Most Sacred Places in Hawaii You Need To Know
Take a tour of the idyllic locations on the many Hawaiian islands where native Hawaiians have long held spiritual connections.
Puu Loa Petroglyphs
A trailhead leads to Puu Loa, Hawaii’s largest field of petroglyphs, about 16 miles from the rim of Kilauea on the Big Island’s southeastern coast. The site, located within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, contains over 23,000 centuries-old etchings in hardened lava of dimples, circles, bars, and even humans and sailing canoes formed between 1200 and 1450.
The decorated puu, or hill, was first described in writing by William Ellis, an English missionary who visited the Hawaiian Islands in the 1820s. “Upon investigation, we discovered that they [the petroglyphs] had been made by former travelers, for a motive similar to that which induces a person to carve his initials on a stone or tree, or a traveler to record his name in an album, to inform his successors that he had been there,” he wrote. “When there were a number of concentric circles with a dot or mark in the center, the dot represented a man, and the number of rings represented the number of people who had circumambulated the island.”
In addition to serving as a sort of travelogue, the petroglyph field is a sacred site where native Hawaiians have been known to bury newborns’ umbilical cords. “A hole is drilled in the hard crust, the cord is inserted, and a stone is placed over it. The cord has vanished in the morning; there is no trace of it. “This ensures the child’s long life,” wrote anthropologist Martha Beckwith in 1914.
Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park
For centuries, Hawaiian society, which was divided into classes of chiefs, priests, skilled laborers, and commoners, followed a set of laws known as kapu. The gods’ punishment for breaking the kapu was death—unless the criminal fled to a puuhonua, or place of refuge.
Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park on the west coast of Hawaii, about 20 miles south of Kailua-Kona, has one of the best-preserved puuhonua. The current structure is a 300-foot-long stone wall that is 18 feet high and 25 feet wide at points, forming a roughly right angle. According to Eric Andersen, the park’s chief interpreter, the puuhonua was most likely built around 1,000 years ago and was used until the late 1700s. (In 1819, the kapu system was officially abolished.) The number of lawbreakers who lived in the safe haven at any given time, surviving on meager rations, is difficult to estimate.
The inmates’ crimes ranged from the seemingly innocuous (catching a fish out of season) to the unmistakably serious (murder). “If you made it here and survived, then forgiveness was a gift when you left,” Andersen says. “Prisoners would meet with kahuna, or priests, and an agreement would be reached to right their wrongs.”
A thatched structure at one end of the wall is surrounded by kii, or wooden carvings of Hawaiian gods. The Hale o Keawe mausoleum once housed the bones of 23 chiefs. The bones, which were thought to endow the site with mana, or spiritual power, were removed in the 1800s, but the location is still revered. The park has been managed by the National Park Service since 1961, and over 400,000 people visit each year. “There’s something reverent about this place,” says Andersen. “I’ve heard that the mana is powerful.”
Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site
In the late 18th century, Kamehameha the Great sent his aunt to seek advice from a prophet named Kapoukahi while attempting to unite the Hawaiian Islands. The priest’s message was that if Kamehameha built a heiau, or temple, on Puukohola Hill in Kawaihae, on Hawaii’s northwest coast, he would gain the power of the gods and defeat his enemies.
Thousands of men began work on the temple in 1790. According to legend, the workers formed a 20-mile-long line to hand-pass smooth lava rocks from a valley to the site. Without the use of mortar or cement, the crew stacked the rocks in a neatly prescribed pattern and finished the structure in a year.
“The fact that it has stood for over two centuries is a testament to their skill,” says Greg Cunningham, a park ranger at Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site, where visitors can still see the 224-by-100-foot temple platform.
The heiau was primarily used for human sacrifices. “When a victim was prepared, they would cook the body and remove the bones,” Cunningham explains. Certain bones were thought to contain mana and were sacrificed to Kamehameha’s war god Kukailimoku. “That sometimes deters people,” says Cunningham, who adds that, as far as he knows, Puukohola Heiau is the only human sacrificial temple under the National Park Service’s auspices.
Nonetheless, for many native Hawaiians, the site represents Hawaiian unity. By 1810, Kamehameha had seized control of the entire Hawaiian archipelago, and he ruled the Kingdom of Hawaii for nine years. Puukohola Heiau, one of the last major temples built in Hawaii, symbolizes the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. “It was here that Hawaii’s greatest king, its first king, began to consolidate his power. “It was here that centuries of warfare came to an end,” Cunningham says. “This is the birthplace of modern Hawaii.”
A large, raised platform of stacked lava rock can be found on Hawaii’s western coast, in Kealakekua Bay State Historical Park. The terrace, a sacred temple known as Hikiau Heiau, has been restored several times after being damaged by waves, but it dates back to the 18th century, if not earlier.
The temple’s purpose and the god it honored, according to Martha Yent, an archaeologist with Hawaii’s state parks interpretive program, likely changed over time. “One chief could have dedicated it to the war god Ku, while another could have dedicated it to Lono, the fertility god,” Yent says. When associated with Ku, it was most likely used as a human sacrificial temple, and in honor of Lono, it would have played a role in Makahiki, a festival held to ensure a bountiful agricultural season.
On January 17, 1779, British explorer Capt. James Cook arrived at the site on Kealakekua Bay during Makahiki. The timing of his visit, as well as the appearance of his ships’ masts, with sails that resembled an image of Lono made from a pole with bark cloth attached to it, led local Hawaiians to believe Captain Cook was Lono. They honored the explorer in a ceremony at Hikiau Heiau. Cook and his crew kept journals while docked in the bay, documenting their observations of Hawaiian culture. The explorer then set sail again on February 4, only to return a week later due to a broken mast on his ship. Though relations between Europeans and Hawaiians had previously been cordial, tensions flared on this second visit. When the Hawaiians stole a rowboat from one of Cook’s ships, Cook attempted to kidnap Kalaniopuu, the community’s ruling chief. On February 14, 1779, Cook was assassinated near the site.
Pregnant women bearing the children of Hawaii’s chiefs came to Kukaniloko to give birth from as early as 1100 to the late 1700s. The grouping of 180 boulders, known in oral traditions as the piko, or navel, for its location in the center of Oahu, is considered to be the island’s spiritual center.
Giving birth at the location ensured a newborn’s high-ranking status. Thirty-six chiefs would be present to confirm the parents’ lineage. “A child born in the presence of chiefs was called an alii, an akua, a wela—a chief, a god, a blaze of heat,” wrote S. M. Kamakau, a 17th-century Hawaiian historian, in one of the most detailed accounts of the ritual. When the child was born, he or she was whisked away to a nearby temple for ceremonies. To announce the birth, sacred drums were beaten.
Visitors can see the original weathered stones scattered under a grove of coconut and eucalyptus trees at Kukaniloko Birthstones State Historic Site, as well as two rows of 18 stones each that were brought in to represent the chiefs who attended the birthing ritual. As a gift to their ancestors, Native Hawaiians frequently leave leis of fresh flowers or ferns on the stones.
Centuries ago, native Hawaiians would pray to Kane, a god associated with freshwater and life, on a prominent hill in Kaa, a traditional land division in the northern portion of the island of Lanai. In 1400, Kawelo, a local priest, noticed that the health of his people and their animals was deteriorating. Lanikaula, another priest, was burning a fire across the Kalohi Channel on the island of Molokai, which Kawelo linked to their illnesses. Kawelo made his own fire to ward off Lanikaula’s bad prayers. He also went above and beyond. He brought some of Lanikaula’s feces from Molokai and burned them in his Lanai fire. According to Kepa Maly, executive director of the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center, whose kapuna, or elders, taught him the story, the sorcerous act resulted in Lanikaula’s death and the restoration of Lanai’s health.
Keahiakawelo, which translates to “fire made by Kawelo,” is now a wind-swept, Mars-like landscape of red rock mounds and pinnacles about seven miles or a 40-minute drive from small Lanai City. The rugged island has only 30 miles of paved road, so a four-wheel-drive vehicle is required to get there. Visitors can enjoy breathtaking views of the barren, boulder-strewn terrain from lookouts.
“When we tell people about going out there, we ask them to be respectful of the environment by not removing stones or moving things,” Maly says. “It’s sort of like the old adage: Take only pictures and leave only footprints.”
Topic: Most Sacred Places in Hawaii You Need To Know
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By: Travel Pixy