Kelote: A Huli Sacred Space

Yalirima Gale, one of the last guardians of Kelote, the Hela 'Vatican', 1989, Magara village by Damien Arabagali
Yalirima Gale, one of the last guardians of Kelote, the Hela ‘Vatican’, 1989, Magara village by Damien Arabagali

by Ron Meshanko

A very important Huli myth is the story of Helahuli, the ancestral father of the human race. The myth relates the importance of the dindi gamu rites performed at the Kelote gebeanda near Burani on the banks of the Tagari River. The myth states that the Dugaba, Obene, Duna, and Huli peoples sojourn to Kelote to perform fertility rites. The Huli Takapua clan initiates the rituals by sending out massagers through out the Hela land (the four cultural territories) whenever they sense the need to ask forgiveness for wrong-doings by the community; seek assistance in the face of natural calamity, or call down Helahuli’s blessings upon their gardens, pigs and children. The last gathering of the four culture groups occurred in March, 1954 when a severe earthquake rocked the Hela land. 1

The Kelote site 2 consists of a cave and a sacred tree located within a sacred forest. The long avenue that leads to the cave and the Ira Hari tree is lined with large Hoop pine trees. The cave, the center of the sacred site, is located on top of a steep, ninety degree cliff some fifty feet high. The mouth of the cave is approximately twenty feet high and six feet wide. Its depth is unknown. One Huli author, Benjamin Gayalu states the the “cave is quite deep but no one knows how deep it is. None of the persons involved in worshipping would be allowed to go far into the cave, because no one would know what the dama is doing at the particular time.” 3 He also states that the “Outside of the cave is just like a bush area but there are many things inside. There are houses in different shapes. 4 These houses and other structures were previously described on the “Rituals” page. The houses are Ogo anda, keba hagama, depeanda, halebe anda, Gelage anda, and agua wandia anda. None of these houses are present today at Kelote.

All of these ritual houses were also found in similar, but minor gebeanda throughout the Hela area. Each of these gebeanda contained either a sacred cave or a sacred hole in the ground, all of which were believed to be connected by underground roads similar to the one mentioned in the Helahuli myth. Four underground roads spread out from the major Kelote gebeanda to the minor gebeanda of Dauli Bepenete at Wabia (Huli), Malulipi in Duguba territory, Bipa Paite in Enga (Obene territory) and Yuha in the Duna land. The dindi gamu rites which were performed at the heart of the Huli ritual geography, that is, Kelote, were also performed at these minor gebeanda. Thus Kelote is the central ritual site among the Huli people which also functions as a pilgrimage center. It “is the dindi pini or ground root where all the land in the Hela area has its root, its balance. If that is destroyed, the Hela lands will dry up like a tree without roots.” 5

The central importance of Kelote is also indicated by the Ira Hari tree. “All the rivers of the Huli are felt to converge at this place; enter through the tree and pass up to the sky where it comes down as rain.” 6 Hence, all rivers and water find their origin at Kelote. We have already noted that Iba Tiri, a trickster god of the waters whose name means “foolish water”, is believed to reside at Kelote on the banks of the river near the Ira Hari tree.

We have already said that the Helahuli myth describes the importance of the Kelote ritual site. This myth, as well as the Creation myth is part of the sacred knowledge called dindi pongone 7 (knot of the land) which “refers to how the first ancestors of the Huli lived on the land and the kind of rituals they performed.” 8 The Yanga clan unit of the Takapua clan of Burani possess the secret knowledge which is ritually re-enacted during the Kelote rituals. These rites include the ritual emulation of the first woman who lived on the land by men and the ritual re-enactment of the primordial establishment of very intense taboos against male association with women inside the keba hagama. 8 The planting of the various natural species of plants and animals in the depeanda and halebeandda was also to “promote the fertility of the land by recreating aspects of Huli oral history,” 9 which began at Kelote. Finally, the planting of a child’s umbilical cord in the agua wandia anda house (ancestral women’s house) also indicates that Kelote is the navel of the universe and center of the Huli world.

Mircea Eliade contends that the pattern “stone/tree/altar constitutes an effective microcosm in most ancient forms of religious life”. 10 The cave, Ira Hari tree and sacred pillars inside the cave which functioned as an altar (until missionaries destroyed them since they symbolized the so-called “idols of the past”) clearly indicate the microcosmic significance of the Kelote site. The cosmogonic rituals performed in the keba hagama and the planting of an umbilical cord in the algua wandia anda house as well as the sacred dindi pongone knowledge, all testify to the microcosmic nature of the Kelote gebanda and the rituals performed therein.

The ritual sequence of this microcosmic rite is as follows: 11

I. Initiatory Stage

1) Representative leaders of Huli, Duna, Duguba, and Obene peoples arrive at Kelote. They present their offerings of pigs, cowrie shells, red paint and tree oil to the leaders of the Takapua clan of the Huli and say: “You are the trunk, we are the branches.” Yanga clan unit members of the Takapua clan are then selected to preside over the rituals as the gebeali.

2) Preparations are made for the ceremonies. The kelelakianda, a long ritual house, is built for the Takapua clan leaders. The various houses previously listed are also constructed or repaired. The entire area surrounding the gebeanda is fenced in and the inside pathways are decorated with leaves, vines and paint. Fire pits and firewood are also prepared to cook the sacrificial pigs and festive meals.

II. Introductory Rites

3) On the first day of the ceremony, a large pig kill and dance is held outside the sacred, fenced in a ritual area at a place called Tagili. The mali and pelagua dances are performed by Huli participants. Four highly decorated gebeali then dance through the crowd of men carrying a long, decorated stick (hariaga) as they move towards the gate which leads into the gebeanda (sacred cave). The men enter the sacred, fenced in area and plant the stick in a hole which has been anointed with tree oil as they pray for the land to get better.

III. Offertory Rites

4) A few hours before midnight, the four gebeali go to a small bridge (gole togo) where they cook some pig meat on the bridge surface. This is done to prevent dama from entering the sacred cave. Two gebeali take some of the pig meat and finish cooking it near the mouth of the cave while the remaining two geleali guard the bridge. At midnight, the two gebeali enter the sacred cave with the prepared meat.

5) The god Helahuli smells the freshly cooked meat and comes forth, manifesting himself in a gentle breeze. The two gebeali then paint two stone pillars which span the height of the cave with pig fat, red paint and tree oil. They prepare a fire, burn special leaves and tree branches, and present their gifts as they chant:

Ini naga tagua nape, piaga tagua piape.

Tawaga Tawaga tawabe. Ina I ingini harimago. 12

(Eat the way you used to eat. Cook the way you used to cook.

Do the way you used to do. We are your sons. Accept if you want to.)

6) The four gebeali then return to the kelelakianda. The Yanga members of the Takapua clan ritually slaughter fifteen pigs which are offered to Helahuli by the four gebeali for all of the god’s descendants: the Huli, Duna, Obene and Duguba peoples.

IV. Celebration

7) On the morning of the second day, a second lot of two hundred pigs are slaughtered and prepared for a public feast. After the feast, all participants return to their homes except the ritual leaders who have many more pig killings and feasting.

V. Concluding Rites

8) After three or four days have passed, two gebeali re-enter the sacred cave to make the final chants of praise and petition. They then dance around the cave once more before leaving the gebeanda area and completing the ceremonies.

The exact times when the other previously mentioned rituals which re-enact aspects of Huli oral history as given in their sacred myths is not known.

  1. C. Simpson, Plumes, p. 394. []
  2. “The sanctum is a cave which was approached along a great avenue through the pine grove. Inside are stalactites, the breasts of the creatress, which were annointed with red pigment and tigasso oil as the culmination of the Gelote ritual.” Stephen Frankel. The Huli response to illness. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986., Chapter 9. p. 21. []
  3. B. Gayalu, “The Gebeanda”, p. 20. []
  4. Ibid., p. 21.  []
  5. Private correspondence with Damien Arabagali, November 1984. []
  6. L. Goldman, “Kelote”, p. 6. []
  7. For detailed information about Dindi Pongone, see: Ballard, Chris. “The Centre Cannot Hold. Trade Networks and Sacred Geography in the Papua New Guinea Highlands”. Archaeology in Oceania , Oct., 1994, Vol. 29, No. 3, Social Landscapes (Oct., 1994), p. 148-152 []
  8. Ibid., p. 14. [][]
  9. Ibid., p. 17. []
  10. M. Eliade, Patterns, p. 266. []
  11. Private correspondence with Howard Halu, Devit Takitako, Damian Aribagali, Matias Olabe, James Tapale, Moses Mekea Tapela, Francis Gibe, and Francis Gau Timuria, 1984. []
  12. Private correspondence with Damien Arabagali, 1984 []