Hinemihi of the old world

Photograph of Hinemihi in Te Wairoa before the eruption

Hinemihi o te Ao Tawhito (meaning Hinemihi of the old world) was planned as a meeting house, a public place where important issues were discussed, relationships confirmed, births and marriages celebrated, and the dead mourned.

Why was she built?

In the late 19th century the small settlement of Te Wairoa, located in a volcanic region of New Zealand’s North Island, was an established tourism centre. Victorian tourists could experience Māori culture, witness performances of the famous haka and could spend the night in a wooden hotel.
Hinemihi’s construction began in 1880. Commissioned by Chief Aporo Wharekaniwha, head of the Ngāti Hinemihi sub-tribe, she was created to fill the traditional roles of a meeting house but also to entertain tourists interested in cultural performances. Few meeting houses bear female names but Aporo chose to name Hinemihi after a noted female ancestor, famous in legend for keeping the company of a giant lizard.

How was she built?

Two carvers, Wero Taroi and Tene Waitere, were commissioned by Aporo to build Hinemihi from local totara wood. Both men are now regarded as being among the great Māori carvers. Wero and Tene's carvings represent ancestors from tribal history and by including them in the meeting house, they provided a place where their spirits could dwell and protect their descendants.
Tene Waitere with some of his carvings
Carver Tene Waitere
Tene Waitere with some of his carvings
As a gesture towards his status and wealth, Aporo added a final flourish to Hinemihi. Instead of using traditional paua shells to depict eyes on the carved figures, he attached gold sovereigns. Upon its completion in March 1881, Aporo named his new meeting house Hinemihi of the old world. To locals and visitors, she became known as Hinemihi of the golden eyes.

The eruption of Mt. Tarawera

On June 10 1886 nearby Mt Tarawera erupted without warning, raining magma and ash down on Te Wairoa. The eruption claimed the lives of 153 people. A fortunate few found shelter in Hinemihi and survived through the night, among them the young carver Tene Waitere and his family.
A photograph of Hinemihi in Te Wairoa after the eruption of Mt Tarawera
A photograph of Hinemihi in Te Wairoa after the eruption of Mt Tarawera
A photograph of Hinemihi in Te Wairoa after the eruption of Mt Tarawera
The scale of the devastation forced the remaining population of Te Wairoa to leave their homes. The Ngāti Hinemihi people re-settled in nearby Rotorua, which was largely undamaged by the eruption. Hinemihi was left abandoned, her walls buried and her roof layered with debris.