Kasubi Tombs
Kasubi tombs.

Kasubi Tombs

An architectural marvel.

By Joseph Burite
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First published: August 17, 2007

We cannot turn back time but we can preserve it from being lost and�the Kasubi royal tombs are arguably one of the best examples of how the past may not�necessarilly be forgotten. Located just five kilometers out of Kampala city and off the Kampala-Hoima highway, Buganda's royal tombs occupy about 30 hectares, most of which is tilled by traditional methods. A visit brings one face-to-face with what remains of the pre-colonial architecture that existed in the Kingdom of Buganda. Built in 1882 by Kabaka Mutesa I after relocating from Rubaga hill following the loss of three of his wives to small pox, the Kasubi tombs are a remarkable part of Buganda's heritage.

Entrance to the Kasubi Tombs
Entrance to the Kasubi Tombs.

The first structure you meet on arrival is called Bujja Bukula, which became the main entrance to the palace after it was completed. According to Mpanga Stephen, a tour guide at the site, this structure took nine days to build and nine men were sacrificed. Mpanga says that due to threats from the kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara (Buganda's archenemies in history), all main entrances faced west for security purposes and a fire was kept burning at each entrance at all times to indicate to intruders that there were people inside the palace. Now that the site turned into a royal graveyard, the fire is located inside the fence.

The drums at KasubiOn the left as you walk in, is the Ndoga Obukaaba (drum house), where the Kabaka's drums used to be kept. One drum stands at the entrance and was hit twice each day (in the morning and again in the evening) to announce that the King (Kabaka) was alive. Today, this ritual is still done but for a different purpose - to open the tombs to the public in the morning and to close them at the end of the day. After the drum is sounded in the evening, no member of the public is admitted into the site.

Inside Ndoga Obukaaba
Inside Ndoga Obukaaba.

Opposite the Ndoga Obukaaba, is an expanse where the Kabaka's entertainers used to sit. Mwanje, another guide, explains that its location at the entrance meant that the entertainers were able to perform for both the Kabaka and his visitors as they arrived.�Mutesa I had eighty-five wives and out of these, only five had houses located within the perimeter of the palace fence. Kaduluubale, the head, acted as the judge if any conflicts arose. Only when she felt that a conflict was too grave for her to arbitrate would the conflict be forwarded to the king. The courthouse was hidden behind the palace so that visitors could neither see nor listen to the proceedings. All these buildings still stand to date.

The former palace itself is an architectural marvel. The ability to principally use wood, thatch, reeds and wattle daubed magnificently to produce a structure of its caliber is outstanding and gives today's architects something to think about. There are four rooms inside the former palace, one for each the four wives that look after the dead kings (each dead king has his own living wife). They take turns (bisanja), each of which lasts a month. These women are chosen from the clans to which the respective departed Kabakas' queens belonged.

Mweso at the palace
Mweso at the palace.

Standing in the left hand corner of Kabaka Mutesa's room are two chairs and a table. Some cutlery stands in the opposite corner. These were gifts given to Mutesa I by Queen Victoria of England. The preserved body of Mutesa's pet leopard stands adjacent to the chairs while his favorite omweso board sits on its top. The tombs themselves lie behind a backcloth curtain and are not viewable to anyone, except when a burial is taking place.

Under the roof are curved reeds, each representing one of the more than fifty Buganda clans. These reeds make a striking decorating pattern. To the Baganda, the site's significance is not just about the architectural design, but also its intangible values in the form of belief, spirituality, continuity and identity. Indeed, it is with these that the greatest sense of respect is exhibited by the Baganda. The dos and don'ts at the tombs include shoeless entry, sitting (not squatting) on the mats provided and contributing monetarily to the general upkeep of the tombs. Except for Buganda princes, no one is supposed to cross the marked area nearest to the tombs. "It is about respect, respect and respect," says Mpanga. Mpanga says that even a Kabaka cannot cross that line in his capacity as the reigning king. This means that the reigning Kabaka, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, could only visit the tombs as a prince and not as the king he is now.

The main building at the Kasubi royal tombs
The main building at the Kasubi royal tombs.

Genesis of the Kasubi Tombs

Converted into burial grounds in 1884, four tombs now lie at the Muzibu Azaala Mpanga, the former palace of Mutesa I, who was also the first Kabaka to be buried there. Other kings buried in this place are Mwanga II, Kabaka Daudi Chwa II and Muteesa II. After Muteesa I (who built the palace), Mwanga II, Chwa II and Muteesa II reigned in that order before Mutebi II. Buganda has been ruled by thirty-five kings to date.

Buganda tradition dictates that the Kabaka be buried in his palace and this explains why Mutesa I was buried here in 1884. Mwanga II was buried here because when his body was brought back from Seychelles where he died in exile, his son Daudi Chwa II had already taken over his palace in Mengo. Because of his travels to Europe, Daudi Chwa II was able learn of the advantages in a kingdom owning a main palace. He therefore decided to save the one in Mengo by opting to be buried in Kasubi. His son, Mutesa II, a strong admirer of his father, decided to follow suit.

The Kasubi royal tombs, therefore, are not the only royal graveyard in the kingdom and other such graveyards exist in counties like Busiro, Singo and Kyaggwe.�Mpanga says that the Kabaka chooses his burial place and it is kept a secret from his subjects by elders until he dies. However, the Kasubi royal tombs continue to be the main spiritual center for the Baganda and receive�over a thousand visitors per day.

Today, the tombs are appreciated as a masterpiece of human creativity in both conception and execution, and as a spiritual center. They are believed to be a witness to the thriving cultural traditions of the Baganda, as they combine the historical and spiritual values of the kingdom. In December 2001, the Kasubi tombs were recognized by the United Nations Education Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a world heritage site. "It is our legacy from the past, what we live with today and what we shall pass on to future generations. It is therefore our life," says Mpanga.

Kabaka portraits at Kasibi
Kabaka portraits at Kasibi.

Related Links
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Traditional Marriages in Uganda: Marriages in Buganda- Kwanjula

By Joseph Burite
more from author >>
First published: August 17, 2007
To learn more about Ultimate Media Consult go to www.ultimatemediaconsult.com.

Burite is an upcoming writer, currently pursuing his degree in Mass Communication at Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU), Mbale.