However, marae in the tropical Pacific carry less significance as the arrival of Christianity in the 19th century saw the abandonment and destruction of these thriving cultural centres. Like Māori, the marae – or Tongan mala’e and Samoan māla’e – still play pivotal roles of governance in their respective communities.
In pre-colonial times, the marae was central to everyday life in Aōtearoa (New Zealand). The distinctly tribal societies gathered to eat and sleep all under the same roof. The notion of the nuclear family was non-existent and Māori tikanga (lore) constituted a more communal lifestyle. While Western ideologies of the nuclear family emphasize independence, the Māori philosophy, and by extension the marae, is firmly rooted in the notion of interdependence. Yet, the marae does not simply act as a centre for living but also as a means of staying connected to the spiritual ancestors. Inherent in the design of the whare tipuna is this very notion. You will notice that each marae across the country are named after paramount chiefs of a tribal area. As such, the distinct architecture of the whare tipuna is designed to embody the likeness of this ancestor.
At the front of the meeting house is the koruru, carved to represent the face of the ancestor. The two long beams trailing down are the maihi and representing the arms, at the ends of which are the raparapa, or fingers of the ancestor. Supporting the beams are the amo, or legs, holding up the entirety of the building. Finally, standing aloft at the top of the marae is the tekoteko, or statue, which represents the ancestor in all their revered likeness.
Yet the exterior design of the marae is incomparable to its interior. Inside tukutuku, or weaved panels and carvings, trace the entire history of the tribe and their ancestors through Māori symbology, a kind of European tapestry in the South Pacific. Running along the roof is the tahuhu, or spine of the ancestor, which holds together the whare tipuna. However, standing at the centre of the whare tipuna is the poutokomanawa, or the heart of the ancestor. This beam not only holds up the entire structure but it is the heart of the ancestor. By extension, it is also the heart of the tribe and the community and serves as a reminder that without a unified heartbeat there can be no community. For most marae around Aōtearoa, it is for these reasons they do not allow shoes to be warn in the whare tipuna. It represents the body of the ancestors and to wear shoes while entering their likeness would be to trample on their mana and mauri.
Due to the urban migration of Māori to the cities in the 1960s, Māori no longer live primarily on marae and, while communal living has dwindled, the marae still plays a significant role in modern Māori society. Marae are still used for a multitude of cultural rituals, including birthdays and weddings, yet the most significant ritual is the tangihanga. For most New Zealand Māori, they will return to their marae for two days of grieving. During this time the hosting tribe will have to cater to thousands who have travelled to pay their respects. The visitors will be fed and provided with shelter and rest facilities. By the third day, it is left to the marae to bury the individual and ensure that all necessary protocols and rituals have been followed. Therefore, while marae are no longer the thriving hubs of yesteryear, they are still a vital element in preserving the cultural vitality of the Māori.