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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, October 13, 2006

Ipu indispensable item in Islands' history

By Duane Choy

Gourds have functioned as storage, funnels, even shark decoys.

Duane Choy

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In old Hawai'i, there was nothing more indispensable and artistically functional as the ipu the fruit of the gourd plant called pohue (Lagenaria siceraria).

From early childhood to death, Hawaiians were influenced by the ipu and its all-purpose manifestations upon society and life.

In her landmark book, "Hawaiian Mythology," Martha Beckwith relates a creation myth: Papa gives birth to a gourd, which forms a calabash and its cover. Wakea throws up the cover and it becomes the sky. He throws up the pulp and it becomes the sun; the seeds, and they become the stars; the white lining of the gourd, and it becomes the moon; the ripe white meat, and it becomes the clouds; the juice he pours over the clouds and it becomes rain. Of the calabash itself Wakea makes the land and ocean.

Ernest Dodge categorized 43 ways Hawaiians used ipu in his book, "Hawaiian and Other Polynesian Gourds."

Functional beauty was most inherent in the gourd water containers (ipu wai). They were used to transport precious water from streams and springs a household would keep its entire water supply in ipu. Fishermen and explorers also used the ipu wai. There were two basic forms: the large globular shape with a long thin neck and the hourglass shape.

Ipu were also the Hawaiians' Tupperware, holding stores of poi. Ipu were hung in the hale, outdoors or on a carrying stick ('auamo) by suspension cords or nets (koko) made from coconut fibers or olona, with intricate knots, hitches and turns. Basketry that reinforced the strength of the ipu woven from the tendrils of the 'ie'ie vine are magnificent examples of Hawaiian fiber art.

Tiny geometrical patterns (pawehe) attained lofty heights of expression in their ornamentation on the outer surfaces of ipu.

Other uses of the ipu included:

  • Platters carved out of flat slices from the sides of large gourds.

  • Trunks used for traveling and/or household purposes.

  • Storage ipu, long and curved, specifically for featherwork and tapa.

  • Containers for fishing equipment or bait, and as lures or line reels.

  • A sport called kaupua, which involved swimming or diving for a small, half-ripe gourd that would barely float.

  • Bailers, where the ipu was fashioned into a scoop shape vessel.

  • Enema syringes ('nuff said).

  • Funnels to fill smaller ipu.

  • Masks. See the classic two plates, 65 and 66, in the album to Cook's third voyage, 1785, depicting a double canoe with seven paddlers and three passengers all wearing gourds over their heads (65) and a kahuna wearing a gourd mask (66).

    One of the most unique uses of the ipu was as a decoy: Fishermen would carry several large bottle gourds in their canoes. When a tiger shark was spotted, the fisherman would throw an ipu high in the air, so that it would hit the water with a sharp splash to one side of the shark. The shark would turn from the canoe and head for the new attraction. As the shark attacked the decoy, it would bob away each time the shark's snout hit it. As the infuriated animal tried to bite the gourd, the fishermen hurried ashore.

    In modern times, the most visible use of the ipu is as an idiophone a category of instruments whose body produces the sound, aka, the classic ipu heke, made by attaching two gourds one atop the other, joined by kepau or 'ulu gum.

    Sunny locations with moderate rainfall, such as leeward and southerly areas, were best suited for growing. Planting was done on the night of Hua (usually three to four nights before the full moon), at the beginning of the rainy season (ho'oilo), and that allowed the next hot, dry summer months (makali'i) to nurture maturity.

    When the ipu establishes, it will send vines seeking sunlight and height. The initial vine will have minute buds at each leaf node. Male blossoms appear on the first vine, followed by female blossoms. Shimmering white male flowers open first to attract pollinators, and in about a week, the female blossoms bloom. Hand-pollinate by plucking male flowers at dusk and pulling back the petals to expose their stamens. Gently dust the stamens across the pistil of the female flower. Prevent crosspollination by gathering the female petal tips and carefully tie shut after pollinating.

    Downy keiki fruits are extremely fragile. Ipu were regarded so precious that a ritual naming of the individual fruits after ancestors was implemented to prevent theft (i ka inoa o kona mau kupuna). Shadows of people were not allowed to be cast on the flowers, because the gourd was a kino lau (body form) of the god of agriculture, Lono.

    Any debris that might be misshapen or bruise the ipu was removed from the vicinity of the gourd. Sometimes a frame of sticks (haka) was fashioned to suspend the ipu off the ground, supporting symmetrical growth.

    The ipu must only be harvested when the stem attached to the gourd withers and is completely dried.

    The ipu's importance to Hawaiian culture is reflected in artistic uses, in myths and stories and in its diverse uses. The ipu is a tribute to the botanical prowess of the old Hawaiians and their ingenuity.