Tongan Culture: The Culture Of Tonga

A Tongan man performs a traditional fire dance. Editorial credit: Don Mammoser /
A Tongan man performs a traditional fire dance. Editorial credit: Don Mammoser /

The Polynesian archipelagic country of Tonga hosts a population of around 106,398 inhabitants. 70% of the population resides in the Tongatapu island. 97% of the population comprises of indigenous Tongans. English and Tongan are the most spoken languages in the country. Nearly the entire population adheres to Christianity. 64.1% of the population follows Protestant Christianity of which 35% are affiliated to the Free Wesleyan Church, 11.9% adhere to the Church of Tonga, and the rest are followers of other Protestant denominations. Significant sections of Tongans are Mormons (18.6%) and Roman Catholics (14.2%).

Tongan Cuisine

In the past, Tongans had a vastly different meal schedule than today. Only one main meal was consumed in the entire day. Tongan men would set out to work in the fields following breakfast. They would also engage in fishing. The produce of the day would be brought home, the traditional underground oven prepared, and a meal cooked at around midday. This meal was served fresh to the family and then the leftovers were used for dinner and next day’s breakfast. The food items included bananas, coconuts, fish, shellfish, yams, and taro. Pigs were killed for meat only on special occasions like weddings and funerals. Chickens were occasionally consumed.

Following contact with the Europeans, many new foods were introduced in the Tongan diet like cassava, watermelons, oranges, lemons, onions, carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, pumpkins, etc.

In modern-day Tonga, especially in the urban areas, meal systems are very different and influenced by the Western culture. Purchased prepared foods like canned corn beef and canned fish are popular, even in the villages.

The rate of obesity is high in Tonga with over 90% of the population being overweight. Many members of the population are at high risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. However, little stigma is associated with high weight in Tonga and large bodies are actually revered.

Literature And Graphic Arts In Tonga

Tongan written literature has a relatively recent history, beginning in the late 1960s. Prior to that, literature was mainly in the oral form. It involved folk tales and legends, fairy tales, heroic epics, historical accounts, etc., passed down through the generations by word of mouth. The first published works were short stories and poetry printed in the 1960s and 1970s. The Kisses in the Nederends was one of the earliest novels of Tongan literature. It was published in 1987.

Tonga has a rich art and craft heritage. Traditional women’s crafts include mat-weaving and bark cloth making. The indigenous costumes of taʻovala and kiekie were produced by the women. Traditional men’s crafts included wood carving, tattooing, canoe building, and the construction of homes and other structures from ropes and palm leaves.

Today, Tongans also produce western-style textiles. Freehand murals, the work of Tongan artists, can be seen in the village churches.

Music And Dance In Tonga

Traditional songs were passed down over the generations in Tonga. These songs are today sung at ceremonies like the election of a village chief. Some of the ancient instruments that are still used today include the nose flute and a slit-gong called lali. Ancient dances include the meʻetuʻupaki, ula, and the ʻotuhaka. The influence of the European missionaries in Tonga later fostered the development of a rich tradition of church music that involved the singing of hymns which have Tongan lyrics and tunes.

Clothing In Tonga

Tongan men wear a tupenu that is worn like a sarong and wrapped around the waist. It is usually knee-length or longer in size. They wear any t-shirt or shirt on top. On formal occasions, they also adorn the taʻovala, a woven mat, over the tupenu. The mat is secured to their waist with a kafa rope. A matching suit jacket is worn on top on such occasions.

Tongan women also wear a tupenu that is usually longer and a kofu or dress above. They may wear a shorter tupenu at home for ease of work. On special occasions, they also wear a taʻovala or a kiekie (a string skirt) over the tupenu.

Sports In Tonga

Rugby is the national sport in Tonga. Other popular sports played in the country include cricket, sumo, judo, football, volleyball, and surfing.

Life In Tongan Society

The men and women in Tonga enjoy an equal role in society. Both parents participate in childcare activities. Men also help women in food preparation. In villages, the preparation of the umu or traditional underground cooking oven is exclusively done by the male members of the family. Both men and women engage in work outside the home. In rural areas, women generally wave mats or make bark cloth while men tend to livestock and grow crops. In urban areas, members of both genders work in offices, banks, and shops.

The decision to marry is usually left to the couple engaged in a romantic relationship. Marriages between people of the same social status are encouraged. Divorce and re-marriage rates are quite significant.

Kinship ties play an important role in the life of a Tongan. Many maintain close bonds with their immediate and extended family members. Families in villages are usually extended while those in urban areas tend to be nuclear in nature. Parents are the main caretakers of the children but in extended families, other family members, especially grandparents, also participate in bringing up a child. A Tongan society puts the female at a higher hierarchical rank than a male. However, inheritance is patrilineal.

Education is considered important in Tongan society. The country boasts of an almost 100% literacy level.

Shaking hands is the common way of greeting acquaintances and strangers. When meeting relatives, Tongans often kiss by pressing their nose against the face of the relative and soundly inhale through the nose. Men who take part in the preparation of the traditional oven for roasting do not eat until the first round of guests have completed the meal. Food is usually consumed by hand.


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