Photos of Princess Pilolevu walking on women’s back in Sydney stir online debate

Photos of women lying on the ground while Princess Pilolevu Tuita walked on their backs have stirred mixed reactions on social media.

Some  commentators used the word ‘primitive’ to describe the display, while others said it was a traditional act of respect.

The photos were apparently shot at a Holonga, Vava’u’s village day, in Sydney, Australia, last  Saturday.

The photos and video taken at the scene, where a number of women lay face down on what appeared to be a concrete floor, went viral on Facebook.

While many made positive comments, some said it was uncivilized and others criticised the Princess for not telling the women to stop what they were doing.

However, a witness said the Princess did not walk on the women’s backs, but stepped over them and put her feet in the spaces between the women while they were lying face down.

Many said they worried that the women could be physically harmed by the Princess walking on them.

Some supporters of the Princess tried to convince critics that this was something any Tongan could do and was not just for a royal prerogatives.

The report drew surprised comments from people from other cultures.

A post on the Samoa Koko Café Facebook page said: “Who knew this manifestation of respect still existed today in the Pacific? Her Royal Highness Princess Pilolevu of the Kingdom of Tonga (one of the oldest monarchy’s in the world) is pictured here walking over “commoners” as they [lie] on the ground as a mark of respect and honour to their majesty.”

In response, Mereani Sau Dawaii wrote: “It reminds me in some parts of Fiji, when there’s a wedding. The women from the men’s family will form two lines sitting closely to one another [with] their legs out. They will have mats and tapa covering their feet and the new bride will walk from one end to the other. I think it’s beautiful and all I can see in this pic is respect.”

Michael Field, a veteran New Zealand journalist who has covered the Pacific, also wrote about the images, saying: “This is why, in Tonga, the royal word for a commoner is ‘kainanga ‘o e fonua’ – dirt eaters.”

On the same post where Field commented, Indira Moala a Tongan reporter for Radio New Zealand International wrote:  “And though it’s hard for others to believe, it’s actually an act that many commoners are excited and honoured to do (smile emoticon). Other commoners watching, normally cheer them on in support, or admire their humility to “to ki lalo” – the humble act of falling down.”

Misi Fifita wrote: “Let’s just get one thing straight. This photo is from Holonga Day on Saturday and I was there when this happened. She ‘DID NOT’ step or walk on these people pictured. She stepped in between them. So before you run your mouth, criticise and judge, make sure you have the facts. Ask anyone who was there. She refused to walk on them. People refused to move unless she did. So she walked in between people (not stepping on anyone) to make them happy and to get them up.”

Euphoric mood

The practice is not uncommon in Tonga and is not something that can only involves members of the royal family and nobles.

It is not a formal practice and people are not obliged to perform it during Tongan celebrations and entertainment.

The Tongan saying depicts it this way: “Fakapuna pe ‘e he māfana” (It was stirred to action by the overwhelming emotion one gets when she or he enjoys the celebration).

It can be seen anywhere whenever Tongan celebrants are euphoric or overjoyed and not only in big celebrations.

A small entertainment in a Tongan family home can be enjoyed to the point that the party goers will climb on tables and chairs and even roll on the floor.

There are several other cultural exercises that are aligned with it, such as laupisi ‘eiki, when the commoners have to do something that may look nonsensical when the royals are around. Its purpose is to highlight the presence of royals or nobility.

The main points

  • Photos of women lying on the ground while Princess Pilolevu Tuita walked on their backs have stirred mixed reactions on social media.
  • Some commentators used the word ‘primitive’ to describe the display, while others said it was a traditional act of respect.
  • The photos were apparently shot at a Holonga, Vava’u’s village day, in Sydney, Australia, last
  • The photos and video take at the scene, where a number of women lay face down on what appeared to be a concrete floor, went viral on Facebook.

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