Ipu wai (Water gourd)


Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Ipu wai. Water gourd. This is a whole gourd that has undergone a drying process resulting in a hollow body. There is a small circular opening below the top piko (a centre where the stem would connect the gourd to the plant.) Its whole shape, small circular opening and dark reddish staining suggest it was used to carry or store water. Its exterior body is smooth in texture and lumpy in some parts. Internally it features a matte surface. On one side of the body there are minor cracks. Its overall colouring ranges in light to dark reddish browns.

This is an Ipū wai. Its entire body is hollow from drying. It features a circular opening near the top and is ideal for carrying water. The presence of water can be seen in the staining of the surface from within.

Ipū is a term commonly associated with the gourd. It has been intentionally cultivated and hollowed. Ipū have a hollistic role within Hawaiian history and culture. Physically, the ipū can be used to carry mea’ai (food) and ka wai (water) or to store personal items. They can also be used to produce kani (sound) for mele (song) and hula (dance). Spiritually the ipū also have a significant metaphoric presence in procreation stories.

There are two kinds of ipū: Ipū nui are a large variety of gourd and are associated with carrying food or water in contrast to Ipū awa awa which are the bitter variety of gourd. These are more suitable for holding goods or made for use as instruments in Hula. As one knowledge holder explained, “The Hawaiian people – we had 42 different uses for the ipū" – the most described across Polynesia.

There are other qualities that extend the physical use of ipū into the realm of the cosmological and the spiritual. The late Indigenous Hawaiian scholar and historian, Samuel Kamakau (1815-1876) portrays the cosmological role ipū played in the creation story through an exert published in 'Ke Au Okoa’,

“It was thus that Papa gave birth: she gave birth to a gourd, a calabash with its cover, 'he 'umeke a he po'i; Wākea threw the cover up, and it became the sky; then Wākea threw out the inner core, 'ka haku oloko’, and it became the sun; as he threw it up, the seeds became stars. Wākea saw the whiteness of the soft core, the 'pala haku’, of the gourd and threw that up, and it became the moon; the white layer, 'papa ke'oke'o’, of the gourd Wākea scraped and threw up into space and it became clouds; the juice of the gourd he poured into the clouds, and it became rain. The calabash from the seperation of the gourd by Wākea became land and ocean." (Oct. 14, 21, 1869)

Papa is the earth mother, and Wākea is the sky father. The story of them birthing a gourd and using its contents to create the heavens and the earth illustrates the abundance that ipū have continued to offer today. Whether this is through domestic use, cultural performance or cosmological stories, the ipū has continued to carry Hawai’i’s rich history and culture.

We would like to give thanks to the Hawaiian knowledge holders who generously shared their mana`o and sources surrounding the significance of the ipū.

• M.Beckwith, 'Hawaiian Mythology’. U H Press. 1970.
• Jenkins, 'The Hawaiian Calabash’.Editions limited. 1989.
• T.R.Hiroa, 'Arts and Crafts of Hawaii’. Bishop Museum Press. 1957.
• S.M.Kamakau, 'Tails and Traditions of the People of Old|Nā Mo'olelo a ka Po'e Kahiko’. Bishop Museum Press. 1991.
• Personal comms. Kumu Auli`i Mitchell. 14.03.2018
• Ipū wai (Water gourd)
• 'Aha (coconut sennit)
• Malo (loin cloth)
• Kani (sound)
• Mele (song)
• Hula (dance)
• Mea'ai (food)
• Ka wai (water)

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