NA VILA: Sacred Power Over Heat and Fire

By ICHCAP

Firewalking (Vila) an intangible gift to the people of Sawau (Beqa, Fiji) performed only on solemn ceremonial occasion. This is the mystical phenomenon of walking on hot stones passed through generations from the Sawau ancestors. 

Introduction by BBC TV(UK)/Department of Heritage & Arts/Min.of InformationICHCAP

Sir David Attenborough: introducing the gift!

costume preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

COSTUMING THE DAUVILA

The making of costumes for the dauvila (firewalker) is a very significant part of the ritual as it re-enacts the moment when the gift of Vila becomes the Sawau collective intangible cultural heritage (ICH). Women, mostly, participate in its  preparation. The costumes are vibrant and intricately woven, symbolic of power and strength. Wearers project a different self allowing them to walk on hot stones.

costume preparation by iTaukei Language & Culture/Fiji MuseumICHCAP

The voivoi or pandanus (Pandanaceae sp) is a versatile plant with leaves growing to about 2 meters long. The leaves are harvested, boiled and dried to weave liku (skirt) for the firewalkers. The latter is the main component of the firewalker's ensemble.

costume preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

DYING PANDANUS BLACK:The dried pandanus leaves are dyed black through a natural steeping process in swampy mud pools. The dried leaves are clustered in batches before immersing in mud.

costume preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

The dried pandanus for steeping is submerged carefully around the mud pool for 3 nights. The thick mud texture assists in anchoring the leaves under and dried tree branch(es) used as markers.

costume preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

The ‘kalabuci damu’ is a cultivated plant similar to A-wilkesiana but with rounded leaf blades up to 15cm long. Leaves from this plant are boiled with the swamp steeped pandanus to darken its colour.

costume preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

Water is boiled to maximum in a large pot before black dried pandanus leaves are first dipped then 'kalabuci damu’ branches are placed atop. This is simmered overnight.

costume preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

DYING PANDANUS YELLOW: Fresh turmeric or ‘cea’ (pronounced "there") is a natural dye used in the yellow coloring of pandanus. Cea is dug, cleaned, grated then boiled with dried pandanus leaves.

costume preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

Dried pandanus is boiled in a pot and grated turmeric is added by the handful. Extra care is taken to ensure that the turmeric is evenly suspended in the pot. This is to ensure right consistency and spread of colour.

costume preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

The pandanus turns yellow after a long implement (often a long stick) is used to push and stir the leaves and strong turmeric mix together. The swirling and thorough soaking movement ensures proper coloring.

costume preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

WEAVING PROCESS: At the completion of the dying process, pandanus is cut into strips and sorted into pairs (black and yellow). These are then plaited to produce the liku (skirt) which is the main part of the traditional ensemble.

costume preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

Yellow and black pandanus strips are woven together using dried fibres of the wild hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliaceus). The weaving process accompanied by chanting is a communal affair of women folk.

costume preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

The liku (skirt) is the main component of the ensemble of the dauvila [firewalker]. This is the entire process of preparing the vilavilairevo (firewalking) costume.

Pit Preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

IGNITING THE IREVO

The irevo (firewalking pit) is the main arena with which the Sawau power over heat and fire will manifest. 

Pit Preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

Wood from the ‘Ivi’ (Inocarpus fagiferus) makes great firewood for the irevo (firewalking pit) because it gives off great heat and burns slowly.

Pit Preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

Huge rocks are manually collected by men for the firewalking pit. As many as 50 of these rocks can be gathered for the fire pit. The best rocks are from nearby rivers and creeks.

Pit Preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

The balabala fern (Cyatheaae family) is also used as a medium to "transfer" invisible fire gnomes (veli) from the forests to the irevo (firewalking pit). The whole tree is laid across the irevo.

Pit Preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

Vines or lianas and slender branches cut from the forest are collected and used as "broom" to clear and drag the burning logs and leftover embers, leveling the heated rocks in the irevo.

Pit Preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

This is the foremost arrangement of rocks and logs in the irevo to facilitate free flow of air and maximum combustion since pit is 3 - 4 feet deep. Bolders and huge log are placed atop before incineration.

Pit Preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

The completed arrangement and actual look of the irevo before incineration. Note the careful arrangement of logs around the pit. The dried coconut branches popping out are used to fire up the irevo.

Pit Preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

Bolders and large rocks are then piled one by one atop the log arrangement. The logs are proportionate to rocks size so that burning will engulf the entire pit and heat rocks to the max.

Pit Preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

The burning of the logs slowly heat the rocks for hours. Rocks turn bright red during the combustion process.

Pit Preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

Super heated rocks and bolders after hours of burning. When the embers die down, the heat is felt about 5 feet from the pit. It is now ready for the vilavilairevo (firewalking) ritual.

Pit Preparation by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

While it maybe a cumbersome activity, the preparation of the irevo is pivotal to ensure the sanctity of the fire walking ceremony is maintained.This is the entire process captured.

firewalking by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

SOLEVU: PERFORMING THE VILA

The enactment of the vilavilairevo (firewalking) and the culmination of this sacred ritual.

firewalking by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

The sacredness of the ceremony requires the dauvila respect certain taboos before they walk. They congregate in a special house the previous evening preparing before walking to the irevo the next day.

firewalking by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

Before the actual ceremony, the dauvila use the vines prepared to level the irevo stones and bolders.

firewalking by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

Slender branches are used to remove embers and also level hot stones. Note the balabala (fern) tree stem laid across the fire pit to transfer invisible fire gnomes protecting the dauvila (firewalker) when they walk on hot stones.

firewalking by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

The dauvila begin the walk across the fire pit (on hot stones). The order of "walk" is random. Any who breaks the taboo will burn his feet during the walk.

firewalking by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

In the firewalking ceremony, the transmission of this gift is evident with a young member of the clan walking across the pit as well.

firewalking by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

The irevo is covered with silaniviti (Coix lachryma) for ritual protection and to sustain the earthoven for use in future.

firewalking by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

At the end of the vilavilairevo, a special chant or song is sung to celebrate the successful culmination of the vila ritual and that no one was harmed in the process.

firewalking by Yavusa o SawauICHCAP

The entirety of the vilavilairevo performance visual presentation by the dauvila of the Sawau Tribe of Beqa.

Credits: Story

The Fiji ICH Online Project Team is made up of personnel from the Fiji Museum, iTaukei Institute of Language & Culture, Fiji Arts Council, Department of Heritage & Arts, and Independent ICH Researcher Qei Makereta Vatuloka.

The Project Team is indebted and would like to express its utmost appreciation to the TURAGA NA TUI SAWAU and the people of the VANUA SAWAU for allowing the Project Team to document, consolidate and exhibit to the world and humanity their traditional knowledge and associated cultural practice. The wealth of information shared by the elders was profound and these were succinctly articulated on this platform.

We would like to acknowledge and express our warmest vinaka vakalevu also to the following institutions and artists whose works are used to finalise this online exhibition on the vilavilairevo, making it a success:
(a) BBC World.
(b) Ministry of Information - Fijian Government.
(c) Ministry of Education, Heritage & Arts.
(d) Ministry of iTaukei Affairs.
(e) Rewa Provincial Office.
(f) Fijian musicians whose works of creativity
are used in the videos in this exhibition.

This online exhibition is not for the commercial gain of any institution or individual but as an educational tool to foster learning and appreciation of the sacred rituals associated with the gift of firewalking by the SAWAU Tribe of Beqa Island, Fiji.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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