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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 6:34 p.m., Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Ceremony to mark end of royal mourning on Tonga

Associated Press Writer

NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga — Tonga's royal family was set to end a 100-night mourning period for the late king early Friday with a gift-giving ceremony and the release of 40 undertakers who were banned from using their hands — which touched the royal body — for three months.

At the end of the royal mourning period, the South Pacific nation's 40 royal undertakers who buried the late King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV will be allowed to return to their villages in an ancient ritual called Pongipongi Tuku. The elaborate state funeral in September mixed tribal traditions with Christian prayers.

The undertakers — known as nima tapu, meaning sacred hands — have been held together at a special house where they are fed by hand and otherwise looked after, since the king's body was flown home from New Zealand on Sept. 13. They have not been allowed to do anything with their hands other than tend to the king's body and conduct the funeral because they had touched royalty.

Until 300 years ago, the nima tapu would have been strangled or had their hands severed after taking part in such a funeral.

Tupou IV died at age 88 in a hospital in the northern New Zealand city of Auckland on Sept. 11, plunging Tonga into mourning.

Throughout Tonga, black and purple mourning cloth festooned buildings, roadsides and even palm trees, to mark the biggest royal funeral since 1965 when Queen Salote, Tupou IV's mother, was buried.

Tongan citizens ended a one-month mourning period on Oct. 17, but the royal family's mourning period continued for three months and will officially end at midnight tomorrow.

A spokesman for the Palace Office, who refused to give his name according to palace protocol, said the Pongipongi Tuku ceremony would be slightly changed.

At the ceremony, Tongans traditionally present food, pigs and kava — an intoxicating drink made from fermented roots — to the new monarch.

But King George Tupou V, 59, wants the gifts to be given to his mother, Queen Halaevalu Mata'aho, showing his willingness to redefine Tonga's near-feudal monarchy, the palace official said. By tradition, the ruler is showered with gifts by loyal and loving subjects, and the change could indicate the new king wants to reduce such extravagance.

King George Tupou V has already promised democratic reforms following a deadly rampage in the capital Nuku'alofa on Nov. 16 by rioters demanding faster political change.

Tonga is bordering on bankruptcy. It faces mounting poverty and unemployment among its youth, and relies heavily on money remitted from its citizens living abroad and on aid funds. The World Bank has said many of the nation's 114,000 people live on or below the poverty line.