Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hawaiian Lamplighting Ceremony

As dusk falls on the beautiful Kohala Coast of Hawaii, lamplighting ceremonies send warm, orange flares into the air.

Children gather round for a fun way to end the day, but for lamplighters like Elton who carry a flaming torch, the ceremony has an altogether more solemn significance.

Casual beachwear discarded, Elton dresses in traditional Hawaiian cloth and shell necklace, tying plaited fronds around his arms, knees and forehead. When he is ready, he collects a flaming torch on a long, metal pole.

Then he stands, torch in hand, and solemnly raises a pu - Hawaiian for conch shell - to his lips, sounding the first of four, high-pitched notes.

In turn he faces east for the rising of the sun, west for the setting of the sun, north and south.

As Elton blows the pu, he is acknowledging his kupanas - elders - and aumakua, the spiritual guardians of animals and nature, who Elton believes, live on in the sharks, turtles and whales, the trees, wind and rain and who are around him to protect him.

'That's why we're very sensitive to our environment,' he explained one evening, preparing for the ritual in the grounds of the Fairmont Orchid hotel.

Luxuriant tropical plants and trees surround him with the bright yellow hibiscus, the national flower of Hawaii, in abundance. Behind, the curling surf of the Pacific with its
subtle tints of blues and greens, tumbles gently on shore. A shore from where humpbacked whales, sharks and endangered honu turtles can be watched.

For Elton, like most Hawaiians, blowing conch shells is a part of everyday life but everyone, he says, has a personal way of doing it.

'It is similar to a trumpet but every conch shell will fit a separate person. You never blow someone else's conch,' he says.

Elton, named after Elton John, grew up on the Big Island, as Hawaii is also known, and has lived there all his life.

His cultural influences are mixed for the island has had huge western influence, beginning with the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778 and American missionaries in the 1800s.

He was educated in a Catholic school founded by the early missionaries, and grew up watching PBS - Public Broadcasting Service - on Hawaiian television, which broadcast British programmes. His two favourite shows are Monty Python and Keeping Up Appearances, so it is not surprising that inside him is a little bit of Britain!

During the day he works on the hotel's private beach, but it is as dusk approaches that he expresses his Hawaiian nature.

That evening as the notes of the pu sounded out in the peaceful setting, the air was cooler and there were no children running to join him.

But during the summer holidays as many as 30 or 40 children accompany him joyfully around verdant trails and paths, respectfully lighting up the descending darkness with flickering glows.

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