Fiji's divine house: the bure
What is a bure?
Anyone who has holidayed in Fiji is familiar with the word bure (pronounced mboo-ray) and has probably slept in one. Today the word refers to resort guest rooms which are detached thatched dwellings. Bures make the visitors feel they are in a pre-colonial village, complete with modern bathrooms and a lovely pool amid lush gardens.
But in pre-colonial days, a bure was a spirit house (or temple), illustrated on this beautiful cover of the 1851 book by Mary Wallace, a sea-captain's wife. (Read more about Mrs Wallace here.) You can see the strings of huge white cowrie shells hanging from the steep roof down to the raised stone base of the bure.
How was a bure used?
At that time, only the priest, the chief, his advisors and VIP visitors would ever sleep in the village bure. My source, Rev Thomas Williams in Fiji and the Fijians, 1858, observed that the bure wasn't used to worship a god but for divination and consultation.
A chief seeking success in battle or a supplicant with a sick relative would bring an offering of a whale's tooth, a weapon or food. The priest sat with his back to a strip of white masi (tapa cloth) hanging from the topmost rafter down the wall, the path the god travelled to enter the priest. When the supplicant made his request, the priest slipped into a trance, followed by trembling escalating to violent convulsions as the god possessed him. Anything the priest uttered in this state was believed to be the voice of the god answering the supplicant's request.
How was a bure built?
, "All that is excellent in material and workmanship in the Chiefs' houses, is seen to perfection and in unsparing profusion in the bure." (Williams, p.84) Both sketches here are also by Thomas Williams, pp. 217, 222.
Sometimes a bure was built on the spot where a chief was killed. When the timber pillars of the house itself were set up, and again when the bure was finished, men were killed and eaten to celebrate.
The stone-faced rubble mound could be from one to seven metres high, climbed by a thick notched plank. . After the pillars, the walls and roof would be framed with timber and panelled with layers of reeds.
Hundreds of villagers could join in thatching the roof with layers of sugar cane leaves or palm leaves, followed by grass or reeds fastened down by long rods. The thatchers made a joyous and noisy party of the work. (Williams, pp. 83-5)
Although the bure was usually empty except for mats and votive offerings, the interior was finished with intricate bindings of sinnet (coconut fibre cord), "The quantity of sinnet used...is immense; for every timber is covered with it, in various patterns of black and red. Reeds wrapped with the same material are used for lining door and window openings, and between the rafters and other spars."
Here's a modern version of sinnet binding, probably much reduced and simplified compared with Williams' description above (p. 221).
Ironically, only public buildings and resorts keep the ancient Fijian building skills and crafts alive these days. So when you visit Fiji and lie in bed gazing at your intricately decorated rafters, you're continuing the tradition of the village bure accommodating VIP guests.
Now I'll tell you a secret! In my work-in-progress, Death Off Camera: Fiji Islands Mysteries 5, a ruined bure mound plays a crucial role. (I'm hoping for a September release.)