Prominent feature ... the Vatanitawake on Bau Island.
When you travel to Bau Island two distinguishing features grab your attention as you leave Bau Landing on Viti Levu.
One is the mausoleum that holds the remains of all paramount chiefs of the island, including Ratu Seru Cakobau – who ceded Fiji to Great Britain in 1874.
The other is the Vatanitawake – or traditional priest’s house.
Way before Christianity took a firm grip on these islands, traditional priests or bete were the so-called go-to guys in all aspects of life.
The bete held sway in villages and were second only in stature to chiefs.
Such was their influence that bure kalou (god houses) were built in every village to appease deities like Cagawalu of Bau, Batimona (who had an appetite for human brains) and Mainatavasara, whose name means fresh from the slaughter.
The bete were consulted before a tribe went to war, when people were sick, when the chiefs needed to make serious decisions – which is probably why they lived better off than ordinary villagers.
The Vatanitawake has existed in some form even from the Middle Ages. Early pictures and drawings of Bau show the Vatanitawake as a prominent feature.
Earlier accounts of life on the 20-acre island show that its occupants have changed now and again but the Vatanitawake has been a prominent feature.
Until the early 1800s it was home to the Delaikorolevu people, the Butoni who lived in the lower areas and the Levuka people – who were known as the Dwellers on the Hill.
Sometime in the mid 1700s Nailatikau, who later became Vunivalu, attacked and conquered the island and banished the occupants.
Records show Nailatikau was succeeded by his son Banuve, who died from the wasting sickness, and the title passed on to the warrior chief Naulivou.
But back to the Vatanitawake – its design and features have changed from the thatched bure type house to the one that stands on the island today – which features a corrugated iron roof, wooden doors and a raised foundation.
Records also show that 12 Tongan warriors were buried there after the Battle of Kaba in 1855. This is after Tonga’s King George Tupou I bolstered Ratu Seru Cakobau’s meager forces while the Vunivalu was taking on traditional foe Rewa.
The burial was Ratu Seru’s way of saying thank you to the Tongans.
These days it used for mainly ceremonial purposes like the installation of the Roko Tui Bau, the principal chief on the island – a sign of the changing times.
When former Vice President and lawyer Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi was installed as Roko Tui Bau he spent four days in isolation inside the Vatanitawake.
It could also be in use soon when Bau chooses another Vunivalu to succeed the late Ratu Sir George Cakobau.
It just goes to show that this building has transcended changing times from being a centrepoint of decision-making to now one of ceremonial uses only.