A man stands at the very top of a makeshift tower 15 – 25 meters (50 – 80 feet) off the ground. He dives off it head first as a watching crowd of women and children chant encouragement.
He plummets straight down, but just before this head is about to strike the ground and possibly break his neck, he is pulled short by flexible jungle vine ropes tied to his ankles and stands up to triumphant applause. So ends the Ngol, the ancient land diving ritual of Pentecost Island in Vanuatu.
The tower or gol after which the ceremony is named may look makeshift, but there is nothing haphazard about its construction. It is always built to the same pattern and represents a human body with a head, torso, waist and legs. Its foundation is a large tree with its branches pruned to the required shape and enclosed in a scaffolding of smaller tree trunks and saplings tied together with bush vines. The tower is secured on all sides by guy lines of creepers anchored to surrounding tree trunks to stop it from swaying too much when the wind blows and the earth at the foot of the tower is dug over to provide a softer landing than the hard ground. The science of Pentecost land diving is a precise one. There is a specific diving platform built for each individual diver and these are positioned at different heights depending on the ability, experience and status of the diver.
During the ceremony, each participant climbs up to his designated diving platform, ties the free end of the vines to the platform, and dives off. The threat of death or seriously injury is a real one,but mir- aculously, the creeper stretches just enough to break the diver’s fall just as his heads brushes the ground, and he stands up and walks away unharmed. This precisely calculated landing is largely the result of the skills of the specialists who measure and cut the creepers for the ankle ropes, but also due to the design of the diving platforms themselves, which break off and hinge downwards when the diver leaps to help break his fall.A personal set of vine ropes is measured and cut for each diver with the ends beaten to a soft fibre and bound in bark so that they do not dry out out and remain flexible for safe attachment to the diver’s ankles. The aim is to have the ankle ropes just long enough for the diver’s hair to brush the earth and so fertilise the growing yams without breaking his neck,for the Ngol is a fertility ceremony performed to honour the yam god and administered by the senior members of yam growing cult in each village .
It is a religious festival and rituals and protocols must be strictly observed or the participants will be punished by serious injury or death. Only the senior diver who planted the first corner post will have the privilege of diving from the platform at the very top, and every participant must abstain from sexual contact in the period before the dive. The divers must also wear traditional dress, the nambas or leaf penis wrapping secured to a waistband and the curved pig tusk neck ornament if the wearer has a grade which entitles him to wear it. Any other charm or ornament is forbidden.The land diving rituals take place in each year during March and April and the timing is absolutely critical. The dive can only be conducted safely when the creepers have enough sap running to remain elastic and flexible. One of the very few fatalities recorded in modern times occurred during the royal visit of Queen Elizabeth 11 to Vanuatu in February 1974, when a diving ceremony was held in her honour before the vines were strong enough. During the diving ceremony itself, excitement builds throughout the day as the divers slowly advance up the body of the gol, starting with young boys who dive from the legs, and ending with the final hero at the top of the head. The crowd surrounds the base of the tower with the women and children capping rhythmically and cheering every diver. Men and boys are not forced to take part in the land diving ceremony. Participation is absolutely voluntary and those who want to dive train from a very young age – as young as eight years old.
Several villages in South Pentecost stage ngol ceremonies each year and some dedicated divers will travel from village to village and dive three or four times a year.
Why do they do it? While land diving is not part of any grade ritual, it is a high status activity and one which would have been regarded as an essential tribute to the spirit responsible for ensuring a good yam crop,
It is in essence not just a celebration of yams, but of the fertility of human beings , pigs and the survival of the village itself. It is a religious experience for which the diver is spiritually and physically prepared and which is undertaken with awareness of the risks involved, but without fear.
Rituals in Vanuatu are protected by tribal copyright and the ngol belongs to the yam cult of the Bunlap area and the ceremonies were traditionally centred in just five villages around Bunlap in South Pentecost. Recently, however, the leaders of the yam cult gave their permission for the Christianised villages in the area to perform it on condition that the divers wore traditional costume only (i.e. a penis wrap) and respected the yam spirit associated with the ceremony.There is, in fact, a strong incentive to perform the dive with the correct mental attitude and respect since the elders believe that not to do so will invite accident, injury and death for the diver.
In reality, the skill of the men who build the tower and experience of the specialists who select, cut measure and tie the creepers is such that there are very few injuries and even fewer deaths when dives are performed under traditional kastom supervision. Anyone who has ever watched footage of the New Zealand sport of bungy jumping, where young (mostly) tourists leap from bridges with their feet tied to the railing with elastic bands, will immediately see that it derives from the Pentecost ceremony.
Kirk Huffman likes to tell the tale of the Pentecost chief who contacted the New Zealand government to tell them that they were quite happy not to charge a fee for every bungy jump, but they would like to have it publicly acknowledged that the rights to the ceremony were owned by the yam clans of Bunlap.
My thanks to respected Australian travel photographer David Kirkland, who recently photographed this Pentecost land diving ceremony. Please note that all photographs reproduced in this article are copyright David Kirkland. To see the complete online portfolio, order prints or purchase reproduction rights, visit www. http://www.kirklandphotos.goinglive.com.au/download/LAND/
Witness the Ngol Ceremony yourself in 2014.
David Kirkland will be personally escorting a tour of enthusiasts who wish to see and photograph the Ngol ceremony in South Pentecost lsland in March/April 2014. Further enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org
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