Worn with relaxed dignity by local women and with new excitement by visitors, the ‘ei katu are made from flowers such as frangipani, gardenia and the native tiare maori intertwined with the leaves of the maire plant, the Museum Cook Islands website says.
In ancient times ‘ei were fashioned from many different materials including shells, hair, feathers and flowers, it goes on to say.
“Besides wearing and giving ‘ei, Maori people of the past placed ‘ei, as a sign of homage and reverence, on their god images and also used ‘ei to decorate their marae.”
Today a similar practice continues with ‘ei being placed on the graves of loved ones, used to decorate the ANZAC monument in the civic centre, and by Catholic Cook Islanders to adorn the statue of the Virgin Mary in front of their churches.
‘Ei comes from the proto-Polynesian word sei – which became ‘ei or rei in the Maori language of the Cook Islands. In other Polynesian languages it is hei (New Zealand Maori, and Tahitian), and lei (Hawaiian).
‘Ei-sellers were once a common sight on the road in front of the Banana Court in Rarotonga in the 1970s and on the road outside the Maruaiai, a dance hall of the 1960s and 1970s. Now the sale of ‘ei is confined to Punanganui Market, or a stand at the airport, or are bought directly from known sellers.
Rupe Piakura, an ‘ei maker at Tarani Island Crafts in Avarua, says there are both “fresh” and “everlasting” ‘ei katu crafted on Rarotonga.
The fresh ones are made with real flowers as and when they are seasonably available.
The everlasting ones incorporate artificial flowers woven with natural flax rafia which allow tourists to take them home without contravening biosecurity laws.
At the market on any given day, both are for sale and both are worn with equal delight and pride.