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Tonga Travel Guide

Haamonga a Maui
Ha'amonga 'a Maui is Tonga's greatest megalithic monument

Ha'amonga 'a Maui

Catch the Niutoua bus to this famous trilithon, Tonga's most engaging relic, 32 km east of Nuku'alofa. The structure consists of an arch made from three huge rectangular blocks of nonstratified limestone. Two upright pillars of coral, each about five meters high, support a central lintel that is 5.8 meters long and weighs 816 kilos. The name means "The Burden of the God Maui" because, according to myth, the hero Maui brought the trilithon here on his shoulders all the way from Wallis Island using the connecting stone as his carrying pole.

Various other theories have been advanced to explain the origin of this massive 12-metric-ton stone archway. Some believe it was the gateway to Heketa, the old royal compound of Tonga. Others have called it Tonga's Stonehenge and assert that grooves incised on the upper side of the lintel could have been used in determining the seasons. To emphasize this concept, three tracks have been cut from the trilithon to the coast, the better to observe sunrise on the equinox, as well as the summer and winter solstices. This would have been useful to determine the planting and harvesting periods for yams or the sailing seasons. Most scholars believe, however, that the grooves were cut long after the trilithon was built and discount their utility as an astronomical calendar.

Since few archaeological excavations of ancient monuments have been conducted in Tonga, it's not known for sure when or why the Ha'amonga 'a Maui was built. Local tradition attributes it to the 11th Tu'i Tonga, Tu'itatui, who reigned around A.D. 1200. Evidently this king feared that his two sons would quarrel after his death, so he had the trilithon erected to symbolize the bond of brotherhood uniting them. As long as the monument stood, its magic would uphold social harmony.

Nearby is a 2.7-meter-tall slab called the 'Esi Makafaakinanga against which, it's said, this king would lean while addressing his people, a precaution to prevent anyone from spearing him in the back. His name means "the king who hits the knees" because Tu'itatui would administer a sharp slap with his staff to anyone who came too close to his regal person. The area between this slab and the Ha'amonga was the meeting place, or mala'e, where the king would receive tribute from Samoa, Futuna, Wallis, Rotuma, and Niue, all of which were subservient to Tonga at that time.

Beyond the slab is three-tiered Langi Heketa, believed to be the oldest of Tongatapu's langi and the prototype of those at Mu'a. It's believed that either Tu'itatui or a female member of his family is buried here. It was Tu'itatui's son Tal'atama who moved the capital to Mu'a, which offered far better anchorage for their large seagoing canoes. In the bush behind Langi Heketa are a number of large platforms, or paepae, on which the royal residences would have stood.

Bus service to the trilithon is about hourly until 1700, and the trilithon is just beside the road. If you have time, follow one of the tracks down to the rocky coast. Actually, you'll need more than an hour to visit this interesting area and read all the posted explanations. When you've seen enough, just start walking back along the road and flag down the first bus that passes.