Tahiti Tourisme @ T. Zysman
It would be pretty reductive to think that Tahiti and her islands can be encapsulated in pristine beaches, turquoise lagoons and over water bungalows.
If you are one of these tourists who just want to get to their over water bungalow and spend the day locked up or just lazing on a beach (not that there is anything wrong with that), Tahiti is a great place to do just that, but so are the hundreds of other tropical destinations, it doesn't really matter which one as long as they have the beach, the sun and the bungalows.
Now, if you have dreamed of coming to Tahiti and her islands, I know that it may be for the beach, the sun and the lagoons. However, I also want to believe that there is a lot more behind this dream, that you might have been inspired by the accounts of explorers relating unspoiled paradises and maybe even the romance between Fletcher Christian and the beautiful Maimiti (Mutiny on the Bounty), the myth of the beautiful vahine, or even the paintings of Gauguin.
Whatever your motivations an expectations, you will want to make the most of your trip and make it truly special by discovering what genuinely makes Tahiti and her islands a mystical and tantalizing destination.
Tahiti Tourisme @ Grégory Boissy
On the list of my must sees while in our islands, the marae hold a special place. A type of stone temples that ancient Polynesians considered as tapu (sacred) and were dedicated to deities, marae were the center of cultural, religious, political and social activities. On these platforms of stone, the tahua (High Priests) celebrated pious rituals, sensual Polynesian dancing was born, ancient sports were created, sacrifices took place, decisions were made and justice rendered and humans could come to communicate with the gods (atua) who were called down by the tahua and became embodied in sculpted idols.
Tiki in the Marquesas photo by Greg Nagel
Unfortunately, the arrival of Christianity brought in its wake the destruction and the abandonment of most marae. So at first sight, many marae may seem like meaningless piles of stones and you might wonder why you'd waste time visiting... I'll say just this: it would be like saying the Parthenon is not worth seeing or, for that matter that any ruins and any archaeological site in the world lacks interest. Marae are the archaeological wonders of Tahiti and her islands and visiting a marae will give you a invaluable insight into Polynesian culture.
In spite of their massive destruction and even though Polynesians are no longer polytheists, some marae still stand proud, mostly thanks to restoration. You can find them in all the islands, however the most famous throughout French Polynesia are the Arahurahu marae in Tahiti and Taputapuātea marae in Ra'iātea.
Arahurahu marae has been fully restored and is often used for reenactments during the celebrations of the Heiva i Tahiti celebrations in July.
Taputapuātea marae is one of the largest and best preserved in French Polynesia. It is considered to be the cradle of Polynesian civilization, the birth place of gods and deities and the place from which Polynesian navigators left to populate the other islands of the South Pacific. Today it is the most important religious site in French Polynesia. This 500 year old site built on the edge of a picturesque lagoon has a great significance for Polynesians in the entire South Pacific and some have been militating for its inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Taputapuatea photo by TAHITI
Although some believe the gods have long departed from the marae, I invite you to stand in the middle of these open spaces, to close your eyes and let yourself be transported to ancient times. Hear the beating of the drums, the shouting of the people praising their new king, feel the power (mana) which still inhabits these sacred grounds and the shiver that runs through your spine. To this day, many beliefs still surround these crumbling sites of worship which tell the stories from which legends are formed and they still inspire awe and respect among the Polynesian people. They are still considered as sacred and are treated with the utter most respect.
A world of caution! During your visit to a marae, do not step on the stones, especially the main platform. If you decide to do so, take your shoes off. And sorry ladies, women are not allowed on the platform, well only virgins...
To learn more about marae: