Six Sacred Sites of Hawaii- page 2 | Travel | Smithsonian
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On the western coast of Hawaii there is a large, raised platform of stacked lava rock. The terrace, a sacred temple called Hikiau Heiau, dates to the 18th century, if not earlier. (Photo Resource Hawaii / Alamy)

Six Sacred Sites of Hawaii

Take a tour of the idyllic sites across the many islands where native Hawaiians have longstanding spiritual connections

Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park

Puuhonua o Honaunau
(Steve Murray / Alamy)
For centuries, Hawaiian society, stratified into classes of chiefs, priests, skilled laborers and commoners, operated under a system of laws called kapu. The punishment for breaking the kapu, set forth by the gods, was death—unless the criminal fled to a puuhonua, or place of refuge.

One of the best-preserved puuhonua is located on the west coast of Hawaii, about 20 miles south of Kailua-Kona, in Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. The structure, as it stands now, is a 300-foot-long stone wall, at points 18 feet high and 25 feet wide, which roughly forms a right angle. According to Eric Andersen, chief of interpretation at the park, the puuhonua was most likely built about 1,000 years ago and used until the late 1700s. (The kapu system was officially abolished in 1819.) The number of lawbreakers who lived at any given time in the safe haven, however, surviving on meager rations, is difficult to say.

The prisoners’ offenses ranged from the seemingly innocuous—catching a fish out of season—to the unequivocally serious—murder. “If you made it here and survived, then absolution was a gift when you left,” says Andersen. “Prisoners would meet with kahuna, or priests, and an understanding would be made in order to erase their wrongs.”

On one end of the wall is a thatched structure surrounded by kii, or wooden carvings resembling Hawaiian gods. The mausoleum, called Hale o Keawe, once housed the bones of 23 chiefs. The bones, thought to endow the site with mana, or spiritual power, were removed in the 1800s, but the place is still considered hallowed ground. The National Park Service has managed the site since 1961, and over 400,000 people visit the park annually. “There is a sense that there is something of reverence here,” says Andersen. “People have said that the mana is strong.”

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