Ngatu, Cultural Wealth of the Kingdom of Tonga


Malo e lelei!!!  The beautiful Kingdom of Tonga proudly presents the ngatu. Ngatu is a traditional cloth made from the bark of the mulberry tree. It has been the treasure of our ancestors and today it is still one of our prestige, traditional and cultural wealth.  Ngatu is used in gift-giving and other traditional rituals. It is a sign of respect but significantly, is a cultural wealth of our people.

Ngatu making (2017) by Afa Koka'angaICHCAP

Ngatu making

Tonga is well-known as one of the Islands in the Pacific to practice the art of ngatu making. From our ancestors, ngatu making has been passed down throughout the generations and it has become deeply embedded within our beautiful culture. Production of ngatu is predominantly a feminine working environment with only minor assistance from the men. The beauty of ngatu making is the various processes involved, time and patience given towards this art.

Hiapo (2017/2017) by Nukuhetulu Koka'angaICHCAP

Ngatu making begins with harvesting the Hiapo or Mulberry Tree. The Hiapo is grown in the plantations for a period of 2-3 years before they are ready to be harvested.

Amusi (2017) by Afa Koka'anga GroupICHCAP

Amusi - The first stage in ngatu making is the harvesting of hiapo tree.

Hae (2017) by Afa Koka'anga GroupICHCAP

Hae - Harvested stems of the hiapo are left for a couple of days to dry out, before they are stripped.As depicted, the bark is stripped from the long stem of the tree.

Fohi (2017) by Afa Koka'anga GroupICHCAP

Fohi - Once the bark is stripped from the stem, the outer bark is scraped off to receive the white inner bark. This process is known as fohi tutu. A sharp knife or shell is used for the fohi tutu.

tutu (2017) by Afa Koka'anga GroupICHCAP

the sound of the Ike beating on the tutua

Fakapa tutu - the first stage of beating the tutu (stripped bark), tutu is laid over a wooden anvil, tutua and beaten with the wooden mallet, ike. The beating of the 'ike' creates a rhythm that Tongan ears are familiar with.

tutu (2017) by Afa Koka'anga GroupICHCAP

Repeated beating of the tutu makes it thinner and wider, women then use the palm of their hands to smooth out the tutu knowing by touch the right texture needed. The end product is called feta'aki.

Ike and feta'aki (2017) by Afa Koka'anga GroupICHCAP

Tutua (anvil) with the Ike (beater) and feta'aki (cloth made from beaten hiapo bark) on top.

After constantly beating the Hiapo bark, a fine thin piece of feta'aki (cloth) is achieved

The 'ike' or wooden mallet used to beat the tutu. The faces of the ike has different grooves with specific properties and use during the beating process to get the fine thin feta'aki.

Fakapipiki ngatu (2017) by Afa Koka'anga GroupICHCAP

Koka'anga involves the process of gluing pieces of feta'aki. The feta'aki is prepared to certain measurement by each woman in the koka'anga group and it is called a langanga, their individual langanga adds up to make one whole ngatu.

Brown colouring the Ngatu (2017) by Hala Maumau Koula Koka'anga GroupICHCAP

This is the process of colouring the newly made ngatu with the brown-reddish dye made from the koka tree. This process marks the layout before women draw the decorated motifs and designs.

Round-shape Koka'anga table (2017) by Nukuhetulu Koka'angaICHCAP

This picture shows a traditional semi circled shape koka'anga table. Its shape enables women to stretch the feta'aki easily, pulling and smoothing them out to minimize wrinkles in the feta'aki.

Kupesi mat (2017) by Ministry of Internal AffairsICHCAP

For women to be able to draw kupesi designs, the kupesi is initially woven into kupesi mats, which is used to print the design on the feta'aki before finishing off free-hand.

The kupesi mat is made of coconut sennit, coconut midribs and the coconut husk constructing a beautiful traditional tokelau feletoa design.

Papa and Kupesi (2017/2017) by Nukuhetulu Koka'angaICHCAP

Kupesi mats are stuck on top of the koka'anga table and it enables women to print the designs during the brown colouring of the feta'aki.

Papa and Kupesi (2017/2017) by Nukuhetulu Koka'angaICHCAP

Layers of feta'aki are placed over the table and kupesi mats and coloured with the brown-reddish dye made from selected plant pigments or red clay soil.

Kupesi Sila (2017/2017) by Nukuhetulu Koka'angaICHCAP

This koka'anga picked the national Code of Arms of Tonga as its central kupesi. The kupesi stencil is taped to the koka'anga table, the layers of feta'aki placed over it, then rubbed with dye to show the kupesi as depicted.

Ngatu Kupesi (2017/2017) by Nukuhetulu Koka'angaICHCAP

Different types of kupesi designs and motifs are used to decorate one ngatu.

Tataki Ngatu (2017) by Afa Koka'anga GroupICHCAP

Tataki - this is an important process in ngatu making. Once the newly made ngatu is completed, it is rolled out in the sun to dry. Careful hands are essential not to damage the ngatu until it is dry.

Fakangingila (2017) by Ministry of Internal AffairsICHCAP

Kerosene is often added to the glue mixture and is rubbed on the newly made ngatu to add luster and as insect and bug repellent.

Fata and Hea (2013) by Melemanu BloomfieldICHCAP

Kupesi designs and motifs used

Kupesi is the design printed and drawn on the ngatu. Each kupesi has a meaning, a history and place of origin which tells the place of origin of the ngatu and its makers. Often the kupesi drawn into a piece of ngatu marks historical events and co-relates to Tongan cosmology, seasons and the environment.

Faiva Me'etu'upaki (2015) by Fakama'unga ExhibitionICHCAP

The men performing this ancient dance called me'etu'upaki are primarily dressed in ngatu. The picture highlights many different motifs (kupesi) showcased in the pieces of ngatu worn by the performers.

Kupesi 1: Tokelau Feletoa, an old kupesi said to have originated from the village of Feletoa, in the Vava'u Group located to the north of Tongatapu.

Kupesi 2: Ko e Palatavake, a kupesi depicting an ancient headdress said to have been made for the Tu'i Tonga, Bau.

Kupesi 3: Manulua, the manulua is known to be one of the oldest Tongan kupesi. This kupesi is thought to mimic two birds flying in circles of each other.

Fo'i hea is one of the decorative motifs used to decorate the ngatu, usually seen in three and drawn in triangular shape. It refers to things such as the three main island groups of Tonga, the three lines of kings among others.

Amoamokofe (2009) by Melemanu BloomfieldICHCAP

Kupesi 4: Amoamokofe

Nagtu lau tefuhi (100 langangas) are rolled out as walkway for royalty on special occasions. This ngatu features the 'amoamokofe' motif, repeatedly printed throughout the length of the piece.

Ngatu ki Mala'ekula (2006/2006) by Melemanu BloomfieldICHCAP

Cultural rituals and traditional uses of the Ngatu

In the Kingdom of Tonga, cultural and social rituals are still practiced and has become a part of our daily lives. Ngatu has many roles and worth, depending on the context of that particular ritual. A deceased is wrapped with a ngatu for burial, they are presented as gifts during birthdays and weddings. The presence of ngatu is highly valued as cultural gifts and it is presented in a reciprocal manner, therefore ngatu is amongst a Tongan woman's prized possession, symbolizing cultural wealth and prestige. 

Vala Mali (2014) by Melemanu BloomfieldICHCAP

In a traditional Tongan wedding, ngatu and other Tongan wealth (fine mats) are presented as gifts. However the married couple are also dressed up with mats and ngatu as a sign of respect and wealth.

Fata Me'afaka'eiki (2010) by Melemanu BloomfieldICHCAP

Featured is a ngatu 'uli (black ngatu). A prestigious item of wealth made and reserved for chiefs and royalty, used especially in funerals. This royal catafalque, shows ngatu'uli on top of fine mats as flooring.

Koloa fakatonga (2015) by Melemanu BloomfieldICHCAP

In a birthday ceremony, ngatu along with other traditional wealth are presented as gifts. The presentation of these traditional gifts symbolizes respect and usually gifts are presented from both sides of the family

Fatu koloa fakatonga (2012) by Melemanu BloomfieldICHCAP

These are koloa (wealth), laid according to their ritual use and function, they are presented as fulfillment of fatongia (duties). Ngatu has a prominent place in all koloa presentations.

Faiva Me'etu'upaki (2015) by Coronation School CelebrationICHCAP

Fashion and traditional wear

Fashion has introduced a modern use of the ngatu into our Society. Because the texture of the ngatu is very versatile, it has been used to make fashionable cloths. Also, ngatu itself is the traditional dance costume used in most of the Tongan dances.  The use of ngatu in handicrafts is also highly noted, it is used as a decorative ornament and also adds a cultural touch. 

Vala ngatu (2015/2015) by Ministry of Internal AffairsICHCAP

A young girl showcasing an attire and accessories made entirely from feta'aki (the pearly white sheets of beaten mulberry bark).

The ngatu cloth is very versatile and can be sewn like fabric. It can be quite tolerant and comfortable to wear. People in the past have claimed to use ngatu as clothes and even blankets.

Shoes made of ngatu cloth.

Tauolunga (2015) by Fakama'unga ExhibitionICHCAP

The tau'olunga is a traditional dance preformed by women. Ngatu is one of the cultural materials used in designing the tau'olunga costume.

Faiva Me'etu'upaki (2015) by Fakama'unga ExhibitionICHCAP

Me'etu'upaki - Ngatu is the only traditional attire for the me'etu'upaki dance. Preformed by men only, ngatu is tied to their waist throughout the whole performance.

Tau Fakaniua (2014) by Melemanu BloomfieldICHCAP

Young girls dressed in dresses made of ngatu, in preparation for cultural performances.

Ngaue fakamea'a (2015) by Ministry of Internal AffairsICHCAP


The handicraft industry has utilized ngatu cloth to produce amazing, creative and beautiful crafts. Not only is ngatu making a traditional art but handicraft has modernized the use of the art. Because of its durability and beauty, handicraft makers has decorated their crafts with the ngatu. 

Ngaue fakamea'a (2015) by Melemanu BloomfieldICHCAP

A bouquet of flowers made from different traditional materials, like kaka and the feta'aki, illustrating durability and versatility of feta'aki, enabling the production of magnificent works of art.

Handicraft (2017) by Kitione LoseliICHCAP

Illustrated are some of the more modern use of ngatu. Handicraft makers use 'feta'aki'/ngatu cloth to wrap their products and it is also decorated with traditional motifs and designs. People in the handicraft industry depend on this art to make a living

Jewelry Box (2017) by Kitione LoseliICHCAP

A Jewelry box wrapped with feta'aki or ngatu cloth and it is decorated with traditional motifs.

Photo Frame (2017) by Kitione LoseliICHCAP

Photo frame with a traditional Tongan touch.

Afa Koka'anga Group (2017) by Afa Koka'anga GroupICHCAP

Communal and Social Cohesion

The beauty of ngatu making is that people of the community share a cohesive relationship. In order for ngatu to be made, women of the community gather together and work cooperatively to make one's ngatu. This working group is called a 'Koka'anga' group. A Koka'anga group consists of numerous participants, more hands means an efficient workforce, but, knowingly, these women shared a cohesive relationship within the community.  

Hala maumau koula Koka'anga (2017) by Ministry of Internal AffairsICHCAP

A Koka'anga is held once a week. Before the koka'anga day, every woman is expected to provide an agreed length of feta'aki (ngafa). Therefore, every member takes time to prepare their ngafa. In a koka'anga, one learns respect, communal cooperation and trust.

Afa Koka'anga (2017) by Ministry of Internal AffairsICHCAP

Why do women still practice this art? Tongan women understand their role in society, their cultural responsibility to family, church and homeland which empahsises the cultural use and worth of ngatu.

The importance of Ngatu (2017-03-25) by Hala Maumau Koula Koka'angaICHCAP

Credits: Story

Photo courtesy of Melemanu Fiu Bloomfield, Taimi Media Network and Ministry of Internal Affairs Photo Collection

Koka'anga Group: Afa Koka'anga Group, Hala Maumau Koula Koka'anga Group and Nukuhetulu Koka'anga Group.

Movie by Hala Maumau Koula Koka'anga.
Filmed and edited by Malani Wolfgram
Short clip by Nukuhetulu Koka'anga Group
Filmed by Tevita Tu'akipulotu Ma'u.

Text written by Tevita Tu'akipulotu Ma'u and Milika Pomana, Ministry of Internal Affairs - Culture and Youth Division.

Photographer and Exhibition created by Tevita Tu'akipulotu Ma'u.

Edited by Ministry of Internal Affairs - Culture and Youth Division, Tonga

Credits: All media
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