The ancient royal tombs (Langi) at Lapaha on Tongatapu are one of the great ceremonial sites of the Pacific. Along with sacred monuments like Roi Mata’s Domain in Vanuatu or the tombs of Nan Madol in the Federated States of Micronesia, the Lapaha tombs symbolise the association between political and spiritual power that was held by royalty and high-chiefs in the Pacific. As a cultural landscape the massive coral structures are a link to the Tongan dynasties that created a huge maritime empire in the pacific in the 15th
The link of Lapaha with Tongan history begins around the 13th Century when the paramount rulers, known collectively as the Tu’i Tonga, moved the capital from the Ha’amoana area to Lapaha where it remained until the 19th century.
The construction of the massive tombs, or langi, was a way to demonstrate the spiritual and political power of the Tu’i Tonga.
Langi's are platforms of earth with a stepped pyramid effect supported by carefully placed retaining walls. One of several stone vaults was built under the flat top of the structure which covered with smooth black volcanic stones of equal size called kilikili. A dwelling structure was then built over the grave to protect it.
Some of the stones used to make the Langi are believed to have come from 'Uvea (current day Wallis Island) and Futuna. Songs and stories recall when double-hulled canoes (lomi peau) bridged with spacious decks travelled across the seas and brought back the large stone slabs. Some of the other materials used were limestone taken from the reefs and transported across land using large wooden skids and manually towed by rope.
Large numbers of workers were needed to construct the Langi, as some stones measure up to 18 feet in length. Evidence still remains of the ancient quarries across Tonga where large basalt axes were used to hew the stones.
Stories passed on from generation to generation and written records, give the name of 45 Langis in the Kingdom, 28 of which are in or near the town of Mu’a, the ancient capital of Tonga. The first of the tombs in Mu’a is said to have been built for Fatafehi, the daughter of Tu'i Tu'itatui (11th Tu'i Tonga), in the 12th Century.
Unlike other burial sites in the Pacific the tombs and the rituals surrounding royal burials are still a living part of Tongan culture. Excavations on the Langi are prohibited by law to protect the site and the resting place of those who are there.