning sacred hands, are forbidden from using their hands after preparing King Tupou IV's body for burial. The nima tapu have spent the last three months confined in a special house where they are fed by other people.

After an end-of-mourning ceremony, the undertakers are allowed to return home.

Having touched the late king's body during the funeral preparations, the royal undertakers are strictly forbidden from using their hands for any other purpose until the period of mourning is over.

The current generation of nima tapu are more fortunate than their predecessors. Until 300 years ago they would have been strangled or had their hands cut off following the king's funeral.

Tonga's royal end-of-mourning ceremony, or Pongipongi Tuku, is characterised by gift-giving.

However, the new King Tupou V has decreed that, in a change of protocol, the traditional gifts of food, pigs and the fermented root drink kava should be presented to his mother Queen Halaevalu Mata'aho rather than to himself.

Correspondents say the break with tradition may indicate King Tupou V's willingness to reshape Tonga's semi-feudal monarchy. King Tupou V has already promised more democratic reforms following pro-democracy rioting in November.

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