Tolai - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Tolai cosmology includes a vast assortment of spirits usually referred to collectively by the term tabaran. "Spirits of the air" are benign and their help is sought by those seeking inspiration in the composition of a new song, the design of costumes, or the choreography for a dance to be performed at a ceremony. Others, denizens of the bush and sometimes of grotesque form, are malevolent and much feared. The spirit of the tubuan lies at the heart of their religious system. The tubuan is "raised" to dance at a variety of festivals or balaguan, but the great climactic rite is the matamatam, a ceremony to honor all the deceased of the clan, when the masked figures of tubuan and dukduk (a central spirit figure of the secret male cult) both appear.

Religious Practitioners. Experts, or melem, are still required for the "raising" of the tubuan, but knowledge relating to garden and fishing magic and the like seems to have disappeared and the rites are now rarely, if ever, performed. By contrast, the reality of sorcery is still almost universally acknowledged.

Ceremonies. Despite the efforts of the earlier missionaries, the balaguan and matamatam continue to be performed very much as Richard Parkinson, an early planter in New Britain, observed them a century ago. At the same time, the vast majority of Tolai acknowledge a profound commitment to Christianity, and congregational matters are intimately woven into the daily life of the village. In addition to the ceremonies associated with the tubuan and those that follow a death, Tolai nowadays also celebrate with ceremonies to mark the completion of a new house, the installation of a new water tank, or even a birthday. However, all of these take a traditional form in that they involve exchanges of tambu.

Arts. Ceremonies are occasions of great pageantry, and much of Tolai artistry is invested in these events. Dancers wear colorful, specially designed costumes, and some of them carry carved and ornamented staves prepared for that particular occasion. The artist, whether carver or composer, enjoys very high prestige.

Medicine. Individuals with a knowledge of the properties of particular plants may be consulted as healers for particular complaints. But healing is another area in which the indigenous culture has been much eroded. Nowadays, Tolai regularly consult Western-trained practitioners, some of whom are themselves Tolai.

Death and Afterlife. In former times, coils of tambu had to be cut up and distributed so that the deceased would be able to enter the "Abode of the Spirits." To die without having tambu "cut" for one was not only shameful for the surviving members of lineage and clan, but it also condemned the deceased to an existence of everlasting misery in the land of IaKupia. Such a set of ideas underlay the whole tambu complex. After more than a century of Christianity, much of the traditional ideology touching these matters has been lost, but tambu has retained its ritual and symbolic significance, providing the link between present and past generations.

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