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The Kasubi Tombs: Baganda’s tradition of burying their royalty

David Goran

Situated on a hill in Kampala (the capital of Uganda), the site of the Kasubi Tombs is a major spiritual center, and a traditional burial place for the kings of Buganda, as well as other members of the royal family. It was a place where the Kabaka and his representatives frequently carry out important rituals related to Ganda culture. The site is one of 31 royal tombs across the Buganda kingdom since it was founded in the 13th century.

The main tomb building, known as Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga, is truly an architectural masterpiece of this ensemble. It is constructed out of wood, bamboo and thatched roof using a unique construction technique developed by the Buganda Kingdom since the 13th Century. By notphilatall Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The main tomb building, known as Muzibu-Azaala-Mpanga, is truly an architectural masterpiece of this ensemble. It is constructed out of wood, bamboo and thatched roof using a unique construction technique developed by the Buganda Kingdom since the 13th Century. Photo Credit

 

It is believed that communication and links here are maintained with the spiritual world. By Andrew Moore Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

It is believed that communication and links here are maintained with the spiritual world. Photo Credit

The huge thatched-roof palace was originally built in 1882 as the palace of Kabaka Mutesa I, the 35th Kabaka of Buganda, before being converted into his tomb following his death in 1884. Traditionally, the body of the deceased king was buried in one place, with a separate shrine for the deceased king’s jawbone, which was believed to contain his soul.

A major spiritual center for the Baganda people where traditional and cultural practices have been preserved. By Gunnar Ries Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

A major spiritual center for the Baganda people where traditional and cultural practices have been preserved. Photo Credit

 

Kampala Kasubi Tombs thatch. 1-By Maleika2006 CC BY-SA 2.0 2-By not not phil CC BY-SA 2.0

Kampala Kasubi Tombs thatch. 1-Photo Credit 2-Photo Credit

Subsequently, the next three Kabaka (kings) – Mwanga II (1867–1903), Daudi Chwa II (1896–1939), and Sir Edward Muteesa II (1924–1969) – broke with tradition and chose to be buried here instead of in their own palaces. Each prince and princess who is a descendant of the four Kabakas are also buried there behind the main shrine.

The interior of the enormous thatched Muzibu Azaala Mpanga structure which houses the tombs of four Buganda kings. By Andrew Moore Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The interior of the enormous thatched Muzibu Azaala Mpanga structure which houses the tombs of four Buganda kings. Photo Credit

The Kasubi tombs are mainly divided into three main areas: the main tomb area located at the western end of the site, the area with buildings and graveyards which is behind the tombs, and a large area on the eastern side of the site used primarily for agricultural purposes.

 

Modern building materials were introduced in the last major renovation in 1938 by Kabaka Mutesa II of Buganda, including a steel structure, concrete columns, and bricks, all of which is largely concealed behind traditional materials. A low, wide arch leads to the sacred spaces within, separated by reed partitions, with bark cloth decorations, and mementos of the kabakas. The floor is covered by lemongrass and palm leaf mats.

The entrance to the site is a beautifully built gatehouse called Bujjabukula, constructed using wooden columns supporting a thatched roof, with walls made of woven reeds. The powerful Buganda kingdom is therefore acknowledged for having put up one of the exceptional and surviving architectural examples since the 13th Century.

Left-Buganda royal seat. By Ken Flottman Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0 Right-This was the pet leopard of one of the old kings. After the kings death, the panther was hard to control and kept killing people, so they stuffed it and placed it in the burial hut. By not not phil CC BY-SA 2.0

Left-Buganda royal seat. Photo Credit ight-This was the pet leopard of one of the old kings. After the kings’ death, the panther was hard to control and kept killing people, so they stuffed it and placed it in the burial hut. Photo Credit

It became a protected site under Ugandan law in 1972, and the land is registered in the name of the Kabaka behalf of the Kingdom. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in December 2001, when it was described as “one of the most remarkable buildings using purely vegetal materials in the entire region of sub-Saharan Africa”. The tombs were almost completely destroyed by a fire in March 2010, and, therefore, in July 2010 it was included in the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

The interior of the Muzibu Azaala Mpanga in 2007, included relics and portraits of the buried kabakas. By not not phil CC BY-SA 2.0

The interior of the Muzibu Azaala Mpanga in 2007, included relics and portraits of the buried kabakas.Photo Credit

In 2014, the government of Japan decided to provide project funding and cooperation for reconstruction of the tombs, the setup of an efficient risk prevention scheme, and the dispatch of experts in cultural property restoration. The work to restore them is under way, with an expected 2016 completion date.