By Oyinloye Opeyemi
T he Palace of Olowo of Owo, in Owo Local Government area of Ondo State, Nigeria has been adjudged as one of the biggest in Africa going by historical facts and research. The Palace is almost 1000 years old , built in 1,340 during the reign of Olowo Rerengejen who moved the Palace from the Okiti Asegbo to the present site. The Palace build on 180 acres of land has 1000 rooms and 100 courtyards known as Ugha. The courtyards have specific functions and are dedicated to a particular deity, as shrine and worship of ancestors.
While some are paved with pebbles or broken pottery, pillars supporting the veranda roofs of the Palace are carved with status of the king mounted on a horse or shown with his senior wife.
Moreover, some of the architectural decoration of the Palace are made of terracotta sculptures, done in pillar and others in carved wooden pillars. Some of such pillars are still found along the passage of the Ehin ode and Ugha Egwankun in the inner part of the Palace. These sculptures are made in form of human beings ,animals such as elephant, lion, leopards and snakes which are regarded as the symbol of gallantry, power and wisdom of the Olowo. It also happens to be one of those Palaces that houses a National museum in Nigeria due to its significance to cultural heritage. The Palace located in the heart of the town, surrounded by trees, some artifacts, sculptures with central market known as Ulede besides it.
The architectural design of this ancient palace attest to the affluence and power that the Yoruba traditional rulers wielded and respect their subjects accord them. The designs show the development stride of the Owo people before the advent of modern technology. No fewer than 14 traditional rulers have occupied the palace , these include Rerengejen, Elewuokun, Ajaka, Ajagbusi,Ekun, Olagbegi Atanneye I, Olagbegi Atanneye II, Ajike Ogunoye I, Olateru Olagbegi I, Olateru Olagbegi II, Adekola Ogunoye II, Folagbade Olateru Olagbegi III and the present Olowo of Owo, Oba Ajibade Gbadegesin Ogunoye III.
The Olowo is the principal occupant of the Palace known as Aghofen, serving as an administrative institution and official residence of the imperial majesty of Owo kingdom. Also the Palace symbolizes the integrity of Owo while some people usually carry out the maintenance of the Palace to show their allegiance and respect for the kingdom.
Moreover, most of these courtyards have collapsed or caved in and all artefacts in them stored for references with only 17 still in existence. Some of the courtyards are Ugha moron where past Olowos were buried. This courtyard is set aside for the worship of the ancestors where rituals are performed to promote and ensure prosperity of the kingdom.
The Olowo visits this courtyard once a year during the Ulabi celebration with freshly harvested kolanuts to worship his head with the assistance of Oshoron -ode. The largest courtyards is known as the Ugha Okonren, men courtyard and twice the size of two football fields where they gather for occasion such as wrestling and others. It is used for dance by the Olowo and his chiefs during the Ugbade festival. Also next is the Ugha Ehin ode courtyard where every chief is allotted seat according to their hierarchy in descending order of importance while the Olowo occupies the center seat.
Also is the Igbimo Aleli, where the king and his chiefs are gathered for special occasions. Apart from the King and chiefs , there is a place within this courtyard specifically reserved for administration of oath, where oath is taken to prevent crime in the town. The Ugha Edunma is a courtyard where chiefs attend in rotational groups.
The Ajo feast every nine days. Another courtyard is Ugha Alamunren used as the old Owo Divisional Council Office.
Few court yards exclusively reserved for the king include Ugha Akomaduse, where the King is expected to relax and hold interactive session with his chiefs. Also a place where the chiefs are expected to pay homage to the king in the morning. The place where the King lives is called Ugha Gwakun. Inside this yard existed Odo uli or Iyakeji courtyard where the king has his meal , while he has bath at Ugha Agwe courtyard.
The Ifa Oracle is also consulted on behalf of the king in this courtyard as well as to make medicine. Furthermore, the Ugha Inogwa is the king relaxation spot after the day work and it is cleaned daily by his wives who had to be naked in the past while scrubbing and cleaning it. The Olowo still uses some of this courtyard till date.
For instance, the Olowo uses the Ugha Inoli (inner courtyard) to dress and undress for the annual Ighogho festival therefore not all chiefs are allowed to enter some of these courtyards. The wives of the king also have special courtyards within the Palace and they are out of bound for men except the Olowo. Ugha Oluwabumile and Ugha yeyeluwa are exclusively reserved for the head queen.
Other courtyards of the queen include Ugha tere , Ugha Gbedun and Ugha Okelade. Moreover, the Ugha Yeyeogwa is a courtyard where the Oloris (king wives) are installed as chiefs. Such chieftaincy title are Yeyeoluwa, Yeyesoron,Yeyeasama,Yeyearibo and others.
They also make sacrifice in this courtyard during the new maize and yam festivals with a wooden drum known as Gbedu beat.
The Gbedu is however kept on the pavement of this courtyard. The courtyard known as Ugha Ogba is where food items and gift presented to King for the Palace use are stored. Another prominent courtyard is the Ugha -Oke-Agbala, the garden courtyard where princes and princesses romped and played. In addition, there are different types of drinking cups known as Agho in the Palace.
The type of cup used by the chiefs is based on their hierarchy and position in the Palace. It is done mainly during festivals. The Olowo has a chariot he uses to move round the town during special festivals.
However, the Palace experienced some decay after the deposition of Oba Olateru Olagbegi II in 1966, This led to deterioration of some monuments such as courtyards, lawn tennis court and the fish pond stocked with golden fishes.
Also for development stride in Owo, part of the 180 acre land was allotted to the Government Primary School beside the Palace in 1903 and the mega school constructed in 2015 by the government. There is however an urgent need for the preservation and restoration of some of the courtyards in the Palace due to their traditional and cultural significance to the norms and beliefs of the people.
In addition, the protection of the Palace will further mitigate against deterioration of the structures and other artifacts from insects, vandalism, trafficking and man. The, government through the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and Owo community need to establish a synergy at restoring some dilapidated monuments within the Palace especially the courtyards and others which are of traditional relevance.
Being the largest Palace in Africa, a political mecca of the Yoruba race where the Egbe Omo Yoruba metamorphosed to the Action Group in 1951 led by the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the Olowo’s Palace remains a reference point in the South-western Nigeria politics. Restoring the Palace to its original look will help attract tourists and the presence of the museum will help generate more revenue into the coffers of the government and attract more development into Owo.
It will also help to improve the socio-cultural and economic growth of Owo kingdom among Yoruba nations being a descendant of the Oduduwa. These explains why an exhibition at the National Museum, Owo gallery depicts the affinity among Ife, Owo and Benin rich cultural heritage. It will also help to conserve the architectural prowess of our ancestors, progenitors and retain Owo rich cultural heritage.
If the courtyards are restored , the artifacts will find its way back to their original source where they function optimally. Also, Ondo State government should expedite action for the enlisting of the Olowo Palace as a national monument in order to safeguard and maintain its rich cultural heritage as well attract subvention from the government.
Though the present Olowo of Owo, Oba Ajibade Gbadegesin Ogunoye III is doing a great job in uplifting the image of the Palace and restoring some of the dilapidated sculptures but still need more collaborative efforts toward achieving this great fest.
Again, the Owo indigenes in diaspora should work with relevant authorities and the Palace in ensuring its inclusion into the world of heritage and sites and help in the repatriation of looted Owo artifacts such as ceremonial swords, regalia, bronze head, terracotta objects and other prominent antique.
Finally, it will mitigate against further defacing of the monuments thereby making the Olowo Palace a historic cultural heritage. The preservation and restoration of this Palace will help youths to establish relationship with the heritage bequeathed by their forefathers.